Archive for the ‘primates’ Category
Canto: I’ves decided to declare myself as a female supremacist.
Jacinta: Really? I thought you had nothing to declare but your genius. So you’ve come out at last?
Canto: Well it’s not as if I’ve been stifled in the closet for years. I’ve rarely thought about it before. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but recently we’ve been looking at female-male differences, and it’s been making me feel we need more than just equality between the sexes.
Jacinta: You’ve got a hankering for that bonobo world, haven’t you? Females ganging up on you and soothing your aggressive macho emotions with a bit of sexual fourplay.
Canto: Well, yes and no. I first learned about bonobo society almost twenty years ago, and of course it excited me as a model, but then the complexity of human societies with all their cultural overlays made me feel I was naive to imagine a non-human society, without even its own language, could teach us how to improve our own. And the sex stuff in particular – well, that really got me in, but then it seemed too good to hope for. Too much self-serving wishful thinking, to model our society on a bunch of oversexed, indolent banana-eaters.
Jacinta: Do they have bananas in the Congo?
Canto: Absolutely. They have a town there on the Congo River, called Banana.
Jacinta: Oh wow, sounds like heaven. I love bananas. Let’s go there.
Canto: Anyway, now I’m thinking that a female-supremacist society is what we need today, though not necessarily based on bonobos….
Jacinta: That’s disappointing. I think it should be based on bonobos. Bonobos with language and technology and sophisticated theories about life, the universe and everything. Why not?
Canto: Well then they wouldn’t be bonobos. But do you want to hear my reasons for promoting female supremacy?
Jacinta: I probably know them already. Look at the male supremacist societies and cultures in the world – in Africa, in India, in the Middle East. They’re the most violent and brutish societies. We can’t compare them to female supremacist societies because there aren’t any, but we can look at societies where discrimination against women is least rampant, and those are today’s most advanced societies. It might follow that they’ll become even more enlightened and advanced if the percentage of female leaders, in business, politics and science, rises from whatever it is today – say 10% – to, say 90%.
Canto: Yes, well you’re pretty much on the money. It’s not just broader societies, it’s workplaces, it’s schools, it’s corporations. The more women are involved, especially in leadership roles, the more collaborative these places become. Of course I don’t deny female violence, in schools and at home, against children and partners and in many other situations, but on average in every society and every situation women are less violent and aggressive than men. In fact, all the evidence points to a female-supremacist society being an obvious solution for a future that needs to be more co-operative and nurturing.
Jacinta: So how are you going to bring about the female-supremacist revolution?
Canto: Not revolution, that’s just macho wankery. I’m talking about social evolution, and it’s already happening, though of course I’d like to see it speeded up. We’ll look at how things are changing and what we can hope for in some later posts. But the signs are good. The feminisation of our societies must continue, on a global level!
Bonobos separated from chimps maybe less than a million years ago, according to some pundits. We haven’t yet been able to determine a more precise date for the split. So which species has changed more? Have chimps become more aggressive or have bonobos become more caring? Is there any way of finding out?
It’s not just about genes its about their expression. It will take some time to work all that out. Brain studies too will help, as we move towards scanning and exploring brains more effectively and less invasively.
But surely we seek not just to understand the bonobo world but to change our own. Who wouldn’t want a world that was less violent, less exclusionary in terms of sex, more caring and sharing, without any loss of the dynamism and questing that has taken us to to the very brink of iphone7?
That last remark will date very quickly… Nah, I’ll leave it in.
So we can learn lessons, and of course we’re already on that path. Advanced societies, if that’s not too presumptuous a term, are less patriarchal than they’ve ever been, without losing any of their dynamism. On the contrary, it can easily be seen that the most male-supremacist societies in the world are also the most violent, the most repressive and the most backward. Some of those societies, as we know, have their backwardness masked by the fact that they have a commodity, oil, that the world is still addicted to, which has made the society so rich that their citizens don’t even have to pay tax. The rest of the world is supporting tyrannical regimes, which won’t change as long as they feel well-fed and secure. Not that I’d wish starvation and insecurity on anyone, but as Roland Barthes once said at one of his packed lectures, the people standing at the back who can’t hear properly and have sore feet must be wondering why they’re here.
Maybe a bit of discomfort, in the form of completely shifting away from fossil fuels for our energy needs haha, might bring certain Middle Eastern countries to a more serious questioning of their patriarchal delusions? Without their currently-valuable resource, they might wake to the fact that they need to become smarter. The women in those countries, so effective on occasion in forming coalitions to defend their inferior place in society, might be encouraged to use their collective power in more diverse ways. That could be how things socially evolve there.
Meanwhile in the west, the lesson of the bonobos would seem to be coalitions and sex. We’ve certainly arrived at an era where sexual dimorphism is irrelevant, except where women are isolated, for example in domestic situations. The same isolation also poses a threat to children. The bonobo example of coalitions and togetherness and sharing of responsibilities, and sexual favours (something we’re a long way from emulating, with our jealousies and petty rivalries) should be the way forward for us. Hopefully the future will see a further erosion of the nuclear family and a greater diversity of child-rearing environments, where single-parent families are far less isolated than they are today, and males want to help and support and teach children because they are children, not because they are their children…
Bonobo society has been closely observed both in captivity and, with much greater difficulty, in the wild, and it’s worth comparing it to that of their close relatives, chimps. It’s clear that, though aggression does exist in bonobo society, it isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as in chimps. This is obviously related to the use, mentioned previously, of sex to reduce tension and aggression in situations which would normally lead to competitive activity. It’s the ‘make love not war’ social system that has caught the attention of many beyond ethological researchers.
Now, it’s clear that aggression in all primate societies comes predominantly from males. Looking at human societies, the statistics are universal. There is no human society on earth where the homicide and/or assault statistics are dominated by females as perpetrators. Up until very recently it was males who went to war, and today it’s overwhelmingly males who joing gangs, go hoon driving or join terrorist cells, just as in earlier times it was men who journeyed off to the adventure of the crusades or joined Boney’s army to devastate Europe. As Melvin Konner convincingly argues, this strongly indicates a biological or genetic basis for male aggression. Much of it seems to be about the expression in males of androgens, the male sex hormones. Now with the way we’re going today in genetics and biochemistry we may in the future be able to tweak the production of androgens to offer a biological solution to male violence – which is already in decline in developed countries. However, their are other solutions, and Bonobo society represents one.
Bonobo society is very close-knit. Male bonobos develop close lifelong ties with their mothers. There’s no relationship with the father, who’s unknown, as the females engage in sex with multiple partners more or less indiscriminately. Of course males will compete with other males for sexual partners, but even this aggression is damped down by sexual relations between males. It’s as if the button has been found to switch off escalating aggression, and that button is connected to the genitals. It would be intriguing to discover what’s going on in the brain, with neurotransmitters and hormones, during this rise and fall of aggressive emotions.
Sex doesn’t just reduce aggression though. It virtually creates the bonobo social structure. As with chimps, bonobos have a fission-fusion society, breaking off into smaller ‘unit’ groups for hunting and foraging in the forest and coming together in larger groups at other times. Individual associations, apart from the mother-offspring dependency, are casual and changeable. However, the larger group, or community, has its limit, and keeps itself separate from other bonobo communities. Another feature of bonobo society is that females emigrate from their birth groups at around 8 years of age, moving to group of virtual strangers, where they have to work to build relationships, particularly with older females. The female-female bond is a central feature of bonobo society and these bonds become much stronger than in chimp society, in spite of the fact that these females, having come from other groups, are less genetically related than the males. This bond is cemented by sex, which creates loosely hierarchical coalitions, with one female dominating, mostly through reproductive success – especially in the production of males. Sisterhood is powerful, and it’s not necessarily about genetics. It’s a great lesson for our society, if we can get over the idea, so prevalent but hopefully fading, that we’re unique in a more unique way than any other species is unique, that we’re civilized, and that we have little or nothing to learn from our primate cousins.
And there’s so much more to learn, as we’ll see.
M Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy
Men are bigger than women, slightly. That’s how things evolved. It’s called sexual dimorphism. It happens with many species, the genders are different in size, shape, coloration, whatever. With humans there’s a size difference, and something of a shape difference, in breasts and hips, but really these aren’t significant. Compare, say, the deep-water triplewort seadevil, a type of anglerfish, in which the female is around 30 cms long, and the male a little over a centimetre. The difference in mass would be too embarrassing to relate.
Among our primate cousins the greatest sexual dimorphism, in size as well as other features, is found in the mandrills, with the male being two to three times the size of the females. In some gorillas there’s a substantial size difference too in favour of the males, and in fact in all of the primate species the male has a size advantage. But size isn’t everything, and the bigger doesn’t have to always dominate.
Female bonobos are smaller than the males, even more so than in humans, yet they enjoy a higher social status than in any other primate society, probably including humans, though it’s hard to compare, since humanity’s many societies vary considerably on the roles and status of women. So how have females attained this exalted status within one of the most highly socialised primate species?
Bonobos and chimpanzees are equally our closest living relatives. It isn’t clear when exactly they separated from each other, but some experts claim it may have been less than a million years ago. Enough time for them to become quite distinct physically, according to the ethologist Franz De Waal. Bonobos are more gracile with longer limbs and a smaller head, and they have a distinctive hairstyle, with a neat parting down the middle. They’re also more easily individuated by their facial features, being in this sense more like humans. And there are also major differences in their social behaviour. Male chimps are dominant in the troupe, often brutally so, whereas bonobo society is less clearly hierarchical, and considerably less violent overall. De Waal, one of the world’s foremost experts on both primates, became interested in bonobos primarily through studies on aggression. He noted that sometimes, after a violent clash, two chimps would come together to hug and kiss. Being interested in such apparent reconciliations and their implications, he decided to look at reconciling behaviours in other primates. What he discovered in bonobos (at San Diego Zoo, which in 1983 housed the world’s largest captive colony) was rather ‘shocking’; their social life was profoundly mediated by sex. Not that he was the first to discover this; other primatologists had written about it, noting also that bonobo sex was far more human-like than chimp sex, but their observations were obscurely worded and not well disseminated. There are other aspects of the physical nature of sexual relations in bonobos that favour females, such as female sexual receptivity, indicated by swelling and a reddening of the genital area, which pertains for a much longer period than in chimps. Female bonobos, like humans and unlike other primates, are sexually receptive more or less all the time.
This isn’t to say that bonobos are oversexed, whatever that may mean. Sexual relations are far from constant, they are casual, sporadic and quickly done with. Often they’re associated with finding food, and it seems likely that sexual relations are used to reconcile tensions related to food availability and other potential causes of conflict.
So how does this use of sex relate to the status of females in bonobo society. I’ll explore this further in the next post.
Okay I’ve recently become a bit depressed that my blog is heading south, comme on dit, being read by nobody, due largely to my personality. A recent SBS program on the celebrated Dunedin longitudinal study of human behaviour and personality told us that there were five essential personality types. Three were considered ‘normal’, and they were the well-adjusted (40% of the population) the confident (28%), and the reserved (15%). In case you can’t add, this makes up some 83% of the population. The other 17% can be divided into two rather more dysfunctional types, the under-controlled (10%) and the inhibited (7%). You’re more than welcome to be healthily skeptical of these categories, but I’m prepared to take them as granted.
I’m not sure if I’m fully in the reserved category or the inhibited one, but I’m quite certain that most of the problems or failings of my life have been due to inhibition. For example, I live alone, have very few friends and no family connections and I visit and am visited by nobody. I have no sex life but a strong sex drive – make of that what you will – and I like other people very much and have many heroes and heroines, and I believe strongly that humans have gotten where they are through communication and collaboration. We’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. I love children and would love to have been a father…
Enough, I hope you get the picture. What’s interesting is that, in accord with Dunedin’s personality types, my character seems to have been fixed in early childhood, which I spent largely enjoying my own company, but also being fascinated by the world, soliloquising on it at delightful length. And sometimes, as I grew older, falling to despair, weeping at night over a projected future of loveless isolation. Oh dear.
So what does this mean for my blog? Writing a blog that’s sent out into the public domain is surely not an inhibited act, and craving attention for it is arguably not what a reserved person does. It’s a puzzlement. In any case, I will try harder to expand my readership by writing shorter pieces and narrowing my focus. I’ve decided, for the time being at least, to confine my attention to a subject I’ve long been bothered by: patriarchy. I want to critique it, to analyse it, to examine what the sciences say about it, to shine lights on every aspect of this, to my mind, benighted way of thinking and being-in-the-world. I’ll take a look at bonobos, the Catholic Church, homophobia, the effects of religion and culture, male and female neurophysiology, history, sex, workplaces, business, politics, whatever I can relate to the main subject, which surely will provide me with a rich, open field. And I’ll try, really try to communicate with other bloggers and commentators on the subject. Maybe I’ll become just a little less reserved before it’s too late. It’ll be a cheaper way of getting myself out of a rut than visiting a psychiatrist, of whom I would be healthily if self-servingly skeptical.
I wrote a piece here called ‘Animals R Us’ a few years ago because I was annoyed at certain contemptuous remarks directed at animals – a rather large set to be contemptuous of – and also because I’ve always disliked the idea of human specialness so beloved of some of our religious co-habitants. I was also thinking of the remarks of Marilyn Robinson on consciousness, which I critiqued even more years ago. Atheists, she argued (wrongly) don’t take enough account of consciousness (with the inference that if they did, they’d be more accepting of a supernatural being, presumably). So I’m happy to briefly revisit the complexities and the consciousness of non-humans here.
The latest research reveals more and more the distributed nature of consciousness, and some of this research is summarised in ‘Triumph of the zombie killers’, chapter 1 of Michael Brooks’s book At the edge of uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by surprise. He brings up philosopher David Chalmers’s 20-year-old claim about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, that it doesn’t appear to be reducible to material processes. In fact, Chalmers went further, saying ‘No explanation given wholly in physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience.’ Well, forever is a long long time and I wonder what Chalmers would have to say now (I’ll have to check out his more recent pronouncements). In 1994 he used a zombie analogy, suggesting that you couldn’t know whether we were surrounded by zombies, or ‘pretend’ humans, since the sense of self-awareness essential to consciousness cannot be identified or described by methodological naturalism. It’s been difficult to provide a coherent theory to account for this subjective feeling, and Daniel Dennett took the view a couple of decades ago that consciousness is essentially an illusion, or rather an evolved way of dealing with the world which captures the elements of reality we need to get by, and then some. That’s why we can so often be fooled by our brains. We have perceptual glitches and blind spots. An obvious example is the human eye, which only focuses sharply on a tiny area, using the fovea centralis, a patch of densely packed photoreceptor cells only a millimetre in diameter. The rest of our visual field is seen in much lower resolution, and without colour. But we’re not aware of this because of the eye’s movements, or saccades, which average 3 per second. The time between one sharp focus and the next is ‘blacked-out’ of consciousness, creating an illusion of seamlessly moving vision. The analogy with film is obvious.
This evolved use of sight to be ‘good enough’ helps explain our ‘change blindness’, which has been highlighted by a number of recent experiments, and which has been exploited for decades by professional magicians. It also helps explain why we don’t notice mistakes in editorial continuity in films, which are even overlooked by editors, because they involve ‘irrelevant’ background details. This evolved use of eyesight to help us to make enough sense of the world as we need to, as economically as possible, is something shared by many other creatures, as researchers have declared. Consciousness researchers gathered together at Cambridge in July 2012 and issued a ‘declaration on consciousness’, summarising recent findings on consciousness in non-human animals and in infant humans:
Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours… humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates
It’s a vitally important point that’s being made here. Even to call consciousness an emergent property is misleading, as it suggests that we’re still hung up on the consciousness label, and on detecting the point at which this phenomenon has ‘emerged’. Previous tests for consciousness are gradually being found wanting, as what they test has little to do with the more expansive understanding of consciousness that our research is contributing to, more and more. What’s more, serious damage to, and indeed the complete loss of, such areas of the human brain as the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, all vital to our self-awareness according to previous research, haven’t prevented subjects from articulating clear signs of consciousness and self-reflection. There’s no ‘place’ of consciousness in the human or mammalian brain, and signs of intentionality and individual personality are cropping up in a whole range of species.
Early researchers on chimpanzees and other highly developed animals were often dismissive of claims that they were being cruel, citing ‘anthropomorphism’ as a barrier to scientific progress. We can now see that we don’t have to think of animals as ‘human-like’ to recognise their capacity for suffering and a whole range of other negative and positive experiences and emotions. And we’re only at the beginning of this journey, which, like the journey initiated by Copernicus, Kepler and others, will take us far from the hubristic sense of ourselves as singular and central.
I felt a bit disheartened a while back when a teenage lass I know and love declared to me that she ‘hated animals’. Worse, one of her aunties chimed in enthusiastically with, ‘yeah, I hate them too’. I wasn’t sure about taking these assertions seriously, especially the fifteen-year-old’s, but my suppressed response, apart from WTF???, might’ve been, uhh but you do know that you’re animals, right?
In fact I didn’t respond at all, being too taken aback, but I’m sure they knew they were animals, and yet…
Us and them thinking is commonplace. It’s a feature of any species of living thing that they’re concerned with other members of their species, both positively and negatively. We compete with members of our own species for resources, and we also share resources with our own species. We mate, and fight, with our own species. We try to impress our own, either by our scariness or our attractiveness, depending on circumstances. Other species just don’t matter so much to us, except insofar as we need them, or need to avoid them, for our survival.
I’m speaking for species in general here, but humans have learned something about other species that should make a big difference to us, and that is that all species are more or less related. We even have techniques which can tell us just how related we are. We know that we’re a bit more closely related to chimps than we are to gorillas, and that we’re a bit more related to gorillas than we are to gibbons, and that we share a much more common ancestor with tree shrews than we do with lungfish, but the important point is that we know that we’re related to every other organism in the biosphere, without which not, as they say. So to hate animals, if you really mean it, is to be self-defeating in a big way.
And hatred, or dismissiveness, towards other animals, surely comes from an unthinking us-and-them position, a position that needs to be continually questioned and challenged.
I recently read the excellent Shadows of forgotten ancestors by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Much of it, especially the second half, is devoted to demolishing claims to human specialness, our separateness from ‘animals’. They do so mainly by examining the lives and behaviour of other primates. Much of the following will derive from their book. I will start with the most general claim, and then look at some specific ones
Humans are different from all other animals, not just in degree, but in kind.
This ultimate us-versus-them claim is questionable in many respects. It usually comes with particular examples: we are the only ones who have x, or can do x, therefore…
But are we the only ones with property x, and if we are, where does this property come from? Humans, we know, are primates. We share a common ancestor with chimps and bonobos going back six million years. Are we different in kind from that common ancestor? If, for argument’s sake, we say that we are, at what point did that qualitative, rather than quantitative, difference emerge? We are still unable to clearly trace our descent back to that common ancestor, but we have plenty of example of earlier hominids to chose from – this site offers some 20 distinct species that might have been along the line of descent. Which one, if any, represented a qualitative transformation? Or do incremental quantitative changes somehow amount to a qualitative transformation? If so, how many changes, and, again, when exactly did the quantitative become qualitative? I don’t think these are fruitful questions, and the more we learn about other species, the more these questions dissolve away.
We share the properties of other animals in many ways, but I’ll pick on sex as one of the clearer examples. Humans long ago realized that the castrating of war captives rendered them less aggressive – though they would’ve had little idea why. They did of course know why such a practise rendered then incapable of producing offspring, another signal benefit. The removal of the testes, whether in humans, cats, dogs, sparrows or quails, has much the same effect; aggression is reduced, as are various other male traits governing behaviour towards females and towards other males. The reason is that the testicles produce most of the androgens – that’s to say the steroids or sex hormones, such as testosterone. The action of testosterone and other sex hormones is strikingly similar across all animal species. Experimenters have added or removed the hormones with increasingly predictable results, not only in mammals and birds, but lizards and fish as well. This isn’t to say, though, that the males of all these species, when their sex hormones aren’t interfered with, are always the more aggressive or dominant gender, for that depends on how much, and what types, of the sex hormones are naturally produced or released. Male and female wolves, gibbons and tree squirrels are about equally aggressive. Species have, over time, developed the ‘right’ hormone levels for their kind – that’s to say, the most adaptive. Give certain birds too much sex hormone, and the males sometimes end up killing each other, and overall numbers fall. In all of this humans are no different.
Of course patterns of sexual behaviour vary among mammals. Most mammals only mate when the female is ‘in heat’, during a particular phase of the estrous cycle, the estrus phase, which precedes ovulation. Menstruating females, though – the menstrual cycle is a subset of the estrous cycle, in which endometrial material is shed during menstruation – including a number of primate species, are not confined in their sexual activity to a particular period [so, no, we’re not the only ones with that ‘freedom’]. Interestingly, though, human societies often have prohibitions against sex during the menstrual period, whereas in other primates, sexual activity actually increases at this time. One of the wonders of human culture.
Humans are the only creatures that make tools
We only need one solid counter-example to demolish these general claims, and in this case we have several to choose from, but I’ll opt here for a very well-attested one; the use of reeds, straws or vine branches by chimps to catch termites. Not all chimps are able to do this, and few are able to do it really well (we tend to forget, with other species, apart from the domestic ones we deal with every day, that they have their bright sparks and their half-wits just as humans do), but it’s a highly developed skill which human researchers haven’t been able to develop. What’s more, it’s a skill that takes years to develop, and older chimps teach it to the young. What chimps have to do is find just the right kind of tool for the job – that is, to be manipulated down a termite hole and retrieved from the hole with as many termites clinging to it as possible, to serve as a dish worthy of the effort and expertise. This requires matching the tool to the termite burrow, which means knowing the characteristics of the various mounds in the neighbourhood, and then having the dexterity, not only to get the tool into the hole with the minimum of disturbance to the termites but, more importantly, to be able to twist it and move it to attract termites to the ‘intruder’, and then withdraw it without knocking all the termites off. If chimps can’t find the right shape and size of tool, they can and do modify it to suit the job, which is no different in kind from early humans modifying stones for cutting and for use as weapons. Such stones are our first well-attested tools, though only, of course, because stone outlasts other materials. This activity is far from simply opportunistic. It requires planning and foresight, and it’s certainly not the only example of tool use in chimps or in other animals, including birds.
Humans are the only self-aware animals
We have to be careful, of course, not to define ‘self-awareness’ and other related concepts in such a way that they can only apply to humans. Similarly, I can think of ways of defining the term which would make it inclusive of a great many species. Because of the great difficulty of accurate definition here, it’s quite useful, as a first approximation, to use a crude, behaviourist approach to the problem, such as the well-known mirror test – first applied, though in a non-rigorous way, by Charles Darwin. All of the great apes can pass this test, as can elephants, some cetaceans, and, probably most surprisingly, European magpies. They all fail the mirror test initially, but soon learn that they’re looking at their own reflection. Humans don’t pass the mirror test before the age of eighteen months, on average – though there are some problems with the reliability of that measure because of possible flaws with the classic mirror test which I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that learning to use mirrors for grooming, etc, is pretty solid evidence of self-awareness in other species.
Humans are the only species able to conceptualize
‘It would be senseless to attribute to an animal a memory that distinguished the order of events in the past, and it would be senseless to attribute to it an expectation of an order of events in the future. It does not have the concepts of order, or any concepts at all.’ [Stuart Hampshire, philosopher]
The above sort of observation, though it wasn’t actually an observation, was commonplace in philosophy well into the 20th century, but research into ‘comparative cognition’ has largely blown this bias away, as you might expect, with a bit of thought. After all where does conceptualisation come from if it isn’t an evolutionary development over time and species? Of course the concept of concepts is a bit murky, but researchers have been able to distinguish three types of concept learning – perceptual, associative and relational – and a more sophisticated type of concept-formation called analogical reasoning. A 2008 survey of the research found that many non-human species were capable of the first three types, with only the higher primates showing evidence of the fourth.
Humans are the only species with language
‘Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.’ [Max Muller, 19th century linguist]
There has long been a great debate about this one, and much research and effort put in to trying to teach the rudiments of language to chimps and bonobos. Sagan & Druyan dwell at length on this work, though well-known linguists such as Charles Hockett and Steven Pinker suggest that there is a bigger divide than sometimes admitted between other primates and humans in this area. Again, this depends on how tight, loose or technical your definition of language is. Still, no matter how language is defined to exclude non-humans – such as arbitrariness between sound and meaning, and discreteness in the construction of terms – researchers manage to find evidence of it in other creatures. Nobody denies that language has reached a pinnacle of sophistication with humans, but again there are many traces of complex communication in many other species, and it’s of no value to us to try to reduce their import. The Muller quote above indicates how our preoccupation with our own superiority can lead to a hostile attitude to any knowledge that dares to threaten it.
Humans are the only creatures who know they will die.
We know from an early age that we will die largely because of our sophisticated communications. We learn of the history of our culture, peopled with dead contributors, we see monuments to the dead everywhere, the disappearance of aged pets and relatives is patiently explained to us. Other animals, without these communications, may still feel it in their bones as the time approaches. There’s certainly evidence for mourning in elephants, chimps and many other animals.
Humans are the only ethical animals.
Ethics and social living are an almost essential pairing. The Biblical commandments that still make sense to us are all about making society more predictable and therefore more bearable to us as individuals, which is why they’re common to most religions and cultures. Whilst it may be argued that humans are more consciously and explicitly ethical than other social animals, some recent research has cast doubt on our freedom to choose our ethics. We appear to be driven, genetically, to preserve ourselves and our own, and to rationalise an ethical system around that drive. Other creatures have evolved the same drives and act in similar ways to ourselves.
Humans are the only animals that possess culture
If you think of culture as a process, rather than working back from cultural products, it would be hard to deny that this process exists in many other species. I’ve already pointed out that simple tool-making is passed down from adult chimps to children. This is cultural transmission, and is a basic factor in all culture. Basic tool-making and teaching were presumably the first forms of cultural transmission in humans.
Humans are the only creatures who explore their own origins, and the origins of all else
This may well be the last bastion, but again it doesn’t represent a difference in kind – even supposing that such explorations don’t occur to non-human minds. These types of explorations are the culmination of increasingly sophisticated concept-formation, meme-transmission and theoretical and technological development. With all this, knowledge, ideas and speculations are converging on us at an ever-increasing pace. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the idea of a ‘singularity’ has captured our imagination, tenuous though the idea might be. Interestingly, the idea of the singularity is another instance of quantity building up to a sudden ‘flip’, a qualitative transformation. Another self-serving and self-congratulatory idea perhaps?
We humans are quite fascinating, the more so the more we examine ourselves, but we are learning that what we’re made up of is the same stuff that other life forms are made of, and the similarities are every bit as instructive as the differences. We’re a distinct species, no doubt, but it is counter-productive to think of ourselves as a species apart.