It is very fashionable to discount the idea that human beings are really different or more special than other animals. The newer version is that human beings are simply slightly smarter apes, whose evolutionary history includes some adaptations that give us the false illusion of being superior. Stuff like consciousness, art, science, music, humor, and so on are dismissed as part of this illusion. If anything, humans are thought of as a blight on the planet, and if we would only disappear, that would be a much “better” thing for the “planet”. (I put those words in quotes, because I don’t know if they would have any meaning in the absence of humans).
This new paradigm, has strangely become entwined with the New Atheism, which discounts not only God, but human exceptionalism as well. The Biblical idea that humans were given dominion over all other creatures, really gets the goat (pun intended) of the secular denialists. (I like that term because it’s a nice contrast to the older form of atheism that was called secular humanist).
So, I thought it might be interesting to approach this issue from a scientific point of view, since, the folks I am speaking of (and this includes quite a number of Gatherites) prefer not to discuss matters of truth in any but scientific terms.
We know that for most plants and animals, the entire phenotype is determined by the genotype. I mean not only the biological characteristics of each individual, but also such things as individual and group behavior, the aspects of animals that are beyond the biochemical workings of their bodies. Animal behavior, like the mating dances of birds, the signaling of bees and ants, the howling of wolves, the family structures of lions are all examples. These behaviors are also ultimately of genetic origin, and it requires a genetic change, a change in the genotype, in order to find a change in cultural as well as in biological phenotype.
Man is the only exception to this rule.. The cultural phenotype of human beings has been changing continuously for about 40,000 years, and the direction of that change has been constant, while the rate of change has been increasing in an exponential manner. At the same time, there have been very few changes in genotype to account for the cultural phenotypic changes.
We are the only species on the planet whose evolution is no longer entirely genetic but mostly cultural. And our cultural evolution is driven not by our genes but by our unique brains. The ordinary processes of genetic evolution gave us these brains, but then the brains took over. The way we live is completely different from the way human beings lived 40,000 years ago. It is different from the way human beings lived 400 years ago, and even 4 years ago. For all other species, this is never true. Chimpanzees of today live exactly as they did 4 million years ago.
A lot has been made of the fact that other animals can solve problems, show altruism, make pictures, communicate, have emotions, have social structures and do “all” the things that humans do. That is beside the point. What humans do that no other living creature does, is change. Humans use their huge and complex brains to overcome all their biological limitations imposed by a genome that changes very very slowly.
Yes, other animals can appear to think, reason, emote and worry. We can teach them all kinds of things. But they don’t teach each other anything new. Their phenotypes are slaves to their genes. We, and only we, are free from our genes. If we are slaves to anything it is to our brains. But that is a whole nother story.