Animals made us human

Animals Make Us Human is the title of Temple Grandin’s wonderful book on how animals think, feel, and perceive, and how humans can provide the best possible life for the ones in our care. Not quite on the same topic, RichardDawkins.net links to an article about an interesting anthropological speculation:

What explains this yen to have animals in our lives?

An anthropologist named Pat Shipman believes she’s found the answer: Animals make us human. She means this not in a metaphorical way — that animals teach us about loyalty or nurturing or the fragility of life or anything like that — but that the unique ability to observe and control the behavior of other animals is what allowed one particular set of Pleistocene era primates to evolve into modern man. The hunting of animals and the processing of their corpses drove the creation of tools, and the need to record and relate information about animals was so important that it gave rise to the creation of language and art. Our bond with nonhuman animals has shaped us at the level of our genes, giving us the ability to drink milk into adulthood and even, Shipman argues, promoting the set of finely honed relational antennae that allowed us to create the complex societies most of us live in today. Our love of pets is an artifact of that evolutionary interdependence.

“Our connection with animals had a very great deal to do with our development,” Shipman says. “Beginning with the adaptive advantage of focusing on and collecting information about what other animals are doing, from there to developing such a reliance on that kind of information that there became a serious need to document and transmit that information through the medium of language, and through the whole thing the premium on our ability to read the intentions, needs, wants, and concerns of other beings.”

Shipman’s arguments for the importance of “the animal connection,” laid out in an article in the current issue of Current Anthropology and in a book due out next year, draw on evidence from archeological digs and the fossil record, but they are also freely speculative. Some of her colleagues suggest that the story she tells may be just that, a story. Others, however, describe it as a promising new framework for looking at human evolution, one that highlights the extent to which the human story has been a collection of interspecies collaborations — between humans and dogs and horses, goats and cats and cows, and even microbes.

One bit I find particularly interesting is the connection Shipman makes between animals and the invention of art itself:

Art in particular was animal-centered. It’s significant, Shipman points out, that the vast majority of the images on the walls of caves like Lascaux, Chauvet, and Hohle Fels are animals. There were plenty of other things that no doubt occupied the minds of prehistoric men: the weather, the physical landscape, plants, other people. And yet animals dominate.

The centrality of animals in that early artwork has long intrigued anthropologists. Some have suggested that the animals were icons in early religions, or visions from mystical trances. Shipman, however, argues that the paintings serve a more straightforward function: conveying data between members of a species that was growing increasingly adept at hunting and controlling other animals. Lascaux, in this reading, was basically primitive Powerpoint. The paintings, Shipman points out, are packed with very specific information about animal appearance and behavior.

“It’s all about animals,” Shipman says. “There are very few depictions of humans and they’re generally not very realistic. The depictions of animals are amazing, you can tell this is a depiction of a prehistoric horse in its summer coat, or that this is a rhino in sexual posture.”

More here.

I look forward to reading Shipman’s book when it comes out. If I remember rightly, Michael Pollan playfully argued in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the smartest species on the planet is not humankind but corn, which clearly manipulated our primate species into setting up a society that would guarantee corn as the world’s dominant crop; recently I’ve been entertaining the notion that cats have pretty much done the same thing — at least judging from the pecking order in our own household, where no sane observer can doubt the authority of our furry gray masters.

But seriously: Clearly Shipman’s hypothesis needs fleshing out and verifying, but it doesn’t sound so improbable to me. Every scientific discovery seems to strengthen the notion that we’re all bound up with each other and with everything else, and that a disturbance or development at one point on the web has an effect on other strands. Why should our own evolution be an isolated exception? We adapt to our environment; and if our interaction with animals is part of that environment (and who could argue otherwise?) then surely animals have indeed helped make us what we are.

(Photo by Sisse Brimberg for National Geographic)

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