Comparing Ourselves to Other Animals
Examples of authors referring to animals in nature for insights into human nature.
Folksonomies: nature evolution enlightenment science naturalism
Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment, but to change it. And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution—not biological, but cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks The Ascent of Man. I use the word ascent with a precise meaning. Man is distinguished from other animals by his imaginative gifts. He makes plans, inventions, new discoveries, by putting different talents together; and his discoveries become more subtle and penetrating, as he learns to combine his talents in more complex and intimate ways. So the great discoveries of different ages and different cultures, in technique, in science, in the arts, express in their progression a richer and more intricate conjunction of human faculties, an ascending trellis of his gifts.
I was swimming in a large indoor pool with Peter. When I threw the pool's rubber ball to Peter (as was natural for me to have done), he dove under the ball as it hit the water and batted it with his snout accurately into my hands. After a few throws and precision returns, Peter's returns became increasingly inaccurate – forcing me to swim first to one side of the pool and then to the other in order to retrieve the ball. Eventually, it became clear that Peter chose not to place the ball within ten feet of me. He had changed the rules of the game.
Peter was performing a psychological experiment on me – to learn to what extreme lengths I would go to continue this pointless game of catch. It was the same kind of psychological testing that Elvar had conducted in our first meeting. Such testing is one clue to the bond that draws dolphins to humans: We are one of the few species that have pretensions of psychological knowledge; therefore, we are one of the few that would permit, however inadvertently, dolphins to perform psychological experiments on us.
Evolution is neither moral nor immoral. It just is, and we make of it what we will. I have tried to show that two things we can make of it are that it’s simple and it’s marvelous. And far from constricting our actions, the study of evolution can liberate our minds. Human beings may be only one small twig on the vast branching tree of evolution, but we’re a very special animal. As natural selection forged our brains, it opened up for us whole new worlds. We have learned how to improve our lives immeasurably over those of our ancestors, who were plagued with disease, discomfort, and a constant search for food. We can fly above the tallest mountains, dive deep below the sea, and even travel to other planets. We make symphonies, poems, and books to fulfill our aesthetic passions and emotional needs. No other species has accomplished anything remotely similar.
But there is something even more wondrous. We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. And we should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.
People who should be there for her and aren't are often given the cold shoulder--her way of informing them that she's miffed at them. Washoe greeted Kat [the caretaker] in just this way when she finally returned to work with the chimps. Kat made her apologies to Washoe, then decided to tell her the truth, signing "MY BABY DIED". Washoe stared at her, then looked down. She finally peered into Kat's eyes again and carefully signed "CRY", touching her cheek and drawing her finger down the path a tear would make on a human. (Chimpanzees don't shed tears.) Kat later remarked that that one sign told her more about Washoe and her mental capabilities than all her longer, grammatically perfect sentences.
... the cooperative forces are biologically the more important and vital. The balance between the cooperative and altruistic tendencies and those which are disoperative and egoistic is relatively close. Under many conditions the cooperative forces lose, In the long run, however, the group centered, more altruistic drives are slightly stronger. ... human altruistic drives are as firmly based on an animal ancestry as is man himself. Our tendencies toward goodness... are as innate as our tendencies toward intelligence; we could do well with more of both.
Now, back to the family cat or dog in labor. By quietly, even sneakily, approaching we observe additional factors involved.
1. The need for darkness and solitude. Bright lights are indeed disturbing. My attempts to take photographs of dogs and cats have been foiled by the indignant laboring mothers retreating to dark secluded place usually physically out of reach of annoying human beings—such as far under the house or barn.
2. The need for quiet becomes obvious. Any loud or unexpected noise disturbs the mother. Again we make the fervent plea to attendants in hospital labor sections to keep raucous noises down to a minimum. One careless, loud-mouthed, clanging nurse can undo hours of prenatal preparation and set the stage for another series of "Cruelty in Maternity Wards" articles, ^ justified examples of human mothers snapping at their disturbers in labor.
3. The need for physical comfort during first-stage labor is made manifest by animals in many ways. On the farm we could predict the imminence of labor when the pregnant cat would be seen c£carefully digging out a hollow place for its body in the warm earth under the barn. It would test out the area by lying in it, then diligently paw aw;way any lump or irregular area until its body fit the cavity in the earth without any disturbing localized pressure. A few years ago our beloved family dog, a French poodle, was pregnant, and the children noticed with delight how several days before the birth occurred the dog dutifully raided the soiled-clothes basket in the basement, selecting articles of soft material, and laboriously dragged them up the steps to her basket in the kitchen. Here she meticulously lined the basket with them, turning around and carefully pawing away any lumps until she was satisfied with the comfortable contour. Wise mother that she was, she was upset by the attention her acts were bringing from the overly interested children and after the household was asleep, cunningly transferred her nest pa< ding to a closet left open in the bathroom. She gave birth to her puppies peacefully and quietly during the night without arousing a soul—much to the disappointment of the children.
Observation of animals, then, points out the need for a comfortable position of the mother's body during labor. For years human mothers —and their doctors!—have been guessing wrong when labor will begin. How does the animal mother having her first pregnancy know in advance to so prepare? I'll leave the answer to that "how" question to the academic doctors—I can't answer it and, as yet, neither can they—but as a clinical doctor may I strongly point out that animals do know! and that this observed fact is not weakened in the least by our human ignorance of how they know. The scientific eye of human learning is just now beginning to look timidly into the function of animal brains and instinctive abilities—and it has a long way to go.
4. The need for physical relaxation. These itemized needs are not mutually exclusive. Relaxation even in animals takes concentration. When this concentration is disrupted (by bright lights, loud noises, uncomfortable positions, presence of strangers) the animal tenses up, and tensing up during uterine contractions produces in animals the same thing it does in human mothers in first-stage labor—pain! Again we academically do not know how, but we jolly well know clinically that it does.
We encourage any human mother not to "believe" a word we state on the concepts we are teaching. We respect intelligent, honest skepticism. Being a man, and therefore destined never to know the actual feelings of labor, I have always, from the first experimental patient years ago to the current one in labor, challenged them to "believe" nothing but to "try" everything proposed, and then tell me if there is a difference. I throw this challenge to the reader: Carefully coach your wife in first-stage labor in the details of relaxation, then ask her to tense her voluntary muscles deliberately (any muscle—it doesn't matter which) during the next uterine contraction and then tell you the effect of such deliberate tensing. Try it and see what she says! No wonder the animal mother will try her best to avoid such disturbances and actually attack even a loved human being if he persists in disturbing her concentration!
Animal mothers are observed to lie absolutely still and physically relaxed during the contraction of their uterine muscles. Like efficient athletes, the muscles not being utilized in the event are completely inactive and relaxed, enabling the energies of the body to be more effectively directed to the one that is being utilized. My friends have laughingly said that I bore people to death by seeing manifestations of natural-childbirth principles in everything and anything. The basketball player going in for a set-up shot at the basket is graceful and lithe—the arm not being used in this one-arm shot is limp and relaxed. The football player getting set to kick the crucial place-kick that may win the game is a picture of deliberate relaxation as he shakes tension from his shoulders and arms to increase the effectiveness of his leg muscles. The mother, whether by instinct or training, who deliberately loosens her other muscles during her uterine muscles' contraction is rewarded by comfort (nature's reward for helping rather than hindering birth) and by effectively producing the desired result (shortening of time required).
5. The need for controlled breathing. Animals breathe in first-stag€ labor in the same fashion as in sleep. Because labor is what the tern implies—^hard work—the breathing is deeper and, as labor progresses more rapid. Here confusion arises as some species of animals do no perspire. Body heat is increased due to the forcefulness of the uterine contractions. In animals with perspiration mechanisms, and this includes the human, cooling is achieved by perspiration. Other animals are observed to break into panting type of breathing, at intervals, which serves as their particular mechanism to cool their body. Most animal particularly if the environment is warm, breathe through open mouths rather than the narrower air passages of the nostrils. This may be related to the need for a greater volume of air or, as some have suggested, th relaxation of the jaw muscles as part of the overall state of generalized relaxation.
6. The need for closed eyes and the appearance of sleep. Again this is probably only a manifestation of the need for absolute and total concentration. It results in the label of the first stage of labor as that the "sleep" stage. Animals return to their sleep place, lie, breathe, and look as if they were asleep during first-stage labor. i he irritation that they manifest at the presence of human beings may be related to their distrust and need for keeping an eye on the intruder even when the human being is inactive. This again interferes with the increased ability to concentrate that comes from shutting out visual stimuli. Closed-eye concentration seems to be a necessary aspect of their job.
So glibly do the phrases 'higher animals' and 'lower animals' trip off our tongues that it comes as a shock to realize that, far from effortlessly slotting into evolutionary thinking as one might suppose, they were - and are - deeply antithetical to it. We think we know that chimpanzees are higher animals and earthworms are lower, we think we've always known what that means, and we think evolution makes it even clearer. But it doesn't. It is by no means clear that it means anything at all. Or if it means anything, it means so many different things as to be misleading, even pernicious.
Mankind is a self-domesticated animal; a mammal; an ape; a social ape; an ape in which the male takes the initiative in courtship and females usually leave the society of their birth; an ape in which men are predators, women herbivorous foragers; an ape in which males are relatively hierarchical, females relatively egalitarian; an ape in which males contribute unusually large amounts of investment in the upbringing of their offspring by provisioning their mates and their children with food, protection, and company; an ape in which monogamous pair bonds are the rule but many males have affairs and occasional males achieve polygamy; an ape in which females mated to low-ranking males often cuckold their husbands in order to gain access to the genes of higher-ranking males; an ape that has been subject to unusually intense mutual sexual selection so that many of the features of the female body (lips, breasts, waists) and the mind of both sexes (songs, competitive ambition. status seeking) are designed for use in competition for mates; an ape that has developed an extraordinary range of new instincts to learn by association, to communicate by speech, and to pass on traditions. But still an ape.
Michael Ghiselin developed this idea further in 1974 and made some telling analogies with economic trends. As Ghiselin put it, "In a saturated economy, it pays to diversify." Ghiselin suggested that most creatures compete with their brothers and sisters, so if everybody is a little different from their brothers and sisters, then more can survive. The fact that your parents thrived doing one thing means that it will probably pay to do something else because the local habitat might well be full already with your parents' friends or relatives doing their thing.
Graham Bell has called this the "tangled bank" theory, after the famous last paragraph of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species: "It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us."
If we were hairless chimpanzees, our society would still Dok fairly familiar in some ways. We would live in families, be very social, hierarchical, group-territorial, and aggressive toward other groups than those we belong to. In other words, we would be family-based, urban, class-conscious, nationalist, and belligerent, which we are. Adult males would spend more time trying to climb the political hierarchy than with their families. But when we turn to sex, things would begin to look very different. For a start, men would take no part at all in rearing the young, not even paying child support; there would be no marriage bonds at all. Most women would mate with most men, though the top male (the president, let us call him) would make sure he had droit du seigneur over ! the most fertile women. Sex would be an intermittent affair, indulged in to spectacular excess during the woman's estrus but totally forgotten by her for years at a time when pregnant or rearing a young child. This estrus would be announced to everybody in sight by her pink and swollen rear end, which would prove irresistibly fascinating to every male who saw it. They would try to monopolize such females for weeks at a time, forcing them to go away on a "consortship" with them; they would not always succeed and would quickly lose interest when the swelling went down. Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles has speculated on how disruptive this would be to society by imagining the effect on the average office of a woman turning up for work one day irresistibly pink.
It is my contention that man is just like an ibis or a swallow or a sparrow in several key respects. He lives in large colonies. Males compete with one another for places in a pecking order. Most males are monogamous. Polygamy is prevented by wives who resent sharing their husbands lest they also share his contributions to child rearing. Even though they could bring up the children unaided, the husband's paycheck is invaluable. But the ban on polygamous marriage does not prevent the males from seeking polygamous matings. Adultery is common. It is most common between high-ranking males and females of all ranks. To prevent it males try to guard their wives, are extremely violent toward their wives' lovers, and copulate with their wives frequently, not just when thev are fertile.
That is the life of the sparrow anthropomorphized. The life of man sparrowmorphized might read like this: The birds live anc 3reed in colonies called tribes or towns. Cocks compete with one another to amass resources and gain status within the colony; it is known as "business" and "politics." Cocks eagerly court hens, who resent sharing their males with other hens, but many cocks, especially senior ones, trade in their hens for younger ones or cuckold other cocks by having sex with their (willing) wives in private.
The point does not lie in the details of the sparrow's life. There are significant differences, including the fact that human beings tend to have a much more uneven distribution of domi¬ nance, power, and resources within the colony. But they still share the principal feature of all colonial birds: monogamy, or at least pair bonds, plus rife adultery rather than polygamy. The noble savage, far from living in contented sexual equanimity, was paranoid about becoming, and intent on making his neighbor into, a cuckold. Little wonder that human sex is first and foremost in all societies a private thing to be indulged in only in secret. The same is not true of bonobos, but it is true of many monogamous birds. One reason the high bastard rates of birds came as such a shock was that few naturalists had ever witnessed an adulterous affair between two birds—they do it in private.
What is remarkable about man is not the size of his brain, no greater than that of a dolphin, nor his loose incomplete development as a social animal, nor even the faculty of speech or his ability to use tools. Man is remarkable because by the combination of all these things he has created an entirely new entity. When socially organized and equipped with technology even as rudimentary as that of a Stone Age tribal group, man has the novel capacity to collect, store, and process information, and then use it to manipulate the environment in a purposeful and anticipatory fashion.
I prefer sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's view of us as unfortunate tribal carnivores that have acquired intelligence. Our evolution is more like that of social insects; the advances in knowledge and understanding that we prize are more a property of the human nests we call civilization than of its individual members. The nest is always more powerful than a collection of individuals. Who dares disturb the hornet's nest? Small bees easily destroy the huge and powerful but solitary Japanese hornet when it invades their nest. They cluster around it in a ball and cook it to death at 50°C. A large brain offers no protection for the sperm whale when attacked by possibly less-intelligent human hunters.