Newsflash: humans not so different from other animals

Just like a human!

You’re special. Unique. So we’re constantly told, and from one point of view it’s true. But in the larger scale of things, one human is very much like another. And if you zoom out a bit further, really we’re all just animals. But this doesn’t seem to dent the impressive superiority complex of the human race.

For example, this week we learned that ‘chimpanzees give birth like humans’. Researchers in Japan have filmed three chimpanzees giving birth, showing that the baby emerges facing away from the mother. Up until now it’s been thought that non-human primates all give birth with the baby facing towards the mother, which supposedly makes it easier for her to clear the newborn’s mouth so it can take its first breath.

The argument was that humans are unique among primates in the way they give birth, and that this less convenient method of delivery may have led to ‘midwifery’ by pushing early humans to seek help from others when in labour. The new results dent this belief. Interesting stuff, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be news. But what’s really amazing is our capacity to believe the human race is ‘uniquely unique’, despite all the evidence against this idea.

As one of the researchers involved in this study commented, ‘in a broad sense I think humans tend to believe we are unique, but that belief is not based on facts.’ It’s great to hear someone saying this out loud for once! Humans of course have many amazing abilities, but we often forget that we’re judging ourselves from a very biased viewpoint. We are special, but so is every other species on the planet.

And what worries me is that this feeling of superiority isn’t scientific at all – it really isn’t based on facts. Over many years we’ve discovered that so many things believed to be unique to humans just aren’t – tool use is one key example. We now know that chimps, birds and even molluscs use tools, spreading this once ‘unique’ ability over some quite distant branches of the tree of life.

So why do we think we’re so special? I think it’s probably a mindset that’s come out of many of the world’s great religions. But it’s not a helpful belief when it crosses over into science and blurs our view of the evidence. These new results are a perfect example, because in fact chimps have never been recorded as giving birth in the ‘standard’ way for primates. It was just assumed that they gave birth differently from humans – an assumption that’s now looking pretty shaky.

Considering we share the vast majority of our genes with chimps, surely the assumptions should lie in the other direction – banking on similarities rather than differences. This applies to other areas of science too – why do we think it’s unlikely that other animals are conscious, when we have no real evidence either way? Why do we worry about being ‘alone in the Universe’ when there are literally billions of other planets where life (but not as we know it) could have arisen?

It could be argued that it’s nice to feel special and unique, but it’s definitely one of the reasons why we haven’t done very well in looking after ‘our’ planet so far. Maybe when we let go of our superiority complex we’ll be able to be a little less selfish.

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