We’re delighted to have Carl Zimmer guest blog for us. Carl writes about science regularly for the New York Times and magazines such as Discover, where he is a contributing editor and columnist. He is the author of seven books, the most recent of which is The Tangled Bank: An Introduction To Evolution.
What is it that makes us humans unique? Is it our capacity to learn language? To cooperate on a vast scale and build civilizations? To make fun of celebrities? To answer all those questions (except maybe the last one), scientists don’t limit their research to our own species. We may be special, but our specialness evolved. If you look at other animals, you can find echoes of our own faculties. Depending on the species, though, you’ll find different faculties.
At this year’s World Science Festival, a session called All Creatures Great And Smart will bring together a group of scientists who look beyond ourselves to understand ourselves. I can only guess what it’s like when these scientists go home to visit their relatives. Here’s what I imagine for one of the panelists, Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke.
Grandma: So now you’re all grown up and call yourself an evolutionary anthropologist. What’s that?
Brian: I study where humans came from, Grandma.
Grandma: So how do you do that?
Hare: I go to Africa and study bonobos.
Hare: Bonobos. They’re like chimpanzees.
Grandma: So we came from bonobos?
Hare: Well, no, they’re alive today. I mean, they’re sort of second cousins.
Grandma: So do they talk like us?
Hare: Well no.
Grandma: Do they make fun of celebrities?
Hare: I don’t…I don’t think so.
Grandma: Well, I just don’t know, then. Is that all you do? Go study bananas?
Hare: No, I also study dogs.
Hare: Yeah, we’re really a lot like dogs when you get down to it.
Grandma: Well, I prefer my cats. Pass the potatoes.
To understand why Hare would cause his hypothetical grandmother so much confusion with his split-personality, let me direct your attention to a couple videos.
First, the dogs. This is a video that Time put together to accompany a feature I wrote last fall about the work of Hare and other researchers. It was filmed at the newly opened Duke Center for Canine Cognition, where pet-owners can let their dogs become part of scientific history (Note: An advertisement precedes the video, hang in there).
Now here’s a video of an experiment Hare and his colleagues ran at a bonobo sanctuary that revealed bonobos doing something remarkable: sharing food with non-relatives.
Hare is interested in the fact that both dogs and bonobos are capable of social acts that their close relatives are not. Dogs can learn the meaning of a gesture–a pointed finger, for example–with great ease. Wolves, their close relatives, do not. Bonobos are willing to share food even with bonobos that they don’t share a lot of genes. Chimpanzees are much more selfish. In both cases, this transformation happened fairly fast, on an evolutionary scale. Bonobos and chimpanzees share a common ancestor that lived about a million years ago. Dogs split off from wolves tens of thousands of years ago.
For Hare, these social shifts hint at what happened to our own species. Aggression and competition gave way to a more mellow attitude. A more agreeable personality opened the opportunity for the evolution of a more sophisticated social cognition. Instead of just understanding what other hominids were looking at, we could get inside their minds and know what they know, and what they don’t. We could learn from each other, and share what we learned with language. Obvious dogs and bonobos don’t have our particular set of social gifts, but by studying them, scientists may be able to reconstruct the first steps to our own.
I don’t know when Hare will figure out the origin of snark, though. But when he does, I’ll let you know.
All Creatures Great And Smart takes place on June 5 at 3:00pm at New York University’s Skirball Center. Visit the World Science Festival website to purchase tickets and learn more about the many other 2010 Festival programs.