Science & Physics

Humans are not unique

We humans are adept at many things, most of which is as a result of our brains, rather than braun, or any physical adaptation. So what really sets humans apart from the rest of our evolutionary counterparts? Almost nothing, it would seem…

We humans are adept at many things, most of which is as a result of our brains, rather than braun, or any physical adaptation. So what really sets humans apart from the rest of our evolutionary counterparts? Almost nothing, it would seem…

Some will say music, art, our ability to speak and communicate, while some might cite our grasp of mathematical concepts, or even our dexterity. What remains, as those faculties we might hope to use as key differentiators are often so imbued in the ambiguous and vague scientific realms of esoteric research as to be mostly immeasurable and contentious to the point of being practicably meaningless.


Of all our traits and talents, some amongst us would hold that the arts, along with the sciences are the pinnacle of human creativity, and both distinctly and uniquely human qualities.

So imagine an elephant that can paint. Preposterous, some might think. Nothing but crude daubs of paint, some might imagine. Thankfully, we are given more than just childish slaps of colour, more even than some adults are capable of.

Yes, these elephants have been trained. But then so was Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Do we choose to discount their inimitable talents because they were under the tutelage of others? Of course we don’t.


Altruism is a prized quality, probably more prized than even the ability to create great works of art. The reason for altruism’s lofty position in our perceptions is that some attribute it to a god-given trait unique only to humans.

In reality, the origins on altruism are probably so aged and distant in our evolutionary past that this refined quality pre-dates the recent origins of all religions by many hundreds of millennia.

Examples of altruism abound, such as the leopard that saved a baby baboon after killing its mother.

This perceived predisposition to help others, even other species, in times of crisis is something I believe is instinctive to all mammals. Perhaps it’s mother nature’s attempt to overcome the shortcomings of her failed reptilian lineage, cut short millions of years ago; if all mammals pull together then at least one species might succeed.

For years, stories had emerged of dolphins saving swimmers from shark attacks, but now we know such exploits are for real. Helping another is one thing, but putting ones self in harms way is something entirely different, yet it would appear dolphins are renown for such things. They’ve even been known to kill sharks during such attacks.


Amongst our closest ancestors, the chimpanzees are probably the most physically adept of all great apes. The notion of chimps hunting with spears is highly evocative, conjuring up images of our early selves, in some distant past, yet such things have been observed.

However, their skills don’t just end there; chimpanzee’s have also long been observed using thin twigs to tease ants out of dead wood.

But these abilities aren’t restricted to the great apes; Capuchin monkeys use rocks and stones to break open hard nuts to get at their softer inner kernels. This in itself might not seem an unusual talent, were it not for the fact that in addition to using rocks to break the nuts, they also favour exposed areas of ground, such as layers of stone, and even giving special merit to small recesses or depressions in these surfaces, so to place the nuts, helping to keep them in place.

Even birds are known to use twigs in the same way, such as the Woodpecker finch of the Galapagos Islands.

The sheer ingenuity of the common crow, however, is on another level entirely, probably deserving of an article in its own right. Based on patient research, it’s understood that the intelligence of crows matches and maybe even rivals that of some great apes:

“For instance, jays will sit on ant nests, allowing the angry insects to douse them with formic acid, a natural pesticide which helps rid the birds of parasites. Urban-living carrion crows have learned to use road traffic for cracking tough nuts. They do this at traffic light crossings, waiting patiently with human pedestrians for a red light before retrieving their prize.”


While only a select few animals are capable of audible communication, Koko the gorilla is unhindered by her under-developed frontal lobe, and is able to speak in sign language, speaking instead with her hands:

“Koko has a sign language vocabulary of over 1,000 words, which she uses in complex statements and questions. Most of these signs are standard American Sign Language (ASL), but some are either invented or slightly modified by Koko to form what we call Gorilla Sign Langue (GSL), or ‘Gorilla Speak.’ This section will help you become familiar with GSL, and thus to learn to communicate both with Koko and those who know ASL.”

Indeed, it is now understood that gorillas in particular are born with a form of sign language, hard-wired into their brains.

Probably the saddest example is Alex the African Grey parrot, who died at the ripe old age of 31:

“But by using novel methods of teaching, Dr. Pepperberg prompted Alex to learn about 150 words, which he could put into categories, and to count small numbers, as well as colors and shapes.

Alex showed surprising facility. For example, when shown a blue paper triangle, he could tell an experimenter what color the paper was, what shape it was, and — after touching it — what it was made of.”

So in addition Alex’s communication skills, he had more than a modicum of intelligence, too.

Rather than just repeat, parrot-fashion, animals are capable of high order speech, and even if they’re incapable of speaking themselves, they are entirely capable of understanding a wide range or words and sentences.

At the Kewalo Basin Marine Laboratory in Hawaii, research into dolphins unconverted remarkable communication skills:

“Lou Herman and his team … developed a sign language to communicate with the dolphins. Not only do the dolphins understand the meaning of individual words, they also understand the significance of word order in a sentence. (One of their star dolphins, Akeakamai, has learned a vocabulary of more than 60 words and can understand more than 2,000 sentences) … For example, the dolphins generally responded correctly to ‘touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it’. This has the characteristics of true understanding, not rigid training.”


What better demonstration of so-called higher emotions like love than Christian the lion and how he demonstrated his love of his former owners.

We all know that emotions like envy and anger are common amongst animals, but love is different in that it has no obvious value in the wild — such is love! However, mother nature is not in the least wasteful. We now know love is a cohesive force, helping bind mother to offspring and to forge bonds between societal members within a group.

Every single emotion has survival value, no matter how convoluted or misdirected their purposes or goals may be at times.


Again, the crow requires a mention, as their specific tool use is of an order that eclipses chimpanzees, pushing them deeper into the territory of human-like intelligence. Further to their tool use is the crow’s capacity to willfully deceive:

“Swiss zoologist Thomas Bugnyar’s research showing how a raven named Hugin learned to deceive a more dominant raven named Mugin into looking for cheese morsels in empty containers while Hugin snuck away to raid full containers.”

What if I told you that rather than an animal being trained by a human, that the opposite was true? In anticipation of being rewarded for picking litter out of her pool, Kelly the dolphin has learned to withhold litter, and instead only handing in smaller pieces:

“When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on … She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.”

In similar fashion, a chimpanzee at the Furuvik Zoo in Sweden anticipates being annoyed by visitors, by stock-piling rocks and stones to the throw at them:

“Further, the chimp learned to recognise how and when parts of his concrete enclosure could be pulled apart to fashion further projectiles.”

By all accounts, this behaviour doesn’t happen during the zoo’s off season.

Combining the guile and deception of the crow with their adept tool use, and that of chimps, please welcome the octopus, which by any measure is a total conundrum; a highly intelligent mollusk, the common Atlantic variety of which being observed:

“[Catching] several crabs and return to its rock den to eat them. Afterward it emerged, gathered four stones, propped these at the den entrance and, thus shielded, took a safe siesta. The strategy suggested qualities that weren’t supposed to occur in the lower orders: foresight, planning, perhaps even tool use.”

The problem is, in most instances of animal intelligence, such intellect arises as a result of social interactions and their hierarchical pressures. However, octopi are asocial — they’re not in the least social and they’re also short-lived. So what survival advantage does being so intelligent confer? No one is sure.


Such abilities ask serious questions of ourselves, framed in the context of our fellow animals, forcing us to re-eveluate our own, mostly egomaniacally elevated status.

We can conclude that while many of these qualities are apparently present amongst an amazing variety of animals, we humans have taken art, communication, intelligence and tool use much, much further. But for me, our mastery of these abilities is but a snapshot in time, and this is merely our moment on stage in the theatre of life, with many other players, equally capable of reaching our mastery, waiting in the wings…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

7 replies on “Humans are not unique”

This was a great article. Many times people have said to me, “Man has created machines, and electronics, and televisions, and skyscrapers and airplanes.” to which I answer “and the animals have no need for any of that.”

Maybe the animals have it right. It’s pure arrogance that puts “man” at the top of the food chain, because on equal ground a tiger could kill a man as easily as a virus could. But because we have guns we believe that places us in control.

But we forget our past so quickly, for it is the beauty of nature and the instinct of the animals that helped man evolve. Planes were inspired by birds, and we still today use the term Horsepower. An apple tree inspired the theory of gravity, and so on and so forth.

We take the animal kingdom for granted because of our own arrogance. Set aside those domineering thoughts and look at the animal kingdom with a new sense of respect and you’ll see a whole new world out there.

Thanks Wayne!

Hi Emily!

No, I hadn’t seen those stories. Very intriguing.

The problem I had with this article was keeping it concise. Most of the examples mentioned were plucked from recollection, but then I did some research (to find credible sources) and I quickly realized I’d only scratched the surface.

I’d intended having another category for Society, but I felt that most people were at least familiar with insect eusocialism and matriarchal / patriarchal systems for mammals etc.

“It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.”
— Arthur C. Clarke

Clearly intelligence has survival value. However, I’m guessing what Clarke actually meant was, having a degree in something like astrophysics has little to no survival value in, say, a seething hot jungle, or a wind-swept frozen tundra.

What we see in the animal kingdom is a predisposition amongst certain creatures to adapt rapidly to very unusual environments, which I find amazing.

The reasons to me at least are obvious; rapid adaptation to hostile / new environments means a much higher chance of species survivability.

I firmly believe that our ultimate role will be that of custodians of this Earth and not its masters.

You seem to have a very interesting combination of interests, the natural world and technology! As a transhumanist, I believe the key to the future evolution of our world will involve combining them. Let me recommend to you two very good books concerning the two, Edward Wilson’s “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” and Ray Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.”

Comments are closed.