Are we exceptional humans? Or just stupid apes who do stupid ape things?

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.

Wright_NeanderthalIt’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.

Human evolution as 'progress', public domain, via Wikipedia.
Human evolution as ‘progress’, after Zallinger. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

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.

An 1888 reconstruction of a Neanderthal, via Wikipedia.
An 1888 reconstruction of a Neanderthal, via Wikipedia.

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

6 thoughts on “Are we exceptional humans? Or just stupid apes who do stupid ape things?

  1. You raise several thought-provoking issues in this post. I think it intriguing to consider the idea of “advanced apes” of several species once occupying this planet. How would this have influenced the development of human civilization? What if, for example, the Neanderthals were actually superior to humans, a possibility raised by greater physical strength and larger brains? What if that had something to do with present human obsessions of racial superiority? Granted that might be weak from an anthropological standpoint, but it might be interesting to play with. You used the phrase “none markedly superior to the others” — but that doesn’t seem to prevent us from discriminating against each other in present time. (In that context I always like the Star Trek episode about the two last survivors of an alien race, who are black and white on opposite sides of their bodies.)

    I’m also reminded that Hitler’s end objective, in exterminating the Jews, was not merely to exterminate them physically but to eliminate all mention and memory of the Jews. OK, I’m going to a dark place here, but it’s been that kind of week.

    Through most of our history our politics has been ruled by bullies called aristocrats. You can dress that up and call them “alphas,” but I don’t think being the alpha male or female has anything to do with ancestry. Hm. Clearly, Matthew, once again you’ve given me considerable food for thought!

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    1. I just wrote a review essay for the ‘New Zealand Listener’ (our cultural equivalent of Time magazine) on Lawrence Rees’ new history of the holocaust, who argued basically that it was driven less by a deliberate plan as a general desire to be evil, orchestrated by Hitler who – despite the post-fact attempts to say otherwise – actually had a good deal of direct responsibility for the outcome. Chilling stuff. What worries me is that the capacity to do this seems to be innate – the Nazis took it to a murderous extreme, but the potential to be evil lurks within every society.

      I suspect that even if there were other species of human around today, we’d still have the same problems within our own species, this time compounded by distinctions between ourselves (as a whole) and the Neanderthals, Denisovans and others. Discrimination seems to emerge in all sorts of ways – if we couldn’t find some trivial physical distinction, there’d be something else, witness the Irish issues during the twentieth century between Protestant and Catholic. I’m a reasonable advocate of ‘evolutionary psychology’, in which the nature of human origin and evolution acts as a super-frame over the way we think and behave. In our case, the hunter-gatherer community provoked a specific group size (about 150, the ‘Dunbar number’) which we define as ‘us’, and everything else is ‘them’. Back in the Pliestocene, there seems to have been a survival advantage to doing so, but as community size grew with settled agriculture it became translated into a more abstract form of ‘them’ and ‘us’. We’re still doing it, and what worries me is that our intellect allows us to rationalise that into forms that – as the Nazis showed – can swiftly get very ugly. Ouch.

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  2. Truly thought-provoking! At times I’ve opined (not seriously) that our destructive tendencies support the notion that we didn’t evolve here on earth but came from somewhere else, and this poor planet is too small and fragile to support us. Otherwise, I’ve thought that agriculture was in fact “original sin,” in that it led to all kinds of evils — hoarding of property, wars over land, oppression by elites and environmental degradation. It’s a kind of metaphor, but fits surprisingly well. Regarding evil, it seems to me that when it’s indulged in by groups (e.g. the Nazis), it’s much worse than individual evil (e.g. serial killers), because the group members validate the evil for one another and amplify it. Finally, if we ever manage to change our innate tendency toward evil, that might be an indication of superiority.


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