In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin writes, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind,” suggesting that the difference between man’s and animal’s culture and mental ability is not a fundamental difference but more of a scale. However, in his newest book Humanimal: How Homo sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature, Adam Rutherford writes:
“The implication that the differences between us and [animals] are determined by our relative position on a line is questionable. Our use of tools is so very much more sophisticated than that of a crow or dolphin, or even chimpanzee, that it doesn’t seem fair to simply attribute this to our more advanced position on a spectrum. …
“We have a culture that doesn’t only surpass all others in sophistication, it simply doesn’t exist in any other species… Perhaps the phrase ‘different in degree and not kind’ is too simple, too binary to be of use in understanding the story of the human animal. Perhaps it is better to revel in the complexities of our evolution, and just acknowledge, without superiority or judgment, that we are different.”
So, are human attributes different from animals based on a scale, or are humans genuinely unique? The following examples, taken from Humanimal, attempt to bust myths of how humans are thought to be special as well as illustrate the ways in which humans actually are.
Humans are the only species that practices farming
Wrong! For the last 20 million years, 200 species of leaf-cutter ants have been collecting foliage in order to cultivate fungus, which they can eat. The way in which the ants nurture the fungus makes it grow gongylidia, easily harvestible filaments that don’t exist outside of ant agriculture.
Apes have the same hands as humans
Nope! Many animals have feet, and some, like chimpanzees, even have hands. You may think that humans can’t possibly be unique in this, but the fact that 16 letters of the HACNS1 enhancer in human DNA is different from that of a chimpanzee makes human hands and feet literally unique. This genetic code is responsible for the dexterity of human hands (especially thumb rotation) and lack of dexterity of human feet, which is essential for walking upright. Rutherford says:
“It’s a striking theory that the rapid evolution of this short bit of DNA has had a significant role in altering the morphology of our hands and feet in ways that have become distinctly and uniquely human.”
Only humans have developed a sense of fashion
Not true! In 2007, chimpanzee Julie went around wearing a piece of grass in her ear. Two thirds of her local chimp social group wound up adopting the fashion. After she died in 2012, the fashion continued on and even spread to at least two other chimp populations nearby.
Animal communication is like human speech, just in a different language
Not quite. Actually, human speech is fundamentally different from any animal communication due to the amino acids that make up the FOXP2 gene. Our specific makeup of this gene is partially responsible for our ability to communicate through voice. Forms of this gene are found in animals that vocalize, such as songbirds, reptiles, and fish, but none (except Neaderthals who may well have spoken like us) with the same makeup as ours. These slight differences make up a world of difference: the chimp’s FOXP2 is only two amino acids different from us, but the chimp does not speak as we do.
Only Homo sapiens can make art
Wrong again! In Spain, on the Cantabrian coast, there are cave paintings of cow-like animals and a Picasso-esque figure. In 2018, these paintings were dated, and we discovered that they were not painted by Homo sapiens at all but by Neanderthals.
We also discovered fossil freshwater mussel shells from Java that have engravings, what Rutherford calls “a sort of bivalve doodle.” Dating these fossils tells us that they would have to have been made by Homo erectus.
Purhcase Humanimal: How Homo sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature by Adam Rutherford (The Experiment, 2019).
So are we unique from animals? Leave your thoughts in comments.
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