Regaining Our Place as a Species among Species

Regaining Our Place as a Species among Species

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4586-8.ch013
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Civilization may not have that much long-term value for our species because it fosters fairly complete separation from the ecosystem. Ultimately, our survival rests with our being able to use our knowledge to respect the ecosystem and to live within its limits. The most distinctive characteristic of the human species is our ability to accumulate knowledge of our surroundings and act on the basis of that knowledge. Our species goal may be to determine the role of our kind of being in a universe mostly otherwise not conscious of itself.
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Distinctive Features Of Humans As A Species

If we are a species among species, what are the distinctive features of our species, which determine our place among species? Neither the cheerleading “Humans, hurray” or the animal rights “Humans, boo” is appropriate. What is appropriate is “Humans, here we are. This is what we are like. What should we be doing with our quite significant capabilities?”

Here is Live Science’s list of the top ten things that make humans special: Speech; upright posture; apparent hairlessness; dexterous hands; big (“extraordinary”) brains; clothing; fire; blushing; long childhoods; menopause (Choi 2011). This list requires some culling. Clothing and fire are hardly genetic properties of humans. But an animal that is for all practical purposes without fur will likely use its brain and dexterity to make clothing—initially, perhaps, acquiring fur previously attached to another animal. Perhaps lack of fur also made it important for humans to use fire to keep warm. But whatever the motive, both clothing and fire exemplify the human species trait of being able to repurpose natural processes to meet its own needs. And, as we saw earlier, both clothing and fire are early components of a separate human environment.

A long childhood and menopause are also evolutionary traits that function together socially. Long childhoods facilitate “the emergence of human social and cultural complexity”, says Jean-Jacques Hublin, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “[Long childhood] allows a long maturation of the brain and an extended education period”3 (Max Planck Society 2010). Both long childhood and, especially, menopause, are examples of evolution acting socially. They benefit the species through benefiting the social group rather than the individual. Thus longer childhood may mean that individuals in the Homo sapiens group can outcompete faster-maturing Neanderthal individuals once Homo sapiens finishes acquiring more complex skills. Menopause ties in with this: It is much more valuable to the social group to have grandmothers available for the extra child care than for grandmothers to have more children of their own. There are many other examples of social evolution.4 The prevalence of social evolution shows that the conservative view of both evolution and life as survival of the fittest individual is mostly wrong.

The social evolutionary function of blushing has only recently been uncovered. Because it is involuntary, it is a reliable indicator to others that you sincerely regret or are embarrassed by what you did. It therefore forestalls or ameliorates retaliation (Bering 2009).

Speech, upright posture and dexterous hands are clearly important for allowing humans to attain great complexity in their actions. The capacity for speech evolved 350,000 years ago, 100,000 years or so before modern humans evolved. Both our precursor species (some version of Homo erectus) and the Neanderthals had the capacity for speech. Speech allows for the complex coordination of cooperative activity, not least of which is an elaborated shared reality. But speech is in itself neutral with respect to our relation to the ecosystem and hence our place as a species among species.

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