Thursday 18 November 2010

Are we just another ape?

Today human beings are constantly denigrated. Prominent philosophers, scientists, social scientists, novelists and aristocrats have gone so far as to call for the mass culling – or even elimination – of humans.

Orange-prize winning author Lionel Shriver recently wrote ‘if we [were to] disappear, another form of life will take our place – creatures beautiful, not so self-destructive, or simply weird. That’s cheerful news, really’. Sadly, this notion of the human race as a problem is increasingly mainstream.

Today’s misanthropic cultural outlook – one that continually denigrates humans and blurs the differences between humans and other animals – needs to be challenged. The main challenge we face today is to uphold a human-centred morality – one that always considers the interest of humans over and above those of animals.

Since life began several billion years ago, 99.999 percent of all species that have ever existed on Earth have become extinct. Species come and species go. Nature is amazing: it has created all kinds of weird and wonderful species. But it is also brutal: ‘red in tooth and claw’ as the English poet Alfred Tennyson aptly described it. In the largest mass extinction on Earth 250 million years ago – the Permian-Triassic extinction – it is estimated that 90 percent of all species disappeared.

If a species goes extinct it is not a loss in and of itself – other than that it may be a loss to human beings – because no other species would be aware of what has been lost.

If humans were to be wiped out, however, we would lose something quite exceptional: culture and, with that, civilisation. We are the product of evolution like all other animals, but something amazing emerged – possibly around 60,000 years ago – that transformed us. That is, a capacity for cultural transmission.

Some chance mutation or chance mutations must have allowed us to at some point in our past to start learning from each other in a qualitatively new way and, as a result, build upon the achievements of our fellows and previous generations.

It is this unique ability to copy complex actions and strategies (even those that the individual doing the copying would never have been able to come up with on their own), along with unique forms of co-operation and the ability to teach, that allows us to consolidate and build on the achievements of our fellows, rather than continually having to re-invent the wheel in the way other animals have to.

Even our closest living relatives – the great apes – cannot ape, but can only copy actions that they themselves may have been able to invent on their own. They try to reproduce the result of an action without understanding how it was achieved. The fact that it takes chimps up to four years to acquire the necessary skills to select and adequately use tools to crack nuts raises serious questions about their ability to reflect on what their fellow apes are doing and copy the steps involved in cracking nuts. Instead they get there by trial and error.

Human children, on the other hand, even as young as one year of age show great flexibility in how they imitate – being able to focus on the sequence of bodily actions used to achieve an outcome, or on the outcome itself, or, indeed, on the goal or intention of the person they are copying.

It is this ability to learn from others and connect with each other in a uniquely powerful way that sets us apart from all other species. Our accomplishments are the outcome of us being able to put our heads together and achieve so much more than we could ever achieve on our own.

Of course, humans are not perfect – and never will be. But at least we can reflect on our actions, consider how to improve on our successes and learn from our mistakes, make moral choices and do our best to improve not just ourselves but the society in which we live.

First published by Independent