It would be nice to think that, as humans, we have something special about us. But when I look at the mess we’ve made of the world – at the way we’re destroying the planet that sustains us, all the while fighting among ourselves, with increasing venom and intolerance, over abstractions, I have to wonder.
Are we really just stupid apes?
Scientifically it’s become clear that the idea of human exceptionalism has died – kicking and screaming to the last. But it’s dead for the anthropological and paleontological communities. Current biology classifies us as a species of great ape. Furthermore, characteristics we used to think were ours alone, defining our humanity, were also characteristic of cousin humans such as Neanderthals. In the broadest sense, a lot of what we do is also characteristic of our more distant relatives such as chimps. Including fighting wars.
It’s taken a while for science to get there. Back in the seventeenth century, humanity – ‘Man’, in period parlance – different from animals. But that idea was eroding even before Chas. Darwin and his friends came on scene in the early-mid nineteenth century. Human similarity to great apes – especially chimps – was clear, and it seemed obvious that they had a place close to us in the ‘tree of life’, then in vogue as a way of organising the animal kingdom.
That view of relationship with apes hasn’t changed since: today, humanity is classified as one of the seven surviving species of great ape, something demonstrable not just from cladological (physical) comparison but also genetically. What it means, apart from anything else, is that we don’t need to make movies about a ‘planet of the apes’. Because by classification, Earth is already a planet of the apes.
The notion of H. sapiens being somehow unique and exceptional has also coloured the way we saw our evolutionary history. The study of the way our own species changed through time began around the mid-nineteenth century when the first Neanderthals were found. The problem was that evolutionary biologists took the evolution, in our case, meant some kind of directional progress involving a steady increase in brain-power. It was summed up as late as 1965 by Rudolf Zallinger’s ‘March of Progress’, an infographic prepared for Time Life books which became hugely influential.
It was dead wrong – human evolution didn’t work that way at all. But it’s easy to see how the idea was so pervasive. Humans, the idea went, were a single species whose evolution consisted of a one-species-at-a-time progression defined by a steady increase in uprightness and brain size – directional ‘evolution’. There were odd side-branches, notably Neanderthals, but early reconstructions presented them as shambling semi-apes.
In biological terms it was silly. I mean, ‘evolution’ isn’t a linear process in which a single body part gets bigger. It’s all about change through time and adaptation to changing environments.
But when it came to humans, apparently, biology worked differently. Naturally. We were special.
Inevitably, that idea fell apart on the back of fossil discoveries during the late twentieth century and into the early twenty-first. It turned out that today’s world, in which there is but one species of human is actually unique. Up until relatively recently, geologically speaking, there had been multiple species – us, Neanderthals and Denisovans among them. What’s more, some of them – the Neanderthals – had bigger brains than we did. They were also physically a lot stronger.
Still the notion of H. sapiens exceptionalism, alone, persisted. Sure, there had been other species of humans – but they’d died out…hadn’t they. H. Sapiens alone was truly human. The definition of what made us exceptional was eventually whittled down to the conceit that only our species had creativity – story-telling and artistry, particularly – the latter evident in the paleolithic record. Except that this turned out to be wrong too. Recent discoveries point to Neanderthals, too, being creative – making abstract art such as beads, for instance.
The ‘model’ usually accepted these days is that humanity used to be a diverse group of species, all with very similar capabilities and abilities, all living on the planet at the same time. None were markedly ‘better’ than any other – any more than, as one example, lions, tigers or jaguars are ‘better’ than each other. It’s more accurate instead to regard them as ‘different’, but they could all do much the same things, just as the great cats are all fairly good at being cats.
That brings me back to the point about apes. According to the science, that’s what we are. Apes. It’s a worry. Sure, we might be smart – but it’s wrapped in ape-thinking, and when I look around at the way we relentlessly fight each other; how we condemn other groups on what we fear them to be; at the way bullying has become an easy success strategy; when I look at at the way some people have to vandalise the achievements of others and take things off them – witness issues with computer hacking – when I look at all that, I have to wonder how far we might have moved away from that fundamental ape-ishness. We are prisoners to that ancestry.
But surely we’re smart enough to transcend that. It’s not hard. Kindness, tolerance and reason should win out. If we work at it. Well?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017