Monday, May 18, 2009

Humans vs. Animals

Many parts of this image annoy me (click for bigger version), but my biggest gripe is this quote: "Humans have long considered themselves truly unique. But it turns out that the better word from 'unique' is 'more advanced.'"

Sigh. No, "more advanced" isn't the better word. In fact, it's worse than unique. At least it's true that we're unique in that we have a certain combination of skills that other animals don't have, though I'd still argue all animals are unique. But viewing humans as more advanced than the rest of the animal kingdom is a fallacy. It goes back to the Scala Naturae, or the Great Chain of Being. This was the idea that everything in the universe could be ranked in order of how perfect or advanced it was, with God at the top and amoebas and dirt at the bottom. Mammals are better than birds, hawks are better than pigeons, trees that bear fruit we eat are better than ones we don't, etc.

But that's not how things work. Through evolution, everything has had the same amount of time on this planet to evolve. Bacteria are just as adapted to their environment as a tree or a tiger or a human. While they're less complex, I wouldn't say they're less advanced. Advanced implies that there's some end goal in mind that we're comparing them to, usually the wonderful Homo sapeins. Think of it this way. What if other animals considered themselves the most advanced, and were comparing us to them?

Dolphins: They can only hold their breath for a couple minutes? And they can't echolocate? Ha! Even bats can do that!

Ducks: They can't sleep with one half of their brain at a time? But what if a predator wants to come and eat them in the middle of the night! How will they escape if they don't keep one eye open? Man, they are goners!

Swallow: Humans can't instinctively migrate thousands of miles to a place they've never been before? They need maps and GPS, and they still get lost trying to find the Walmart that's 15 minutes away? Wow, just wow.

Clark's nutcracker: I can remember where I stored thousands of seeds across a 15 mile area over the winter, and you can't even find your car keys. Humans.

Thermus aquaticus: A toasty 160 degrees F is the perfect temperature for me. You start breaking a sweat at 90?! What a bunch of pansies!

Yeah, we wouldn't fare too well (and I could probably keep going with this list forever). There are plenty of things animals do better than us, but we don't view those traits as important because we don't necessarily need them. The environment we evolved in is different than that of a Clark's nutcracker, so we don't need that awesome of a memory. It goes both ways - Clark's nutcrackers don't need to have language or build fires or have long distance stamina. That doesn't make them less advanced - they just had different evolutionary needs.

I still think humans are special - we can't deny that we have certain traits not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom, or the fact that we've actually developed civilization (minor point). But as a biologist, I see all creatures as special with their unique adaptation for their environment. We shouldn't judge them by human standards.


  1. Way to reference the Great Chain of Being. When people ask me why they should bother to study Medieval philosophy, I tend to point to things like this - if we didn't know where this 'advanced' idea came from, we might not have noticed it's wrong.

  2. "We shouldn't judge them by human standards."

    But of course, being Humans, we have to compare everything to ourselves to reassure ourselves that we are indeed the dominant species. Not saying that this is right, just saying it is part of human nature.

  3. Something I'm fond of repeating to the chagrin of my friends, but related to the general idea here: Physical systems aren't supposed to do anything -- they just do what they do.

    Now let's celebrate the purposeless universe!

  4. @Jen:

    Only somewhat related, byt there's a great de-motivational poster from Despair Inc. that says something along the lines of, "You're unique. Just like everyone else."


    To quote Douglas Adams: "We talked about how easy it was to make the mistake of anthropomorphizing animals, and projecting our own feelings and perceptions on to them, where they were inappropriate and didn't fit. We simply had no idea what it was like being an extremely large lizard, and neither for that matter did the lizard, because it was not self-conscious about being an extremely large lizard, it just got on with the business of being one. To react with revulsion to its behavior was to make the mistake of applying criteria that are only appropriate to the business of being human."

    Sorry about being all quote happy.

  5. Humans have the most generalized optimization process running in their head, as far as we know. That's what makes us special - that our brain can react to a larger range of stimuli than the brains of others. That's what led to civilization in the first place. And there's that whole miracle of morality thing.

  6. Where did you find this? A christian homeschool science book?

  7. It was on the front page of digg, where many odd things surface. Unfortunately, most people there liked it.

  8. "But of course, being Humans, we have to compare everything to ourselves to reassure ourselves that we are indeed the dominant species. Not saying that this is right, just saying it is part of human nature."

    If a modicum of scientific training can stop a person from such pointless acts of egotism, is it really "part of human nature"? One would expect that changing "human nature" would require a tool like genetic engineering, rather than education. And, even if we leave aside the discoveries of modern science, have all cultures been as hung up on human supremacy? Christian homeschoolers may have one set of standards, but if you scour the history books, you might find a radically different evaluation of what's important in life — say, hypothetically, the idea that one should try to get reincarnated as a cow. Shouldn't we be careful before elevating quirks of a particular culture to the level of defining attributes of the species?

  9. Teleology as a driving force for evolution--which is essentially what "advanced" implies--is just creationism redressed. It smells of utter misunderstanding of evolution and serves only to propagate the same anthropocentrism that has been discredited over and over again throughout scientific history.

    Exactly where is evolution going, then, if it's to create more and more "advanced" beings? It'd be kind of fun if we were evolving into God itself. Why not? Sounds like the End of all Ends to me. The Advancest of the Advanced.

    I love how the vacuity of God can be used to pseudo-justify just about any claim you want to. An old dude named Hegel once said,

    "God is, as it were, the sewer into which all contradictions flow."

  10. I'm a moron. You already mentioned God as the most perfect being. I'm either losing my memory at 23 or have always been a bit slow.

    *sigh* I should go back to lurking.

  11. Sheesh... I'll echo others saying that this sort of nonsense contributes to public misunderstanding of evolution.

    Also, can someone explain to me how (African) gorillas could POSSIBLY have been found "pulling the ears" of (Indian) tigers.

    Granted, it really only says "apes," but uh... I don't think you're much more likely to find a chimp or orang there either.

  12. You're so right, humans are no more "advanced" in fact we seem to be getting less and less advanced as individuals as technology is getting more important. How many of us use gadgets we don't have a clue about how to mend or make ourselves? Basic skills such as sewing, knitting, carpentry, growing food, would be beyond a lot of people, and yet we consider ourselves to be better than animals. We are living a very tenuous existence. If supermarkets and electricity disappeared tomorrow how would any of us cope?

  13. Civilization, at least human civilization, may ultimately prove to have been a maladaptation. Home sapiens evolved to be clever enough to conduct a sort of long-term experiment in food production and mass organization... but not quite clever enough, on the whole, to deal well with our increased populations or to control that experiment in order to keep it from destroying us and everything around us. We're fundamentally still a savannah animal best-adapted to living in small bands, and it shows.