As we continue to discover abilities in animals that we used to think only humans could possess, some assert that the line between Homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., the only human sub-species still alive on earth according to evolutionary biologists) and the rest of Mammalia begins to blur. But just what is the extent of animal ability? How similar are animals and humans? And what is it that separates us from animals, assuming it is anything at all?
In a lecture titled “Are Humans Just Another Primate?” Dr. Robert Sapolsky explores these ideas. Dr. Sapolsky is a professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University. He is a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. Dr. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals. When watching the lecture, make sure to consider the implications of Sapolsky’s research.
The interesting conclusion that Dr. Sapolsky reaches in this lecture is that the difference between man and animal is both a quantitative and qualitative one. We have an abundance of neurons and an excellent brain to body mass ratio. This simple game of numbers gives us the ability to handle unparalleled levels of complexity in the different forms of metaphor, symbolism, and motivation. It makes us unique from all else in the created order.
Yet, the differences in this view are really one of degree, rather than order. In other words, we are more complicated animals: we are still (and only) animals – we are not a higher order of them, separated by all the other animals by something from “outside of nature” that can be described in metaphysical (i.e., beyond physical) terms. For some, this idea of man as “The Most Evolved Animal” presents a middle ground position.