Sunday, July 31, 2011

Human Exclusivity

I am constantly amazed how every time we think we've found something that is exclusive to the human animal and absent from the rest of the kingdom we find an example of a non-human animal doing it in nature. Opposable thumb, tool construction and use, theory of mind, third level planning, altruism, war, city building, symbolic communication, culture, aesthetic sense, we have gone up the list, finding non-human examples of each of these, until now we are left with positing things like the ability to do calculus and other such complex abstractions as our hypotheses for domains of human exclusivity. The problem is, if we use these, do we then have to define people who can't do calculus as sub-human. There seems to be no bright dividing line between man and the other animals, a criteria which applies to all humans and no other animals. The implications of this realization are far-reaching, it compels us to reexamine our traditional relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. These implications have been discussed at length and in depth with tremendous insight by Peter Singer.
The examples of behaviors we consider "human" that have been observed in other animals are myriad:
-Aesthetics. Surely humans are the only species that can appreciate beauty. Only we create art, investing energy in something that has no inherent survival value. But this is not the case. There are bird species (like Australia's Satin Bowerbird which is pictured above) in which the male will spend days arranging gathered material according to color and other aesthetic criteria into a unique expression of what can only be called art, the amount of energy invested in the activity is incredible. They aren't the only animal artists either, a simple google search will bring up examples of paintings created by animals from elephants to chimpanzees, and there is evidence that the animals use aesthetic criteria in the creation of these pieces of art.
-City Building. Some of our cities have nothing on the vast complex metropolae of certain species of insects like ants and termites.
-Culture. Some say that humans are unique because we have the capability of passing down information to subsequent generations extra-genetically through culture. We have libraries and the internet and what one of us learns can be built upon by those who come after us. But even this has been observed among non-human animals. Killer whale pods pass on their hunting methods inter-generationally. There are certain seal-hunting cultures and other fish-eating cultures, and among the seal hunters there are certain cultures that have discovered how to beach themselves in pursuit of amphibious seals and they pass this successful technique on to their children. Culture can also be found among the great apes. There are certain orangutan populations that have fishing cultures, in addition to their mostly vegetarian diet they have learned to catch and eat fish and have passed the culture on to their offspring. The same thing has happened among chimpanzee populations in regard to termite fishing technologies.
-Planning. Some of the most surprising discoveries relate to the cognitive abilities of certain species of the crow family. So far crows are the only non human animals who have demonstrated the ability to mentally construct third level plans. In the test that revealed this ability a piece of food was placed in a box with an access point too small for the crow to reach in. Another box was placed in another location with a long stick inside but again the access point was to small to let the crow reach the long stick. The third box contained a short stick that was long enough to allow the crow to reach the long stick, but not long enough to allow it to reach the food. So the crow had to realize that in order to get the food it would have to first retrieve the small stick and use it to retrieve the large stick which it in turn would use to retrieve the food, and this is exactly what it did.
-Altruism. Even behaviors that we have associated with human morality such as altruism have been found in the other animals. But surprisingly altruism can even be observed in simple lower levels of life. For example, the bee that sacrifices its own life by stinging a threat to the hive. Even a certain species of forest amoeba which usually lives a solitary life on the forest floor, but in times of water scarcity, individual amoebae will gather together to form a kind of slime that will go out into the sun and the individual amoebae will form a slime appendage reaching toward the heavens out of their bodies. Those amoebae that form the tower will then dry up and die allowing the remaining amoebae to climb to the top and float off on the breeze to another area where they might find a more suitable environment. In effect, the 30% or so of amoebae who form the tower have sacrificed their lives so that the other 70% could survive.

Every time we think we have definitively drawn the dividing line we end up having to inch it back. I guess we'd better brush up on our calculus.

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