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What Is This Obsession With Us?

19/09/2016 11:21

Many of us enjoy a walk in the woods, a trip to the beach or even a snorkeling holiday. Besides the escape from the digital grind, there is something rejuvenating about getting out in nature, even if it's pouring with rain and icy cold. The contrast between the glorious 'chaos' of nature and our tidy, indoor, temperature controlled existence makes it invigorating. We appreciate the difference.

We don't value an ancient woodland because we think the trees communicate like us, we don't enjoy a stormy wind swept beach because it reminds us of our living room. We appreciate and celebrate the diversity of nature, its challenges and sometimes its serenity, precisely because it reminds us that despite living in a technological age we still actually survive on fresh air and clean water and are inherently dependent on the health of the ecosystems that we inhabit. Wild environments reconnect us to our vitality and mortality.

So, we celebrate the diversity. Why then are we so obsessed with defining the characteristic of other species within the context of our own capabilities? Humans are undoubtedly extraordinary; we successfully inhabit a wide range of habitats, have rich and diverse culture and have developed endless ways of communicating with each other. We are undoubtedly, fantastically adapted for the many niches we inhabit, or, as a very human trait, we have been able to adapt these niches to meet our needs.

But other species have evolved to be fantastically adapted to the niches which they inhabit too, possessing a range of sophisticated and extraordinary capabilities. Take for example flight, exceptional diving capacity, or the amazing sensory adaptation of echolocation, the use of whiskers to detect vibration and the phenomenal adaptation of sharks which enable them to pick up the electrical impulses of their prey through small gel filled pores in their chins - to name just a few.

Now picture a human who could echolocate (there is one actually, and his talent is extraordinary), who could also pick up vibration with his whiskers and electrical impulses through pores in his chin. This extraordinary individual might also be able to dive over three kilometers deep into the abyssal plain of the ocean and hold his breath for over 70 minutes, and them might be able to burst from the surface of the ocean in flight.

As well as being able to read (if not write) the complete works of Shakespeare, this hypothetical uber human, comprising a concoction of sensory and physical capabilities from the natural world, would be remarkable to us in every way. The reason: because they would be similar enough, but also profoundly different from the average human and competent in a range of different niches. This is the stuff of superheroes.

Odd then, that we can appreciate such fictional 'super human' capabilities, but when it comes to appreciating these same awe-inspiring characteristics in other species, we seem less enamored.

This was highlighted by the rapid spread of news about some research that claimed that dolphins have 'human-like language'. The research, on captive dolphins, essentially claims that each of the individual clicks of the dolphins are equivalent to a word and that a series of clicks equates to a sentence. The claim is that because each dolphin remained quiet while the other dolphin was clicking, that they were listening to each other and that this equated to a human like conversation between the two.

Undoubtedly dolphins, many of which are highly social species, communicate with each other in multiple and complex ways. However, another explanation for this research might be that because these poor individuals were stuck in a tank, the reverberations of their echolocation signals might give them a headache (echolocation evolved in the wild, remember), so perhaps they choose not to echo-locate at the same time. Of course it's hard to know, but the evidence is good that dolphins echo locate less in captivity than in the wild and this explanation makes some sense.

This is relevant because in seeking to understand the complex life histories and behavior of other species, the media has a bit of an obsession with trying to figure out how much like us these species are.

Somehow this equates to giving them standing. But this approach misses the remarkable fact of adaptations like echolocation in and of itself. Adaptations don't necessarily have to be like human language to be incredible. There is good evidence that dolphins eavesdrop on each other's echolocation signals. This is different to us eavesdropping a conversation or even looking at the same object as someone else - this type of eavesdropping provides information about the environment in more than just a three dimensional way, it may provide information about the density of objects or other qualities that you can't see from the surface, such as information about heart-rate etc., of prey or of friends, that we can only begin to guess at.

This obsession with the human form and our own evolutionary solutions to nature's challenges is even reflected in our depiction of fictional aliens. Very few of our images of aliens move away from something closely resembling a primate, or at least a mammal. Who is to say this type of morphology would be the best adaptation for alien environments. Might not aliens be shaped more like the humble sea cucumber, or even a virus (more plausible, for various reasons) or even be gaseous entities, devoid of major gravitational limitations?

This may all seem a bit ethereal. But the point is this: flying, diving, echo-locating, detecting the electrical impulses of your prey, picking up vibrations with your whiskers, these are all remarkable and super-human adaptation to the challenges of the natural world. Over millennia, evolution has developed an abundance of different solutions to the challenges of living and species are uniquely and perfectly adapted to the niche which they inhabit.

These are extraordinary and remarkable, whether or not these adaptations are similar to ours or not. In fact, some of these adaptations are all the more remarkable for their uniqueness. In view of the emerging inclusiveness of the 21st century, let's not obsess too much about those characteristics that might seem to make other species similar to us, but let's also appreciate and value the wonders of their differences too.

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