We do think of us as a special type of animal. So much so that when we say ‘animals’, we subconsciously exclude ourselves. Perhaps so does every species within its community. There is a difference though. We humans do not witness around us, mythological worlds aside, any species superior to us. So yes, in that sense we deserve to be called special. But are we really exceptional or merely the most evolved of the animals?
We have achieved a lot mainly because of our collective intelligence. Throughout human history, we have extended the extremes of our perception – to the far away stars and to the tiniest subatomic particles. That’s not the point though. The question that is bothering me at the moment is how we differ biologically from other animals in a significant way.
Not sure if we discovered fire first, but we are definitely the only ones who cook our food before consuming. In metabolic terms, we use external energy to initiate the breaking down of raw food outside of the body. For other animals, the process starts inside the body when their teeth commence the chewing operation. That surely gives us a huge advantage over them as we get more energy for less.
The other unique feature, unique among land animals anyway, is the fact that our females have a substantially long life post-menopause. For most animals, the main purpose of adult life seems to be giving birth to and raising offspring. Not for humans. The other species who share this trait are the ocean creatures killer whales and short-finned pilot whales.
It may appear so to the uninitiated, but we cannot lay claim to our exclusivity of cognition and social behaviour. It doesn’t take much to notice social behaviours in everyday animals. As regards cognition in animals, we humans often take one of the two extreme views: outright rejection and over-interpretation. Animals do have cognitive capabilities of acquiring, storing, retrieving and processing information to a level of complexity they can handle.
So what sets us humans apart from the other great ape lineages or even the Neanderthals? Why are we so successful? According to philosopher Kim Sterelny, humans evolved as a result of positive feedback loops because of ‘cooperative foraging’. In brief, it’s the simultaneous evolution of cognitive capacities of individuals, maintenance across generations of cultural information and cumulative innovation, niche construction and information-guided foraging – all feeding into each other.
Biologists Richard Wrangham, Suzana Herculano-Houzel and Karina Fonseca-Azevedo however think that invention of cooking played a big role in the evolution of human brain to its present size.