For centuries, the popular belief has been that humans are the best organism on earth. This is largely due to a long standing approach to humanity which is often based on religious dogmas and the general assumption that smarter means better.
And it’s obvious why! We build roads, investigate nature, create music and art. Our impact has changed the way the Earth looks from space, and the very chemical composition of the atmosphere – which, by the way, no other organism can inhabit. We’re self aware and capable of contemplating our own existence: surely then, no other organism can compare to us!
But hang on, does this pride have a true, logical basis? What happens if we take each accomplishment separately and consider them biologically:
“Our actions are no more grandiose than those of grass or the pine tree”
We change the Earth’s image from space: some electric lights and even the great wall of china are visible from space (check it out on google earth if you don’t believe me!). However, it’s not just us; algae and plants have collaboratively altered the Earth’s atmosphere repeatedly across Earth’s history, and they are also visible from space. In this sense, our actions are no more grandiose than those of grass or the pine tree which dominate huge stretches of land, as well as outnumber us!
We make art and music: however, we’re not alone in this ability! Orangutans and chimps have been found to create art and make crude instruments, as in the case of Desmond Morris, the artistic ape. Numerous animals embellish and decorate their nests to create visually aesthetic environments to impress one another. Birds, in particular, have been found to choose their songs based purely on how nice it sounds to them, indicating that they have a level of creative freedom for this behaviour. To their limited cortexes, a bird song probably sounds equal to an opera.
We create amazing architectural feats and build roads, but many animals do this in beautiful forms. For example, termites’ nests are specifically designed to regulate temperature, it’s true that their needs are not as advanced as ours, but for their needs, each animal creates migratory maps, nests, and pheromone paths that work just as well as our roads and planes do.
We are self aware but again, some animals have been found to possess imagination, as in parrots, as well as an ability to recognise themselves in the mirror such as in dolphins, and elephants. This indicates that they can perceive that they are looking at themselves. Other animals possess the ability to recognise an idea of self, which appears to be an evolutionary trait connected to intelligence.
It seems that if you deconstruct what humans do that we define as unique, it just boils down to an apparently advanced cognition surrounding certain biological behaviours.
We hold a variety religious beliefs and faiths! In animals however, this is untestable, as the ability of an animal to conceptualise an ‘other’ is difficult to ascertain without them being able to communicate with us vocally. However, animals such as elephants have been shown to grieve and have areas that they respect based on the death of their kin much like graveyards which suggests an understanding of loss and perhaps therefore of mortality. Perhaps if there were just a little more evolutionary pressure to engorge the cognitive abilities of elephants, dolphins or apes we would see further evidence that animals conceptualise ‘otherworldly’ ideas to explain and understand their losses or their experiences. This is perhaps the area most unclear about animals in comparison to the relative human abilities.
It seems that if you deconstruct what humans do that we define as unique, it just boils down to an apparently advanced cognition surrounding certain biological behaviours. Our art, understanding, imagination and infrastructure is not unique, however it is overwhelmingly more complex. Does this complexity equate to superiority or to success? If success is the ability to thrive and survive, then rats, insects and bacteria outstrip us in every capacity based on their pure numbers and resilience.
What makes humans ‘better’ appears to be our own sense of it more than anything else. We have evolved to be empathetic towards one another over other animals (as is expected) and as a result, our large brains conclude that we are far better than anyone else. After all, how can we begin to fathom what it feels like to be an ant or a cat? We feel as humans and therefore we conclude that to be human is to be special. Incidentally, animals feel too, some more similarly to humans than others. You only have to own a dog to know that they respond to stimulus in ways that display joy, fear or boredom.
This is not at all case for veganism, but a case for respect towards other organisms and a dampening of that human ego. We are more similar to the organisms around us than we are different. Every animal alive today has evolved from the same genetic tree and is equally well adapted to survive their habitat, from the tapeworm to the human, and it is likely that many will continue to survive far longer than we do on this planet.
Sophie Peters, 3rd December 2018, 11:03 am