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OK – Time To Get Serious About Assumption

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N June of this year a new book was released, Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, by Matt Rossano. The author is head of the psychology department at Southeastern Louisiana University. (I haven’t decided if I want to read this book yet, once you read this post you will understand why.) According to reviews, one of the main premises of the book is that “Religion made us human.” Already I have a problem. . . . . .

What exactly do we mean when we say “human’? Technically speaking we are animals, primates, homo sapiens.  Surely you have heard it said that humans and chimpanzees share 99% of DNA – what you may not have heard, or thought about is, one of the things this means is that a human and a chimpanzee could produce viable offspring. That’s how close we are! A very similar situation as is found with domestic dogs and wolves.

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So. . . .again, what exactly do we mean when we say “human’? There are some basic assumptions here, assumptions that I think can result in bad science, especially in the areas of psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology.

First there is an assumption that “humans” are unique in a special way, superior somehow to other “animals”. Hmmmmmm. Let’s see, would you say that otters are superior to giraffes when it comes to living most of life in the water? Are bats superior to dogs when it comes to flying? Are bears superior to chinchillas when it comes to catching salmon to eat? Now, compared to a dog, humans are positively stupid when it comes to sense of smell. Compared to cats, humans are blind in the dark. Bonobo (a species of chimpanzee) social structure makes that of humans look horribly primitive. Hmmm, yes, chew on that one a bit – humans may not be the most highly socially evolved critter on this planet. And I have kept my examples within the class of mammals. Insects, critters that technically don’t even have brains, have adaptations that are truly brilliant compared to humans.

“Humans” are different, yes. But so are giraffes and dogs and chinchillas. What is actual is that nature (evolution) adapts each species to it’s environment. “Humans” have their adaptations and so does all the rest of life on this planet.

What about intelligence, consciousness, self-awareness, etc? Does this really set “humans” apart from the other “animals”?

Well, when it comes to intelligence, dolphins have bigger brains than we do, and may actually be more intelligent than people. There is a school of thought that emerged in the 1980’s that says we may not be equipped to correctly evaluate the intelligence of other species, because we are limited by our own adaptations and biology. As I said in a previous post, we only have one lens to look through, the “human” one. And how can we hold other species to the same standard we apply to people? Another way to say this is: Maybe you have to be a dolphin to correctly evaluate the intelligence of dolphins.

Science has debunked all the myths of what we want to believe sets us apart from the other animals so far: Other animals use tools, have symbolic language and complex communication, practice deception, form lifelong friendships, make choices and decisions, have some degree of self awareness, etc. It has been known since 1967 when it was written about by Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Ape, that dolphins, chimps, whales, and elephants have culture. Where mammals especially are concerned, the only real differences in any of these things are in degree, not kind.

So. Whatever else religion may or may not have done, it didn’t make us “human”. Nature, through evolution, made us what we are.

Now, lets look at some of the things “humans” do that other “animals” don’t. Other “animals” DON’T invent religions and then go to war over them. Other “animals” DON’T go to war over ideology. Other “animals” DON’T kill, maim, and torture others over religion. Other “animals” DON’T invent religion and then try to force it onto all the other “animals” through government, public policy, and culture.

Oh, they do fight, and some even have “wars” – ants and chimpanzees come to mind as warring creatures. But chimps go to war for only 3 reasons: territory, resources, and mates. Ants go to war for only 2 reasons: territory (expanding colonies literally need more physical space) and resources.

Interesting, no?

I think I’ll come back as a chinchilla in my next life!

Sources – related reading:

What Makes Humans Unique?

Are humans unique?

Do Animals Know Who they Are?

A Comparison of Some Similar Chimpanzee and Human Behaviors

Liberating Women – an interesting perspective from bonobo social structure

How ants carry on war

Apes of War – is it in our genes?

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© Babaloo Bonzai and Babaloo Bonzai’s Zen Soup, 2010.

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2 responses

  1. Thanks Sabio 🙂 Your blog is great too – I highly recommend it!

    August 11, 2010 at 2:49 am

  2. Well said !

    August 10, 2010 at 5:54 pm

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