The Uniqueness Of A Man In Nature

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The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, ‘All species are unique, but humans are uniquest.’ Evolution has bestowed upon humankind a remarkable set of unique biological, social, behavioral, and emotional traits such as bipedalism, using tools to make other tools, a large brain, dexterity, abstract thinking, language to name a few. These characteristics are said to be unique to us humans and separate us from other animals and our animal ancestors. Our special characteristics are the premise for us humans, considering ourselves highly intelligent, innovative, and progressive. But a counterview claims that animals are not as different from us humans as we’re so easily led to believe by theologians who propound that God has made man in his image; that man has a soul and animals are merely biological robots made for his pleasure. 

And, this counterview has been slowly gaining traction with patient and close observations of our planetary cohabitants. Speaking of bipedalism, animals like chimpanzees (our closest relatives), kangaroos and penguins can walk on two legs. Abstract thinking is observed in chimpanzees. Chimps display the capacity to distinguish objects and group them into categories. Dogs respond to commands and have an excellent memory. Animals can communicate using sounds, gestures, and facial expressions much like we humans do. The rudiments of uniquely human traits, such as symbolic language and complex social organization, have been noticed in the animal world too. Apparently, we wouldn’t come to possess these traits had our animal ancestors not had them in the first place. So, do these findings imply that we humans are not as unique as we once thought we were? The list of what’s uniquely human has indeed grown shorter than it once was, but animals cannot match humans on the scale of development of certain traits and this is what probably sets us apart. While we humans share traits with animals, those shared traits are far more developed and multifaceted in humans vis-à-vis other animals. In this essay, we shall discuss traits that make us humans unique viz. bipedalism and abstract thought.

To understand how we differ from animals; we have to look at how we got to where we are. Early human fossils and archeological remains suggest that there were many different species of humans several million years ago. These primitive human species called hominins migrated to Asia around two million years ago and then moved into Europe, and much later to the rest of the world. Over time several branches of hominins went extinct while the branch that led to modern humans viz. the Homo Sapiens (man the wise) continued to evolve. We left trees, started walking, started living in groups, and our brains increased in size. We started producing superior cultural and technological artifacts, like tools, which over time, became more complex. We used symbols to communicate, cave art, designing ornaments, and burying our dead. We eventually developed language, a complex symbolic system, to communicate and represent the world around us. The most significant difference that sets humans apart is our ability to make conscious, intelligent decisions. To escape the vagaries of nature, we created synthetic environments using technology i.e., cities. Unlike animals, which are subject to the natural world we have come to exercise partial control over the natural world as a result of our constant endeavor to make our lives easier and richer.

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Anthropologist Herman Ponzter claimed that “Walking upright on two legs is a defining feature that makes us human, It distinguishes our entire lineage from all other apes.” According to Ponzter’s theory walking upright saves energy and enabled our ancestors to efficiently forage for food. Tests on humans and chimpanzees walking on treadmills proved that upright walking utilized only a quarter of the energy compared to walking on feet and knuckles. Bipedalism is the most pivotal primary physical and biological adaptation that distinguishes us humans from other animals. Bipedalism, according to evidence coming from Africa, was our first step on the road to becoming humans. Bipedalism began several million years ago before tool-making or increase in brain size, which emphasizes its importance to our survival. Climate change was the reason for the transition from quadrupedalism to bipedalism. As Africa became drier, huge rainforests were replaced by open Savannahs. Thus, walking upright with powerful strides would be advantageous for moving long distances for food and to escape from predators. An upright position would free the hands to carry offspring’s, food, and tools. Bipedalism is instrumental to the concept of ‘male provisioning,’ i.e., males carrying food to females, thus increasing birthrate as it allowed females to focus on child bearing and rearing. Animals like chimpanzees and gorillas show facultative bipedalism, meaning they can occasionally walk upright, however their stance is different; with bent knees and hips, they tend to look awkward. This is because their skeletons are not adapted for regular walking on two legs unlike humans.

Abstract thinking has formed the basis of innovation and creativity throughout human existence. Human beings think abstractly while other animals apparently seem incapable of. Humans can think about God, death and the afterlife; create literature, art, language and numerous other abstract things. Animals do not have the ability to reason about intangible things that cannot be seen, touched or tasted. Animals are adept at surviving in the moment, unlike humans who are able to think beyond the present. Humans have the extraordinary ability to anticipate the future and be prepared for future events. Humans have imagination and insight. The insight to figure out what others are thinking and their intentions and the imagination to create from what nature gives us, not only for us but also for our future generations. Abstract thinking is why man has been able to develop intricate tools, language, art, culture, and indulge in complex social behaviours. 

Abstract thinking has helped in the invention and modification of tools. A good example is the invention of the hand axe, which was an improvement on the basic pebble tools of about 1.7 million years ago. A hand axe is a multipurpose tool used for butchering, slicing of meat and plants for easy consumption. Eventually new tools, made of sticks, stones and bones replaced the hand axe. However, extensive research by many scientists and researchers has revealed usage of tools by other animals. Otters using rocks to break open shells of abalones and chimpanzees using twigs to probe termite nests are examples of tools use in the animal world. So, while the tools usage is not unique to humans using tools to make other tools is. Animals use tools available in their environment with no intention to alter it. Only humans, with their curious questioning minds, are always trying to change their environment to suit their needs. It is this curiosity of humans that has led to the development of advanced tools, technology and science. Abstract thinking is our ability to think of ideas and objects. It gives us the ability to use complex languages which is supported by lowered larynx and brain structures. Humans have the unique ability to express themselves using symbols, colors, words, arts and artifacts. Our ancestors buried their dead as early as 100,000 years ago which implies their belief in an afterlife; they used ornaments to reflect their identity and they created highly imaginative works of art.

So, what is it that makes us humans unique? The study of human evolution has revealed that we humans have undergone both biological and cultural adaptations that are distinct to us. Along the evolutionary tree, we humans deviated from primates (our closest relatives) as we went on to develop unique characteristics, such as habitual bipedalism, larger brain size, smaller teeth, our capacity for language and abstract thinking, our behavioral and emotional complexity. Bipedalism is the first giant evolutionary leap in the history of mankind. Bipedalism allowed us to further advance ourselves and survive in this world. It helped our ancestors to survive climate change, which otherwise would have been devastating. Our ability for abstract thinking has played a crucial role in allowing us as individuals and as a species to be imaginative and solve complex problems. Our complex language structure, abstract thinking, living in communities, and engaging in symbolic behavior set us apart from other animals. The human intellect is responsible for advancements in science and technology; effectively widening the gulf between humans and other animals. Our constant technological innovations are what enable us to fly in the air, communicate across the globe, cure diseases, etc.

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