Re: Are we "special"?

Phillip Bigelow (
Tue, 10 Dec 1996 19:30:00 -0800

Noel Dickover wrote:
> In article <>, says...
> > Humans as a species are no more unique than any other
> > defined species. Nor are humans any less unique than any other
> > defined species. And within our own primate clade, humans are
> > much more similar to chimpazees than are humming birds to ostriches.

> OK, how about this for an analysis of "special". To my knowledge, H.S.S.
> is the only living species (excepting for the possibility of some whale
> species) whose primary survival mechanism is a flexible, changing
> language and social structure.

I'm not quite sure I follow you on this. The "primary survival
mechanism" for all living things is to find food, sex, and safety.
Whether the animal has a changing language and a social structure has
nothing to do with it.
All carnivoran mammals have a highly complex social structure...
ironically, some mammals may have a much more complex social structure
than humans. For instance, cetaceans are now believed to not only
have grammatical communication, but also sound inflection and context
to their communication. They also have an extremely complicated
social structure.
There is NOTHING unique about hominid social structure or communication.
It is only a difference in degree, not particularly one of style.

> This has allowed H.S.S. to adapt to more
> varied types of environments and habitats than any other species.

You are confusing cause and effect here. I have no argument with
those who claim that humans have the largest influence on their
environment. But that is much different than claiming that humans
are unique or "special" in their morphology. On that I strongly

> This
> evolutionary survival mechanism has more recently led to the development
> of what we call societies,

All higher mammals have complex societies (particularly the
carnivorans). Non-human primates have even more complex societies than
the carnivoran mammals. Humans are only gradationally-more complex
than our ape ancestors. Nothing special there....

> Whole (somewhat) scientific fields of study have been developed to look
> at these phenomena.

A lot of that strong interest in ourselves is a result of
anthrocentric-thinking about humans as being "special". This type
of flawed thinking goes WAY back in time (long before Darwin)
to a time when Church doctrine guided "scientific" thinking.
Even Carl Linnaeus was guided by Church doctrine (indirectly).
Darwinian-thinking has (fortunately) put a fork in the path for us
to follow if we choose to, for us to view ourselves as a *part* of
the natural world, rather than as separate from it as "unique"
and "special" creatures.

You haven't asked me for my opinion on the present state of
paleoanthropology, but I'll give it to you anyway:

Why, for the life of me, is paleoanthropology nested within the
discipline of anthropology? Why is it the ONLY vertebrate
paleontology discipline that is NOT a part of earth science
departments in universities?
Why don't professional vertebrate paleontology science journals
(such as the _Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology_) publish
papers on fossil finds of hominids?
One could *rationalize* an answer for this paradox, and make the
very weak claim that "well...humans are complex social creatures, and
anthropology is a social science, and...well...hominid bones are
of social, there you have it: PA belongs in the
dept of Anthropology."
Well, golly-gee, kids, I am just not buying it. :-)
Paleoanthropology needs to come back into the vertebrate paleontology
camp, where they can be with their kin.
I am EXTREMELY talked-out on this particular thread.