Just Another Species of Big Mammal

“It’s obvious that humans are unlike all animals. It is also obvious that we are a species of big mammal down to the minutest detail[…]That contradiction is the most fascinating feature of the human species.” – Jared Diamond

 

The genetic distance separating us from chimps is roughly 1.7%. Let me put this in another way for you to appreciate the significance of that figure. The genetic difference separating humans from chimps is less than the genetic distance between two related species of birds: the red-eyed vireos and the white-eyed vireos. As a matter of fact, humans and chimps share more DNA than do chimps and gorillas (98.3% as opposed to 97.7%). But try referring to someone as an animal and you are most likely to be fed a knuckle-sandwich.

If we were to design an experiment, whereby we would take a human being, strip his clothes off, add a little body hair, reduce his speech to grunts, and throw him into a cage. Chances are that passers-by will offer him a banana.

Yet most people consider worms, elephants, and chimps to belong to the same one category of animals, while humans hold a category of their own.

Why do people cling so tenably to that established unbridgeable gulf between us and other species? Are the differences really that conspicuous?

Let’s try an experiment that is actually feasible this time. If we go about asking people what distinguishes us from animals, chances are we will end up with the following attributes: language, religion, agriculture, aesthetic appreciation, reasoning, technology, etc… Some darker features (which will probably be overlooked by the interviewee) would include drug abuse, genocide, and war.

That seems like a lot for us humans to develop in such a short time (approximately 7 million years since we and chimps parted ways, unless of course, non-Homo sapiens hominids are also being considered animals).

A mere 1.7% difference in DNA couldn’t have been responsible for all of this, at least not from scratch.

You do not colonize every corner of the Earth, invent the internet, and paint the Mona Lisa because of a couple of mutations.

There must have been a pre-cursor to each and every one of these attributes found in the animal kingdom, a pre-cursor that developed, little by little, by evolution. Under the constant inspection and interference of natural selection, undesirable traits would have been carefully filtered out while good ones were preserved, ultimately giving rise to the final and perfect version- that which is mistakenly thought to have spontaneously arisen in humans.

 

 

The following was an introduction to a series of articles I plan to write. Each article will carefully examine the precursors of the aforementioned attributes in the animal kingdom, in the hopes of conveying a clear picture about who we were, who we are now, and how the corresponding transition took place.

 

For my next article, I will attempt to explain the underlying genetic mechanism that drives the whole of evolution, mutation.

Stay tuned.

 

Reference: “The Third Chimpanzee” – Jared Diamond




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14 Comments

  1. Yes, it took millions of years to make something this perfect, and during the entire process one could say that only desirable traits were being somewhat “cherry-picked” by natural selection eventually leading to us…

    Great job & I’ll be looking forward to reading the rest of your series of articles.

  2. Mario

    Wonderfully expressed Karen, we will be looking forward to reading your articles! Word is spreading about your work rapidly, you already have 6 Facebook shares and 1 tweet about it. Clearly people are lusting for more of this! 😉 cheers.

  3. CedarBlood

    Nice work, Really enjoyed reading it and can’t wait for more.
    However
    ” Under the constant inspection and interference of natural selection, undesirable traits would have been carefully filtered out while good ones were preserved, ultimately giving rise to the final and perfect version-…”
    That last sentence Isn’t accurate since this version is neither Final nor perfect in any stretch of the word.
    Not Final: since evolution didn’t stop.
    Not Perfect: I believe doesn’t need any explanation
    Thanks for this article and looking forward for more!
    Cheers!

  4. Well, no one admires pedantry as much as I do, but you have to keep in mind that I am presenting the idea to laypeople. I am trying to simplify and keep away from biological jargon.
    Of course, when I said “final version” I did not mean that it will not be modified in the future, I meant it is the final version that we have ended up with today. So if I had to replace the term, I might say it is the most recent version. There is no telling whether this version will be modified or not in the future, but this is what we have now, and can be said to be- for the lack of another word- final.
    Now, concerning perfection. Again, I did not mean that what we have today is absolute perfection, far from it. However, it is perfect insofar as it is well-suited to its function. Because, I mean, you have to keep in mind that evolution is a trial-and-error process, and the stages that the trait might have went through and proved utterly useless can outnumber the microflora on your skin. But eventually, as the trait started growing more suited to a certain function, it would have become advantageous enough as to persist. Given time, the trait would have started growing even more well-suited to its function, till it finally looked as though it was “made” for that purpose (the whole intelligent design argument).
    Had the other versions of that trait persisted for you to see how ill-suited they were, you’d say that the present trait is relatively perfect (wait for it) … for the job.

    I hope this makes more sense now.
    Cheers!

  5. CedarBlood

    Thanks for the prompt reply and for clarifying your point of view.
    Now not to be pedantic, but if i was explaining something “complex”(and i use that word loosely) to laypeople I would make sure not to give the wrong impression.
    hence : final and perfect version would give a layperson the impression that this “version” is actually final and perfect.
    As for the use of the word final
    The use of this word is wrong in every angle possible, since this “version” is changing as we speak. Our specie is undergoing small mutations and fast contrary to your statement earlier. “There is no telling whether this version will be modified or not in the future, but this is what we have now, and can be said to be- for the lack of another word- final.”
    Evolution didn’t take a break… it’s on going.

    as for Perfect…
    you can’t say our eyes are perfect at seeing… simply because they are not.
    they get the job done, and that’s as far as it goes.
    everything in our body gets the job done..
    Evolution isn’t really trial and error , it just is.
    it doesn’t think, and its not ordered and never linear
    it’s not like evolution thought okay lets try this …opps didn’t work … how about this … mmm not working … maybe this ! YAY! it worked !!!
    that’s not how it works.
    it’s about offspring surviving.
    if offspring with closed eyelids survived better (for the sake of argument) then closed eyelids would be a trait of that specie,it doesn’t make it perfect.
    Evolution is a double edged sword!

    if you are writing for laypeople than keep in mind that laypeople will read this and think “final and perfect!” . they will not understand what you mean.
    they don’t read minds, i have yet to meet such a person.
    hope you take that into account
    Cheers

  6. You could not be more wrong. Where do I begin?

    For the first part, I think I elucidated my choice of words. If you STILL think my ideas are prone to misinterpretation, then I apologize, and I will take that point into consideration henceforth.

    Next, “evolution isn’t really trial and error” ? Really? (Do you mind telling me what your academic background is, by the way? Because a) You used the word “complex” loosely and b) I would like to see if I can use biology jargon with you)
    Of course evolution is trial and error. Mutations are random. What isn’t though, is natural selection. If the mutation isn’t favorable, then it’s out the window, if it is, then it persists.

    Now, about your little soliloquy there, yes, I know evolution isn’t conscious. This is what we call speaking in a teleological sense. This is how most evolutionists tackle the subject.

    Final point: You cannot say “our species is undergoing small mutations and fast”. That is wrong in every sense.
    1) We have an armada of DNA-repair machinery trying to tone this down.
    2) I believe you read the article on mutations, junk DNA is another way to limit this.
    3) If mutations were in fact that, then we wouldn’t be worried about radiation, toxic chemicals, and other DNA-altering factors.

    There is no such thing as “fast” in evolution. Natural selection works on generations, you only live to see 3 (on average). So in your lifetime, evolution can seem to be halted (as far as humans are concerned, of course). You can only “see” evolution in retrospect. Think of it this way: If you place your hand in water that is being heated in such a way that its temperature increases by 0.5 degrees Celsius every minute. Can you tell that the temperature has changed within a given minute? Or does it only “show” after several minutes have passed?

  7. CedarBlood

    Hello again,

    I’m glad you’ve taken my initial point on-board, as this was my only intention.

    As for the side debate, I never said evolution can’t be considered as trial and error. If you want to consider random mutations as trial and the mutations that are ill-suited as error, then fine. I know that my point of view might not concur with the masses, but personally I have a problem with evolution being labelled as trial and error, since a trait doesn’t always have to be in error to be eliminated, plus a trait doesn’t always have to work to remain. An error today is good tomorrow.
    Evolution for me can be divided into two parts: natural selection and desirability for procreation.
    I would love to know what is exactly complex about evolutionary biology. It’s straight forward, logical and clear, to me anyway.

    Quote: (You cannot say “our species is undergoing small mutations and fast”)
    There are many articles and published medical papers about this, but a quick search gave me this article. I hope you enjoy it:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=culture-speeds-up-human-evolution
    It sums up my point perfectly. When I stated “fast”, I meant it in a broader sense.
    I hope you don’t think that I’m picking on you or that I think I’m better in anyway.
    I’m just expressing my point of view.
    Cheers

  8. Hello, I apologize for the delay, I’ve been busy with school lately, but now that I have time to breathe again, here’s my two cents:

    “since a trait doesn’t always have to be in error to be eliminated, plus a trait doesn’t always have to work to remain. An error today is good tomorrow.”

    I don’t know where to start. Your statements are absurd. I wish you’d provide me with some examples that might validate your stance.

    1- A trait DOES have to be in error to be eliminated (pathology aside, of course).
    2- A trait HAS to have an attributable function for it to remain (regardless of whether this function has changed)
    3- An error today is good tomorrow? Maybe under the right circumstances. But weren’t you the one who protested against my previous statement “There is no telling whether this version will be modified or not in the future” ?

    Next, concerning your link out; this is a special case, there is a significant evolutionary pressure here. There are a lot of beautiful experiments on this, specially with bacteria. Under normal conditions, evolution would not take place so fast.

    Finally, I do not think you are picking on me, nor do I think that you think you are better than me. We are having a discussion, after all, that is what the site is about.

    Cheers

  9. CedarBlood

    okay, we have to explain what error means
    error, for me, means it is wrong to have this , and its bad.
    if something is not bad then it’s not an error.

    If you have another explanation to the word error please tell me
    since I can’t carry on with this topic until we clear this out.
    until then

  10. CedarBlood

    Hello, Sorry for being late, I’ve been extremely busy with work.
    Okay, So using your understanding of the word error , which is also mine.
    we can conclude that evolution isn’t 100% trail and error
    since a trait or a feature or an organ doesn’t have to be in error to disappear.
    From the top of my head i can use the human appendix as an example.
    the appendix in its previous form really wasn’t in error, it didn’t pose any threat to the survivals of humans, but via mutations it now has almost no function at all
    it went from an okay organ to an organ that does almost nothing and might even kill.
    almost all Vestigial features where not bad to a specie and they changed or even allowed different species to exist.
    I hope this clears my point of view
    Cheers

  11. Excuse me, how did you go from my definition of error to concluding that evolution isn’t a 100% trial and error? I didn’t even go through the rest of the paragraph to be honest. This “personal view” of yours regarding evolution, it doesn’t work. So I guess we’re at a dead end here.

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