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We're Not Unique, Just at one end of the spectrum

Editorial from New Scientist


We're not unique, just at one end of the spectrum

03 March 2007
From New Scientist Print Edition.
From issue 2593 of New Scientist magazine, 03 March 2007, page 5

THERE is an iconic scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when a caveman takes up a bone and uses it as a weapon. It portrays a pivotal moment in human evolution, and while the film is fiction, it has long been believed that we are the only animals that use weapons.

Not any more: chimpanzees have been found using spears to hunt bushbabies (see "Savannah chimps get armed and dangerous"). It is the latest in a long list of supposedly unique human behaviours and abilities that have been discovered in other animals. Whales apparently have empathy, baboons and chimps can demonstrate abstract thought, chimps and elephants can recognise themselves, scrub jays have foresight and chimps a basic sense of morality, or justice.

What about language? Chimps and monkeys have an extensive "vocabulary" of calls, and whale song has a grammar with a hierarchical syntax. The ability to understand what another individual is thinking is well developed in humans. We do it better than chimps, and chimps are better than monkeys. In these cases, our abilities are more sophisticated, but they are not qualitatively different; we are at one end of a continuum.

Should we grieve for the loss of our uniqueness? Not at all. We should not expect to be radically different from other animals, after all, we evolved from a common ancestor and adapted to our environments. In the case of humans and chimps, that ancestor did not live all that long ago, evolutionarily speaking.

Removing our sense of uniqueness is to be welcomed. It might give us a stronger sense of connectedness to the rest of life, boost conservation efforts and might even remove some of our "unique" intellectual arrogance.

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