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US AND THEM: Would we still see ourselves as ‘Human’ if other Hominin species hadn’t gone extinct?

People tend to assume that there’s something that makes humans fundamentally different from other animals. Most people 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.

NICHOLAS R. LONGRICH: In the modern human origin story of evolution, there’s no defining moment of creation. Instead, humans emerged gradually, generation by generation, from earlier species… As with any other complex adaptation – a bird’s wing, a whale’s fluke, our own fingers – our humanity evolved step by step, over millions of years. Mutations appeared in our DNA, spread through the population, and our ancestors slowly became something more like us and, finally, we appeared…

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… 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.

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… Far less is known about other species, like Denisovans, Homo rhodesiensis, and extinct sapiens, but it’s reasonable to guess from their large brains and human-looking skulls that they were also very much like us… The DNA of Neanderthals, Denisovans and other hominins is found in us. We met them, and we had children together. That says a lot about how human they were…

Extinction of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other species took hundreds of thousands of years. If Neanderthals and Denisovans were really just stupid, grunting brutes, lacking language or complex thought, it’s impossible they could have held modern humans off as long as they did. Why, if they were so like us, did we replace them? It’s unclear, which suggests the difference was something that doesn’t leave clear marks in fossils or stone tools… 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. Albert Einstein had a relatively small brain – smaller than the average Neanderthal, Denisovan, or Homo rhodesiensis – was he less human? 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.

We could define humanity in terms of higher cognitive abilities – art, maths, music, language. This creates a curious problem because humans vary in how well we do all these things. I’m less mathematically inclined than Steven Hawking, less literary than Jane Austen, less inventive than Steve Jobs, less musical than Taylor Swift, less articulate than Martin Luther King. In these respects, am I less human than they are?

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 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… 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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