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THE ANIMALS WITHIN: Would we still see ourselves as ‘human’ if other hominin species hadn’t gone extinct?

As a society, we tolerate displaying chimps and gorillas in cages but would be uncomfortable doing this to each other. Similarly, we can go to a shop and buy a puppy or a kitten, but not a baby. The rules are different for us and them.

NICHOLAS R. LONGRICH: People are animals, but we’re unlike other animals. We have complex languages that let us articulate and communicate ideas. We’re creative: we make art, music, tools. Our imaginations let us think up worlds that once existed, dream up worlds that might yet exist, and reorder the external world according to those thoughts.

Our social lives are complex networks of families, friends and tribes, linked by a sense of responsibility towards each other. We also have awareness of ourselves and our universe: sentience, sapience, consciousness, whatever you call it.

And yet the distinction between ourselves and other animals is, arguably, artificial. Animals are more like humans than we might think – or like to think. Almost all behaviour we once considered unique to ourselves are seen in animals, even if they’re less well developed…

That’s especially true of the great apes. Chimps, for example, have simple gestural and verbal communication. They make crude tools, even weapons, and different groups have different suites of tools – distinct cultures. Chimps also have complex social lives and cooperate with each other…

As Darwin noted in Descent of Man, almost everything odd about Homo sapiens – emotion, cognition, language, tools, society – exists, in some primitive form, in other animals. We’re different, but less different than we think.

And in the past, some species were far more like us than other apes — Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Homo erectus and Neanderthals. Homo sapiens is the only survivor of a once diverse group of humans and human-like apes, the hominins, which includes around 20 known species and probably dozens of unknown species.

The extinction of those other hominins wiped out all the species that were intermediate between ourselves and other apes, creating the impression that some vast, unbridgeable gulf separates us from the rest of life on Earth. But the division would be far less clear if those species still existed. What looks like a bright, sharp dividing line is really an artefact of extinction…

It’s all well and good to discuss how our humanity evolved – but what even is humanity? How can we study and recognise it, without defining it? People tend to assume that there’s something that makes us fundamentally different from other animals. Most people, for example, would tend to think that it’s okay to sell, cook or eat a cow, but not to do the same to the butcher. This would be, well, inhuman.

As a society, we tolerate displaying chimps and gorillas in cages but would be uncomfortable doing this to each other. Similarly, we can go to a shop and buy a puppy or a kitten, but not a baby. The rules are different for us and them. Even die-hard animal-rights activists advocate animal rights for animals, not human rights.

No one is proposing giving apes the right to vote or stand for office. We inherently see ourselves as occupying a different moral and spiritual plane. We might bury our dead pet, but we wouldn’t expect the dog’s ghost to haunt us, or to find the cat waiting in heaven. And yet, it’s hard to find evidence for this kind of fundamental difference.

The word humanity implies taking care of and having compassion for each other, but that’s arguably a mammalian quality, not a human one. A mother cat cares for her kittens, and a dog loves his master, perhaps more than any human does. Killer whales and elephants form lifelong family bonds. Orcas grieve for their dead calves, and elephants have been seen visiting the remains of their dead companions. Emotional lives and relationships aren’t unique to us.

Perhaps it’s awareness that sets us apart. But dogs and cats certainly seem aware of us – they recognise us as individuals, as we recognise them. They understand us well enough to know how to get us to give them food, or let them out the door – or even when we’ve had a bad day, and need company. If that’s not awareness, what is?

We might point to our large brains as setting us apart, but does that make us human? Bottlenose dolphins have somewhat larger brains than we do. Elephant brains are three times the size of ours; orcas, four times; and sperm whales, five times. Brain size also varies in humans…. Something other than brain size must make us human – or maybe there’s more going on in the minds of other animals, including extinct hominins, than we think…

If we can’t even define it, how can we really say where it starts, and where it ends – or that we’re unique? Why do we insist on treating other species as inherently inferior, if we’re not exactly sure what makes us, us? The discovery of these extinct species now blurs that line again and shows how the distance between us and other animals was crossed – gradually, over millennia…

The nature of evolution means that living things don’t fit into neat categories. Species gradually change from one into another, and every individual in a species is slightly different – that makes evolutionary change possible. But that makes defining humanity hard. We’re both unlike other animals due to natural selection, but like them because of shared ancestry; the same, yet different…

It’s hard to classify living things in strict categories, because evolution constantly changes things, creating diverse species, and diversity within species. And what diversity it is. True, in some ways, our species isn’t that diverse. Homo sapiens shows less genetic diversity than your average bacterial strain; our bodies show less variation in shape than sponges, or roses, or oak trees. But in our behaviour, humanity is wildly diverse…

There are so many different ways of being human, so many different aspects to the human condition, and each of us has to define and discover what it means to be human. It is, ironically, this inability to define humanity that is one of our most human characteristics. SOURCE…

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