Re: Are we "special"?

Noel Dickover (
Wed, 11 Dec 1996 10:58:47 -0500

In article <>, says...
> Noel Dickover wrote:

> > 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 may be a wording prob here. I agree that in order to survive, a
species must find food, sex and safety. My point was that is is my
understanding (minus the possibly some cetaceans) that H.S.S is the only
species whose mechanism for attaining these things is a changing language
and social structure. If your point is that carnivorn mammals and
others all have an evolving social structure (meaning patterns of
communication change over time), then I would certainly rethink my
position. If your point is that a changing language and social structure
is inconsequestial, I would disagree with you.

Incidently, it may have been only recently that H.S.S. has had this
ability. Up until roughly 50,000 years ago (check my dates), H.S.S. was
still making the same type looking axe, with basically the same artifacts
throughout. This seemed to have changed rather quickly.

> > 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.

I don't think my point was that H.S.S. has the largest influence on their
environment (they may, but so might earthworms), but that H.S.S. can
thrive in more varied types of environments than any other species.
Granted, this is due to their ability to modify their environment, which
in turn, is largely due to their ability to discuss past and future
events, and to modify (not necessarily consciously) their social
structure accordingly.

> But that is much different than claiming that humans
> are unique or "special" in their morphology. On that I strongly
> disagree.

Lets examine this for a second. H.S.S.'s ability for flexible,
changing language is definitely instinctual, for lack of a better term.
Recent studies in linguistics and cognitive psychology have proven this.
If it is instinctual, then it means it is hard-wired into the DNA. Your
question is (and your anser is no) does this translate into any unique
morphological differences.

> > 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).

Do you mean complex in a non-linear, changing over time sense, or
complex, meaning difficult to understand?

> > 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.

Granted. You won me over on that one.

> 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.

Don't know what to say here. I might say that weak claim could be
strenghthened, but your tone indicates you find other problems with this
grouping. Just as an uninformed side-note, this (in your opinion)
mistaken belief that we are in any way special has, I'm sure translated
into many more research dollars and popularized publications than if
they, the uninformed public, did not believe this. After all, its front
page news when Mary Leakey dies; I don't think people who find saber-
toothed tiger remains are given the same accord. You are indeed a
principled man, attempting to convince people of a fact, that if you are
successful, would dramatically reduce your entire profession's resource
pool :).

> I am EXTREMELY talked-out on this particular thread.
> <pb>

Hope you stick around. BTW, I would be very interested if you could post
the cetacean linguistics reference you refered to in your post.