Just Animals


umans have certain traits that, while not necessarily unique to our species, are expressed and combined in us in a very unique way. We reason, communicate using language, craft and use tools, coordinate efforts on large scales, and adapt our environments to ourselves. We’re able to comprehend complex concepts, fathom that other beings also have minds, understand mechanisms, and pass knowledge to future generations using the written word. We are reasoning, talking, writing, tool-crafting, complex-concept-comprehending primates. It’s tempting to look at the things we do better than other animals and conclude that we are wholly different.

But much of our behavior is typical of our closer cousins on the tree of life. Part of the fun of visiting the zoo is witnessing all the human-like behavior in monkeys, meerkats, tigers, goats, and giraffes. Our likeness to other animals is no accident. A trip to the zoo is like attending a family reunion and meeting relatives with one’s same hair, nose, or sense of humor; what fascinates us is the spectacle of heredity.

We are in the great ape family within the Primates order. Our closest cousins are chimpanzees and bonobos, then gorillas, then orangutans. Our more distant cousins are the lesser apes, the gibbons. Further still are the old world monkeys, including baboons and macaques. Even further are the new world monkeys, including spider monkeys, marmosets, and tamarins. Our furthest primate cousins are the prosimians, including tarsiers, lemurs, bushbabies, and aye-ayes.


Gorillas are hulking brunettes who spend their lives on the ground, while orangutans are thinner redheads who prefer swinging in the trees. Despite their cosmetic differences, it’s obvious that these animals are fundamentally similar. Is there any reason why orangutan hearts should beat differently than gorilla hearts? Or why their immune systems should work differently? Or their minds?

Consider this: gorillas are closer to humans on the tree of life than to orangutans!

A huge portion of what we often regard as human must not be unique to us at all: it evolved in ancestors that we have in common with other extant species. Therefore, we can look to other animals to learn about ourselves.

This should be cause for rejoicing, not horror or lamentation. Take a good hard look at tigers, lyre birds, butterflies, eagles, and whales. We’re in good company.

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 Posted by on February 18, 2012
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