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Chimpanzee strength again

A couple of years ago I posted an item here about the alleged superhuman strength of chimpanzees, saying that the only report I could find was an experiment done at the Bronx zoo in 1924.

There is now a paper by Alan Walker in Current Anthropology (Vol. 50[2] 2009,229-234) which is available for free download. It puts forward a theory that the difference is due to greater numbers of motor neurons in humans. This gives us finer control of muscles at the cost of less overall strength. Chimps, with fewer motor neurons, recruit larger numbers of muscle fibres than strictly necessary for the equivalent movement.

This is interesting but the references given for actual measurement of a strength difference are all old -- two go back to the 1920s! The paper suggests a 4-fold difference from humans, which is less than the 7-fold difference often cited though still pretty big. I still think the strength of our cousins has probably been exaggerated though I'm prepared to believe there is a difference.

It may be as much connected with life experience and training as with genetic difference. Some time ago I heard a champion rower talking about his father, then in his seventies, who had been a Thames waterman all his life. He could row for miles against the current at a speed his son couldn't match.

Note added 15 February 2011: See this discussion by John Hawkes for a useful account of the background to claims for a five-fold difference in strength between chimpanzees and humans. He concludes that there is a difference but it has been considerably exaggerated. He also suggests some genetic explanations for the difference.


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