The Human Story by Robin Dunbar<br/>So You Think You're Human by Felipe Fern&Atilde;&iexcl;ndez-Armesto

Turf war on the planet of the apes
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The Independent Culture


One of the besetting sins of middle-aged intellectuals is to confuse personal grumpiness with a profound insight into the state of the world. There is a taste in some quarters for jeremiads, which is perhaps why much of what is argued in So You Think You're Human is sloppy and self-indulgent. As a historian, Felipe Fernández-Armesto would not regard under-documented anecdotes about a linguistically-gifted parrot as unequivocal evidence of intelligence among all birds. As a cynical essayist, swallowing this chatty pet whole enables him to pour scorn on the whole project of humanism. We are nothing special, he argues; anything we can do, members of the animal kingdom can do. It is not necessary that they do them better. The mere fact that blue tits learn to take the tops off milk bottles means we have no superior claims, other perhaps than those religion deigns to give us.

In Millennium, Fernández-Armesto carefully spun his claim that there was nothing special about European civilisation by removing from consideration German music, Italian art, English literature and French philosophy, while being sure to remember every crime European imperialism committed. In this book, he omits those things all over again - precisely because they are what no animal has ever duplicated - and asserts that the most successful human civilisations are those which never alter across time. This is only true if you regard the point of human existence as being not to change.

In his discussion of how little humanity is unique, Fernández-Armesto calls in aid the insights of palaeo-anthropologists, among them the excellent Robin Dunbar. Unfortunately, Dunbar's own new book calls into question the conclusions that Fernández-Armesto draws.

It is not surprising that the more closely related to us other creatures are, the more they resemble us. Yet, as Dunbar demonstrates, they fall short in a variety of areas to an extent that becomes one of kind, as well as of degree. Smart apes like bonobos and chimps can work with the idea of fooling someone into acting on a belief that is not true, just about; they cannot think about the effect of that belief on a third person's interaction with a fourth. They cannot, say, empathise with a literary editor's reading of a critic's bitchy account of a historian's misunderstanding of a scientist's explanation of an ape's behaviour. Which is why no apes write for newspapers.

Dunbar distinguishes between the ability of most animals above the level of eating-machines like sharks to communicate, and the complex web of meaning and interaction which is human language. Again, the more closely related to modern humans creatures are, the closer their communication skills resemble ours. But the fact that a carefully taught bonobo can create the occasional compound noun and use it to express grief does not mean that a roomful of chimpanzees is about to compose a Shakespearean sonnet. There are many reasons of morality and taste for preserving these cousins from extinction, but it should be because we value them for themselves, not because they are our hairy siblings.

Fernández-Armesto shares with other disgruntled conservatives a profound suspicion of the implications of science and technology. He wants us to accept that we are just another chimpanzee as a (not entirely logical) argument against creating cyborgs or clones. There are plenty of arguments against copying ourselves, but most have to do with practicality. Clones are sickly, and we can only copy bits of mental processes that we are able to understand.

Dunbar is entirely agnostic about the objective truth of religion, while accepting that both a sense of the numinous and the habit of ritual are determining aspects of humanity. But one of the strangest aspects of Fernández-Armesto's argument is that, while undercutting human particularism in the matter of intentions, he makes constant reference to the ways in which we fall short of morality. On abortion, he makes statements about the sacrosanct humanity of even the earliest stage of the embryo.

Set aside the idea of evolution, progress and development, and you are left with a worrying inability to distinguish the potential from the actual. Both Dunbar and Fernández-Armesto demonstrate - the latter by awful example - how important a contribution Darwin provided to our sense of what it is to be human.

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