Did you know that bottlenose dolphins deliberately protect their beaks with sea sponges when they are foraging on the seabed? Or that New Caledonian crows will strip twigs down into spears to search inside logs for wheedle grubs? With these and many other examples of intelligence, geneticist Dr Adam Rutherford explores to what extent other animal species (‘Humans are animals,’ he says pointedly at the very start of the book) display characteristics we would normally classify as exclusively human. Throughout the book there is essentially one key question to be answered: are humans actually that special?
Rutherford focuses on a few specific topics to try and answer this, starting with the use of what we might term ‘tools’. The ability for various animals to use tools goes even further than twigs and sponges. Australian ‘firehawks’, as Aboriginal populations called them, developed a trick of deliberately carrying burning sticks with the intention of starting new bushfires, before picking off the rodents and reptiles that then attempt to flee (possibly the inspiration for the Aboriginal tactic of doing the same thing). Leaf-cutter ants have been observed essentially ‘farming’ fungus on collected foliage that helps feed their colony. Chimps even display a type of ‘fashion’ in the form of a stiff blade of grass inserted into the ear. The practice has seemingly no practical benefit and is a style that appears to spread through populations in a manner not dissimilar to humans sporting the latest designer labels.
The second core theme is sexual habits in the animal kingdom, which are revealed to be just as diverse as those found among humans. We may be the only species that has successfully separated copulation from procreation (Rutherford calculates that around one in every 1,000 acts of coitus in Britain leads to a pregnancy) but there are plenty of other species using sex for more than simply increasing their numbers. Bonobos famously engage in regular intercourse as part of daily social bonding, while giraffes have shown themselves to be extremely keen on male-on-male mountings for reasons unknown, beyond that they seem to really like it. Homosexuality, kinship, sexual assault, even necrophilia: all these sexual practices and more have been observed through animal behaviour, underlining the argument that the idea of any one sexual relationship being ‘natural’ is fairly redundant.
Finally, Rutherford analyses the similarities and differences between ourselves and our furry and/or feathered friends when it comes to genetic code, speech, cognitive abilities, and even the concept of feeling regret (particularly apparent in rats, so we’re told). Here is where we can return to our initial question – are we as unique as we think?
There are many surprising examples of animals displaying qualities that might make us think twice about our self-appointed position at the top of the zoological hierarchy – such as the unfortunate chimpanzee habit of ‘waging war’. It’s a reminder that the human brain is really just a more developed version of animal brains. Clearly, animals can learn from us if given the opportunity and the incentive, such as the dolphins, elephants and pigeons who learn to recognise themselves in a mirror (although the jury is still out as to what extent this shows complete self-awareness).
On the other hand, it’s worth underlining how much more advanced our brains really are. Despite all the evidence gathered by Rutherford, the conclusion is that the human brain is far more developed than even our closest relatives. Everyday attempts to anthropomorphise animal emotions and behaviour are generally unhelpful. ‘We have a culture that doesn’t only surpass all others in sophistication,’ Rutherford writes, ‘it simply doesn’t exist in any other species.’ More useful are comparisons with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other Homo species, and the extent to which they were capable of language and/or creative thought, generally believed to be relatively high. Nevertheless, their extinction leaves us set apart in the animal kingdom, undoubtedly remarkable among our generation.
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