Uniqueness of Humans Research Paper

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humans as a concept.

The arguments in favor of the uniqueness of humans

Tool use.

Language, culture, and symbolic production.

Thinking about the future and other behaviors.

The arguments against the uniqueness of humans/tool use, language, culture, and cognition in other animals.

Apes and dolphins.



The arguments in favor of the uniqueness of humans.

Tool use -- Munger and Shaw.

Language and culture -- Munger, Shaw, & Shipman.

Thinking about the future -- Munger.

Non-reproductive heterosexual intercourse -- Sapolsky.

"The animal connection" -- Shaw & Shipman.

Tool use increases human hunting capability and understanding of animals.

Symbolic behavior/representation of animals.

Domestication of animals.

Argument against the uniqueness of humans: tool use and culture in apes and dolphins.

A. Tool use and cultural transmission in apes -- Joyce and Munger

B. Tool use and cultural transmission in dolphins - Retica

IV. Argument against the uniqueness of humans: language and cultural diversity in whales and elephants.

A. Whale language -- Khamsi

B. Whale cultural diversity -- Keim

C. The breakdown of elephant culture -- Siebert

1. Loss of habitat and rampant poaching.

2. Breakdown of elephant culture and rearing practices, leading to elephant-on-

rhino rape and murder.

V. Argument against the uniqueness of humans: thinking about the future and non-reproductive intercourse.

A. Monkeys and regret -- Harmon

B. Homosexuality in animals -- Mooallem

C. Non-reproductive heterosexual intercourse in bonobos and birds -- Sapolsky and Munger

VI. Conclusion.

A. The attractiveness of the uniqueness fallacy.

1. Self-aggrandizement.

2. Removal of ethical obligations to other species and their culture.

B. The changing standards of uniqueness.

C. Reiteration of the evidence against the uniqueness of humans.

D. The ultimately destructive nature of believing in the uniqueness of humans.

For much of recorded human history, there has been an intense desire to demonstrate the uniqueness of humans among the species of planet Earth, with varying standards and behaviors used as justification for this supposed distinction. Most commonly, the uniqueness of humans is claimed due to the species' use of language and tools, the development of culture, and a robust enough conception of the future to allow the imagining of multiple possible outcomes. While the uniqueness of humans has always been a self-aggrandizing fantasy, only recently has evidence emerged to finally put this laughable notion to rest (although for obvious reasons, this evidence is met with strong resistance by a number of groups, not least of all those groups whose religious myths give humans a special dominance over animals). By examining recent scientific research into the cognitive and behavioral traits of animals, and especially mammals, one may see how humans are far from unique, and in fact only represent one end of the spectrum of possible configurations of cognition and behavior. In particular, the realization that apes, dolphins, whales, and elephants have robust cultures, languages, and tool using abilities serves to demonstrate precisely how dramatically similar humans are to other animals, at least in terms of their mental, social, and cultural development.

Before examining the evidence against the supposed uniqueness of humans, it will be useful to review the arguments made in favor of this notion in order to demonstrate how they are easily refuted by an abundance of scientific evidence. In his article covering the debate surrounding the need to grant animals the same rights of personhood as humans, Dave Munger notes that "for centuries it seemed obvious to most people what separated them from other animals: Humans have language, they use tools, they plan for the future, and do any number of things that other animals don't seem to do" (Munger 2010). Kate Shaw notes some of the same tendencies as Munger, stating that "the most current scientific theory suggests that three main qualities separate Homo sapiens from other animals: the construction and use of complex tools, the use of symbolic behavior including language, art, and ritual, and the domestication of other plants and animals" (Shaw 2010). Among the "number of things that other animals don't seem to do," mentioned by Munger, Professor Robert Sapolsky specifies certain human sexual behaviors, such as non-reproductive heterosexual intercourse (Sapolsky 2009). Finally in addition to the "obvious" traits noted by Munger and Shaw, Pat Shipman has claimed in a recent study that "humans' long history of learning about and understanding animals" may be considered "as a unique trait, calling this tendency 'the animal connection'" (Shaw 2010). Shipman breaks this "animal connection" down into three constituent parts, claiming that "each of these three uniquely "human" qualities -- learning to make and use stone tools, engaging in symbolic behavior, and domesticating other species -- illustrates the adaptive advantages conferred to humans by having a deep understanding of animals" (Shaw 2010). All of these claims for a supposed uniqueness of humans have ample evidence disproving their justifications, and considering them one by one should help to dismantle the outdated and ultimately damaging notion that humans are of a fundamentally different kind than any other species on earth.

The first myth used to support the supposed uniqueness of humans is the idea that humans are exclusive in their use of tools, but a look at ape and dolphin behavior will serve to point out the fallacy of this claim. For instance, researchers in Sumatra found orangutans using tools, because the orangutans "liked a fruit that was protected by needle-like spines [so] to get to the edible seeds inside, the apes used a tool. With a sharp stick, they pried open the fruit to extract the seeds" (Joyce 2003). In addition, "sometimes, when a dolphin in Shark Bay, off the coast of Western Australia, prepares to forage, she drops to the sea floor, rips a fat conical chunk of sea sponge out of it, covers her beak with the sponge cone and sets to work. After she finds the fish she wants, she drops the sponge" (Retica 2005). Both of these examples show that tool use is far from exclusive to humans, thus invalidating the most common justification for the desired uniqueness of humans. Granted, these tools seem fairly simple, and to the skeptic likely do not represent a complex enough phenomenon to disprove the uniqueness of humans; after all, a stick and a sponge are a far cry from a power drill. However, the manner in which apes and dolphins learn to use these tools actually reveals far more than might be assumed at first glance, because these tools actually are a constituent part of either species' culture.

With the orangutans, using sticks to eat fruit was found to be a cultural phenomenon, because orangutans on the other side of a river did not use these same tools. In short, "the stick trick seemed to be an invention created by one group that was passed along," representing a kind of cultural transmission (Joyce 2003). This is the case with other ape behaviors as well: "traditions between groups vary, similar to human cultural differences. In the wild, one group of orangutans living by a river pounds stones and branches to crack open nuts. Living just across the river are apes that, by chance, haven't picked up the nut-cracking technique" (Binns 2006). In fact, recent archeological evidence even suggests that some stone tools have been part of ape culture for thousands of years (Munger 2010). "Sponging" in dolphins is transmitted in the same way, but in this case, researchers have actually been able to pinpoint this cultural transmission down to the individual level, finding "that dolphins learn to use the sponges -- to probe deeply for food while protecting their beaks -- from their mothers" (Retica 2005).

Thus, the notion that tool use separates humans from other animals is shown to be utterly false, and the caveat that it is actually "complex" tool use (a qualifier only added by the "unique human" apologists once tool use had been widely observed in other species) is rendered irrelevant due to the cultural nature of tool use, because this cultural transmission demonstrates that tool use in animals is not an example of happenstance but rather intentional transmission and teaching on the part of these animals. Furthermore, tool use in animals invalidates Shipman's entire theory of the "animal connection," because even "some ant species can be said to domesticate fungi," proving that the symbiotic relationship between two disparate species, or the domestication of one species by another, is far from unique to humans (Shaw 2010). However, some might argue that these tools are still not complex enough to count as the kind of robust artistic, cultural, and symbolic production humans engage in, so further investigation into animal culture is necessary.

Perhaps the easiest place to see true, undeniable cultural and symbolic production is in the behavior of whales, because "whales use their own syntax - or grammar - in the complex songs they sing," such that "whales are the only other animals beside humans [discovered so far] to use hierarchical structure in language, in which phrases are embedded in larger, recurring themes" (Khamsi 2006). Although…[continue]

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