Monday 21 June 2010

Why we are different from apes

Guest blog post, Eureka Zone, The Times

Today human beings are constantly denigrated. Prominent philosophers, scientists, social scientists, novelists and aristocrats have gone so far as to call for the destruction of humans. On becoming a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, David Attenborough warned that the recent increase in human population was having a devastating effect on ecology and pollution. ‘I’ve never seen a problem that would be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more’, he said. Prince Philip suggests he could help reduce the human footprint: ‘If I were reincarnated, I would wish to be returned to Earth as a killer virus to lower human population levels’. Sadly, this notion of the human race as a problem - or even a pest - is increasingly mainstream.

Today’s misanthropic cultural outlook - one that continually denigrates humans and blurs the differences between humans and other animals, sorely needs to be challenged.

The argument for human and animal equivalence is at its strongest in relation to our closest living relatives - the great apes. In my forthcoming book, Just Another Ape?, I therefore focus on the differences between human beings and apes - to show just how exceptional humans really are. It is an argument that needs to be put across - not only because it is historically and scientifically correct (even if ‘politically incorrect’), but because unless we have faith in our own abilities, society will stagnate.

Whatever first impressions might tell us, apes are really not ‘just like us’. They do not have anything resembling human consciousness - the ability to think about a problem before approaching it, reflect on what they are doing while they are doing it and refine their actions accordingly. And the evidence for apes having human-like mental capacities is getting weaker and weaker as researchers develop more sophisticated ways of investigating what apes can and cannot do.

Equally importantly, we humans are the only truly cultural animal - in the sense of being able to learn from each other’s clever feats through imitation, reflection and teaching. Because apes do not have this capacity they have not moved beyond their hand-to-mouth existence, and their lives have changed very little in the six million years since we ‘split’ from our common ancestor.

While apes are still struggling to crack open nuts, humans have made life-changing inventions - from the cultivation of crops to the harnessing of electricity and life-saving vaccines and x-rays and much more. While apes are still struggling to communicate in the here-and-now, humans have invented alphabets and other forms of written symbols and ever more impressive means to disseminate the written word - from the invention of paper and ink to the typewriter and the internet. While apes are living in similar-sized groups as they did several million years ago, human beings have created cities, nation states, governments and global economic institutions.

The differences in language, tool-use, self-awareness and insight between apes and humans are vast. A human child, even as young as two years of age, is intellectually head and shoulders above any ape. However, the question of whether apes have the rudiments of our unique human abilities - abilities that have allowed us to develop language, build cities, create great art and literature and much more - is an interesting one. An exploration of the extent to which apes resemble us may give us some insight into the evolutionary origins of human capabilities, but it will also show us how great the differences are between apes and humans.

First published by Guest blog, Eureka zone, The Times