In a world that has come so far ahead in evolutionary terms, what is it that makes us, human kind, so different from other animals. It has been said that chimps are our nearest evolutionary cousins, roughly 98 to 99 identical to humans at the genetic level. Any differences are said to come from the transmission of culture and our ability to build societies. Godelier stated that ‘human beings, in contrast to other social animals, do not just live in society; they produce society in order to live.’ In this essay I will be looking to explore cultural and linguistic aspects which seek to differentiate us between other animals.
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Humans seem to encompass a culture which is not seen in any other animal. In Lewis’s lecture (15.10.12), ‘culture’ was referred to as ‘seas of history’ which bind humans together. In D’Andrade’s article of culture and language, he refers to culture as being a ‘social heritage of learning’ which includes a number of things such as beliefs and techniques which are independent of biological processes. For him, there are two sides to culture, one being a physical manifestation and the other side, a mental manifestation. Both sides need to be present in order for culture to be passed on from generation to generation. For this to happen, culture needs to comprise of meaning and be symbolic, culture must be also external in the form of actions and signs (1995:223).
Boesch and Tomasello (1998:602) note that human cultural traditions have had modifications over generations – also known as the ratchet effect. The ratchet effect requires that humans imitate from one another. This is what sets us apart from other animals and is so unique to us. Humans have cumulative cultural evolution, the ability to accumulate over time results in complex tools and languages in modern time (Tomasello et al. 2003:121). The use of tools as ‘technical intelligence’ is an evolutionary advantage which humans have. Washburn (1959) argued that ‘selective pressure resulted in physical changes in the hand’. Over generations, the uses of tools became part of our culture, as humans were required to use ‘precision grip’, the consequence of which changed the human hand. However, it cannot be said that the modifications of the human cultural artefact, such as tools, are the creation of one individual human brain. Modifications over generations were made to aid change and therefore inventions are transmissions of accumulative knowledge, which is a characteristic of all human cultures. (Lewis 2012)
In comparison, animals such as chimpanzees experience ‘slippage’, whereby chimpanzee traditions are often lost as a consequence of drift, inventing constantly and branching. (Lewis 2012). Tomasello et al. have hypothesized that ‘chimpanzee cultural traditions and artefacts do not show the ratchet effect’. This is because the ratchet effect depends of innovations and imitative learning (1993: 603). Even though chimpanzees are ‘innovators’ they lack uniformity and the ‘active teaching’ of such cultures, so culture is lost. Lewis states that the ratchet effect is ruined through ’emulative learning’ (2012). Therefore the transmission of chimpanzee culture can be seen to be as ineffective.
However, it could be deemed that any assumptions made about chimpanzees and their lack of cumulative cultural evolution is problematic. Boesch and Tomasello argue that 30 years is not long enough to make the judgement that chimpanzee practices do not show the ratchet effect. And even if evidence suggests that chimpanzees do show this cumulative cultural evolution, it may be restricted to a small population or to certain cultural traditions (1998:602).
In Tomasello and Rakoczy’s study into human cognition, they explain that the most fundamental cognitive skill, are those that involved the understanding of persons, also known as the ‘theory of mind’ (2003:122). According to the American Psychological Association (APA) ‘theory of mind’ is ‘the ability to imagine or make deductions about the mental states of other individuals’. Humans have an innate capacity to ‘mind-read’, the capability to understand one another is necessary in order for language to progress, complex co-operation in situations such as at school or work requires this ability to mind read, which makes culture possible (Lewis 2012). If humans did not have theory of mind, it would be impossible for society to exist as it does presently, humans heavily rely on this ability everyday unknowingly.
However although this mind-reading attribute is a fundamental skill in humans, Call and Tomasello in answer to Premack and Woodruff, have found that chimpanzees do in fact encompass what is known to man as ‘theory of mind’ (2008:190). They argue that studies of chimpanzees showed that they were able to not only understand human goals (which was the original aim of Premack and Woodruff’s study), but were able to understand human intentions. However it cannot be said that chimpanzee understanding can be compared to that of a fully fledged human. In my opinion, animals such as chimpanzees must acquire the minimum amount of theory of mind for evolutionary reasons within their own animal kingdom. Animals, on a smaller scale, most likely understand thoughts and emotions of others within their species, otherwise relationships between animals would be unheard of.
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Vilensky et al. (1982) state that, ‘the human brain differs from those of other animals’. This is due to humans having a greater capacity for complex language and an innate interest in speaking language. According to Nowak, in his study into the biology of language, ‘Language is the most important evolutionary invention of the last few million years.’ Language allows humans to express their ideas and for the exchange of information. The evolution from animal communication to human language is an adaptation that has been necessary in order for our species to pass on culture and efficiently aids survival (2000:1615).
According to Miller (1981), the ability to speak is the most complex mechanical motion the human body can perform. Speaking requires the synchronisation of various parts of the vocal chord within a few hundredths of a second. Nowak suggests that the reason that primates, our closes living relatives, do not have complex language is due to our ancestral lines. As a consequence of evolution, generations were able to ‘build our language instinct from material that was already present in our ancestor species at that time (2000:1616). Therefore, the ability to form language has been firmly set in our genome and is part of our biology.
Many anthropologists argue that language ability is selected because ‘language increases the potential for cooperation, manipulating other creatures, or dealing with large groups.’ However, it could be argued that if language was selected based on these reasons, then why don’t other animals have the ability to speak. Therefore it must be that the reasons for humans having the ability to speak are unexplainable (Nowak 2002). Language is therefore unique to humans and therefore distinguishes them from other animals.
In conclusion, it has been shown that culture and language is what seems to differentiate humans from other animals. Although animals seem to show evidence of having theory of mind, they cannot express this understanding the way humans can. So it can also be said that humans uniquely acquire theory of mind. However, in many areas it is not possible to see any clear cut answers due to lack of information. The fact that we have not studied chimpanzees or any other animals in their natural environment for long enough, means that it is likely that any comparisons made will be lacking in validity. Looking at humans and other animals comparatively, it seems that it is difficult to clearly differentiate humans from other animals. The overlapping features that we come across shows that although humans may have evolved there are aspects of man that will link them to other animals.
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