by Thomas Padfield, Lecturer of Biology.
I was recently discussing evolution with a friend of mine in a pub. He studies neuroscience and prescribes to the commonly held view that humanity is the most superior and successful species found on our planet. To me this seems to be a rather outdated and perhaps creationist viewpoint, and it surprised me from a student of one of our leading science institutions. But how can we measure success? Longevity, living in balance, language, consciousness? How do humans stack up? In this blog I will attempt to answer some of these questions and look at a few interesting comparisons with our supposedly inferior relatives.
Idea of animal consciousness has produced much debate, not surprisingly as we can’t communicate with animals directly about their experiences. However, the old held view that animals have no awareness of self has been tested in many species. The most well known of which is the mirror test in which a mark is placed on an animal’s head and if it responds to the mark when placed in front of the mirror it is said to be self aware, this has been shown in dolphins and elephants to name a few.
Language is another trait often used to separate us from our relatives however is much evidence of animals using languages, Vervet monkeys and been shown to have a range of different calls for different predators. On hearing the call, monkeys in the group will respond differently such as running up a tree for a leopard or descending for an eagle.
One of the most obvious measures of success is perhaps how long a species can withstand the test of time and in terms of evolutionary history humans are a mere flash in the pan. The fossil records first described what could be seen as modern humans at around 200,000 years ago in Ethiopia. Many large complex organisms have been around for much longer and have dealt with great challenges in that time, modern sea turtles arose around 110 million years ago and their ancestors with a hard shell arose around 260 million years ago in the late Permian Period. Older still is the horseshoe crab which comes in at around 450 million years ago. Clearly if humans want the crown of most successful species they have a long way to go.
Living in balance is perhaps one trait where no examples need to be given and as humanity grows it unsustainable use of the planets resources cannot go on forever. We crave ever dwindling wilderness and whilst technology makes our lives easier, the fossil record tells us the simplest organisms last the longest.