Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: The Book of Humans

A book that has been waiting patiently on my bookcase for me to read for a while, is The Book of Humans by Adam Rutherford. If you’re familiar with Rutherford, then you’ll know that he’s an intelligent and witty communicator. His writing is no different. The Book of Humans focusses on what makes us special, within the animal kingdom. Not too long ago, our use of tools used to define us. But since then, observations of chimpanzees fishing termites out of mounds with sticks, and raptors in Australia using burning sticks to spread bushfires (therefore flushing out the animals within), have made us question this. It is very clear from the scientific literature that a whole host of animals use tools in their environment. How ours differ, are the complex thoughts and dexterity needed to manipulate flint to make arrowheads, or to produce intricate electronic components.

Through the ages, science has slowly dissolved this idea of human superiority that can be traced back to sources such as Aristotle, and The Bible. So, where does that leave us? We still have speech, culture, art, and fashion on our side. These are mostly human characteristics, although some animals have been observed to share information culturally, or even setting their own fashion trends. What is more compelling, is that these characteristics were most likely shared with the other long extinct species of humans which we once shared the planet with, such as the Neanderthals. They were not the stupid oafs that they are commonly depicted as, instead they certainly had all of the same capabilities as us, except maybe complex speech/language (the jury is still out on that one!).

Two popular human past-times also help set us apart from the animal kingdom (just), war and sex. However, sexual acts are shared by most species – however it is humans that perform sex mainly for pleasure. Rutherford shares with us that 0.1% of the acts of intercourse a year within Britain, results in contraception. The rest of the time, it is purely for pleasure. War is not uniquely human, although we have put our own personal touch on it (through the use of explosives, guns, and nuclear weapons). Chimpanzees are known to raid and slaughter their own kind in acts of war, which must be similar to those performed by humans before the development of the advanced warfare we’re all familiar with today. Rutherford reaches the conclusion that is it is our desire for knowledge, ability to innovate and the way we teach as being uniquely human. These are the characteristics that define us, as there are no parallels in nature.

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