2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

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Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me
Humaniqueness

Yes, humans do some things that other species do not—we are indeed the only species to send probes to outer space to find other forms of life—but the converse is certainly equally true. Other species do things humans find impossible, and many nonhuman species are indeed unique in their abilities. No human can detect temperature changes of a few hundredths of a degree as can some pit vipers, nor can humans best a dog at following faint scents. Dolphins hear at ranges impossible for humans and, along with bats, can use natural sonar. Bees and many birds see in the ultraviolet, and many birds migrate thousands of miles yearly, under their own power with what seems to be some kind of internal GPS. Humans, of course, can and will invent machines to accomplish such feats of nature, unlike our nonhuman brethren—but nonhumans had these abilities first. Clearly I don't contest data that show that humans are unique in many ways, and I certainly favor studying the similarities and differences across species, but think it is time to retire the notion that human uniqueness is a pinnacle of some sort, denied in any shape, way, or form to other creatures.

Another reason for retiring the idea of humaniqueness as the ideal endpoint of some evolutionary process is, of course, that our criteria for uniqueness inevitably need redefinition. Remember when "man, the tool-user" was our definition? At least until along came species like cactus-spike-using Galapagos finches, sponge-wielding dolphins, and now even crocodiles that use sticks to lure birds to their demise. Then it was "man, the tool-maker"…but that fell out of favor when such behavior was seen in a number of other creatures, including species so evolutionary-distant from humans as New Caledonian crows. Learning through imitation? Almost all songbirds do it to some extent vocally, and minor evidence exists for physical aspects in parrots and apes. I realize that current research does demonstrate that apes, for example, are lacking in certain aspects of collaborative abilities seen in humans, but have to wonder if different experimental protocols might provide different data in the future.

The comparative study of behavior needs to be expanded and supported, but not merely to find more data enshrining humans as "special". Finding out what makes us different from other species is a worthy enterprise, but it can also lead us to find out what is "special" about other beings, what incredible things we may need to learn from them. So, for example, we need more studies to determine the extent to which nonhumans show empathy or exhibit various aspects of 'theory of mind", to learn what is needed for survival in both their natural environment and what they can acquire when enculturated into ours. Maybe they have other means of accomplishing the social networking we take as at least a partial requisite for humanness. We need to find out what aspects of human communication skills they can acquire—but we also can't lose sight of the need to uncover the complexities that exist in their own communication systems.

Note Bene: Lest my point be misunderstood: My argument is a different one from that of bestowing personhood on various nonhuman species, and is separate from other arguments for animal rights and even animal welfare—although I can see the possible implications of what I am proposing.

All told, it seems to me that it is time to continue to study all the complexities of behavior in all species, human and nonhuman, to concentrate on similarities as well as differences, and—in many cases—to appreciate the inspiration that our nonhuman compatriots provide in order to develop tools and skills that enhance our own abilities, rather than simply to consign nonhumans to a second-class status.