browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Measuring species success

Posted by on August 30, 2013

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 To me this seems to be a rather outdated and perhaps creationist viewpoint, and it surprised me from a student of one of our leading science institutions.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.

4 Responses to Measuring species success

  1. Tamias

    Success is subjective, but in response to the “test of time” argument:
    All organisms alive today are the ends of successful evolutionary lines. The bacteria today are not the same as the bacteria of 3 million years ago, just as our 3-million-year-old ancestors are not the same as us. and even if they were, what makes not changing (or at least not enough to be called a new species) any better than changing? (or vice versa?) We’ve all stood the test of time; some species have simply changed much less visibly in that time.

  2. Zahir

    It all depends on how you percieve “success” in the end. As far as I’m concerned, success relies on the intellectual ability of certain species. We are, undoubtedly, the most superior when it comes to that. We may or may not outlive other, much older, species and if we don’t it’s most probably because of our ability to communicate, manipulate and play a nice game of politics but when it comes down to it, we’re the ones out there who are discovering, exploring and inventing new things that open up many new possible outcomes of the entire planet. We don’t merely exist; We hold the power to control the fate and pave our own path for a future of all other living things.

  3. samfearnley

    I totally agree that we shouldn’t consider ourselves the most successful, so many organisms have outlived us for millions of years. I personally think certain species of bacteria are the most successful, since they have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and can be found in almost any environment. If we had to fend for ourselves, we could probably only inhabit certain rainforests… 🙂