This site was last updated 31-07-2010 ©The Sounding Burrows

On 29 August 2010 I ran into
this article by Kate Shaw on Ars Technica.
Here's what it says:

"Animal connection" helps separate humans from other species

By Kate Shaw

For centuries, people have tried to pinpoint what makes humans unique. The most current scientific theory suggests that three main qualities separate Homo sapiens from other animals: the construction and use of complex tools, the use of symbolic behavior including language, art, and ritual, and the domestication of other plants and animals. However, in a new paper in Current Anthropology, Dr. Pat Shipman suggests a fourth trait unique to humans.

Shipman cites humans' long history of learning about and understanding animals as a unique trait, calling this tendency "the animal connection." She claims that this relationship is the common unifying factor that underlies each of the other three previously recognized human traits, and has played a major role in human evolution over the last 2.6 million years.

It’s undeniable that humans have a very close relationship with animals. Here in the US, we spend $41.2 billion on our pets every year. Over 60 percent of Australian households have animals. There are more dogs in Japan than there are children under 12. In tribal societies, there are reports of women breast-feeding young animals. Humans' intimate connection with animals is nearly universal across cultures, yet interspecies relationships are extremely rare in other animals.

Among nonhumans, there are very few instances in which a member of one species has been observed adopting the young of another species, a behavior scientists call "cross-species alloparenting." Most reports of this type of adoption are the result of human involvement; cross-species alloparenting occurs incredibly rarely in the wild but instances have occasionally been observed, such as a female capuchin monkey nursing a young marmoset.

Shipman asserts that humans' invention and use of stone tools about 2.6 million years ago helped them successfully hunt and quickly dispatch large carcasses, allowing them to become major players in the predatory guild. As a result, humans became much more in tune with animals for two reasons: the better they understood their prey, the more efficient hunters they would be, and the better they could evade and outcompete other carnivores. Thus, the animal connection began; because it enhanced survival, learning about animals' anatomy and behavior became a very advantageous pursuit.

The animal connection is strongly evident in another trait that is considered unique to humans: symbolic behavior, specifically art. Animals were the main subject of prehistoric art. Incredibly specific details can be recognized from early cave drawings, including animals' colors, particular behaviors, and dimorphism between the sexes.

Other topics that one would expect to be important to early humans, such as landscapes, shelters, weather, and water sources, are conspicuously absent from prehistoric art. Early humans not only spent a great amount of time learning about animals, but they also saw the value of depicting them in images and communicating information about them.

Finally, Shipman claims that by domesticating animals, humans used them as "living tools." Evidence shows that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated, suggesting that the first domesticates were not used as food sources. In early societies, animals served many purposes, such as carrying heavy loads, providing raw materials such as wool, producing fertilizer, protecting people, hunting game, and transporting goods. By using their accumulated knowledge and understanding of animals, humans were able to transform other species into "living tools" that enhanced their own fitness.

According to the author, each of these three uniquely "human" qualities—learning to make and use stone tools, engaging in symbolic behavior, and domesticating other species— illustrates the adaptive advantages conferred to humans by having a deep understanding of animals.

However, the paper is not without its shortcomings. Shipman discusses the divide between animals and humans as if the differences were a dichotomy, rather than a spectrum. For instance, chimpanzees are extremely adept at making and using tools, and some ant species can be said to domesticate fungi; however, Shipman has drawn a firm line between the abilities of humans and those of other animals without sufficient time spent justifying it.

Similarly, while Shipman acknowledges that domestication is a "reciprocal" process, she fails to fully flesh out the consequences of this reciprocity. If domestication is a result of humans' supposedly unique animal connection, yet domestication is reciprocal, it follows that animals also have some innate ability to relate to and understand humans as well. Dogs, for instance, are very skilled at interacting with humans, and this ability has certainly enhanced their fitness and influenced their evolution. However, this line of reasoning goes undiscussed in the article.

Despite these issues, the evidence in the paper is persuasive, strongly suggesting that humans' inclination and ability to understand animals have had major implications for our evolution. It remains to be seen whether or not these four qualities are actually unique to Homo sapiens, but "the animal connection" is a novel and interesting way to consider the implications of the long and intimate history between humans and animals.