Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Humans Really Are Animals

Joseph Erwin, Ph.D. (University of California, Davis), Independent Consulting Primatologist and Research Professor of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.Email address:

Is there any sense at all in which humans are not animals? All available evidence indicates that humans are (at least biologically speaking) primate mammals that are very similar to the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans). The evidence continues to accumulate of how close is the biological relationship among the humans and great apes. Complete genomes have now been sequenced from humans and great apes that show how remarkably similar we are. The genomic evidence indicates (more than merely “suggests”) that humans are literal biological relatives of the great apes, and that we are most like, and most closely related to chimpanzees and bonobos.

The best available guess is that a common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos lived about six million years ago. The humans and apes, along with other “old world” and “new world” species and prosimians, are primates. More than 300 species currently exists, as well as fossils of many extinct species dating back sixty million or more years. The earliest primate fossils resemble those of insectivore mammals whose history goes back much farther.
Why does the biological nature of humans matter? An accurate understanding of who humans are, where we came from, and when, is essential to the development of a valid view of reality. Being able to tell the difference between what is real and what is not matters. How we relate to other members of our own species, other species, and the world at large, depends on being able to discriminate between illusions, fantasies, and facts of reality. Acting responsibly and effectively in the real world demands engagement with physical evidence of truth. Treating others with due consideration (that is, behaving ethically and morally), requires knowledge and understanding.

The wonderful complexity of humans is not the slightest bit diminished by recognizing the ways in which we are not biologically unique. Appreciation of our kinship and connections with other life forms and the environments we share amplifies our understanding of ourselves and our roles and responsibilities in the vast complexity of nature. Being open to consideration of all available evidence, and learning to acquire and evaluate information, is an honest and fulfilling life style. We need not be slaves to superstition and ignorance, regardless of the tradition in which we were reared. Denial of fact is dishonest. It is the truth that will set us free.


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