Christian Long

Robert Sapolsky: The Uniqueness of Human

In TED Talks on May 22, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Reflection by DARCY S.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Robert Sapolsky: The Uniqueness of Human

Poor animals- in the modern game of life, they are given no voice, virtually no respect and no credit to the scientific movements they have played fundamental roles in and their contribution to our circle of life. Now we just shove cows in tiny metal pens and feed them steroids just to have their unfortunately unfulfilled and pathetic lives taken away. It seems as if team Human has scorched and burned the playing field in its boastful dominance, leaving behind no promise of a rematch. Of course, every now and then some idiot gets eaten by a shark or pinned to a wall by an angry bull that they angered and we are reminded that our team is only as strong as our weakest or dumbest player. After these self-inflicted tragedies occur, however, we just blame those gosh-darn vicious barbaric animals and stick our noses up in the air a little bit higher (then we go kill more bulls for sweet, sweet revenge.) Despite all this, we still have established ourselves as the best, the untouchable, the incomparable dream team of the animal kingdom, forgetting how un-special we truly are.

If you assumed that humans are far superior than other species because our genetic codes are far more intricate and advanced, you’re wrong. To use Sapolsky’s word, our genetic makeup is not much uniqueier than that of a fruit fly’s. We are also not unique in the ways of ovulation synchronization; this propensity is seen throughout women, cows, hamsters, llamas, you name it.

So humans and other mammals are primarily made up of the same factors: same elements of the periodic table, relatively same genes same functional organs, but what really makes us special, unique and unprecedented is the “novel us[age]” of what we’re made of.

When it comes to aggression towards our own species, there is nothing equaling that of the human in the animal kingdom. To use Sapolky’s example, there is nothing equal to our ability to sit behind a computer in a dark government room and drop bombs on foreign parts of the world, which utterly annihilate the setting. Then, the ability to go home, cheer on your son’s soccer game and cook a healthy dinner for your family is unparalleled. The impact that this routine can have on a person’s sanity is too unparalleled. So we get a trophy for being the most graphically homicidal and content with it, whether it’s a trophy to be proud of is the true debate.

However, other animals do kill their own species out of aggression. Some species kill their clans’ leader, kill someone’s baby, kill rivals, kill out of jealousy, the list goes on. Sapolsky says that the leading cause of male baboon deaths is the male baboon. We are also not the only species that kill in an organized manor. There are groups of chimps that go on patrol of their clan’s territory and will kill any trespasser. So there are genocides in the animal world (minus humans) so in this way we are not unique, we simply do it to a larger decree or effect. Unfortunately for you team Human fans, there is another way in which those barbaric animals level the playing field.

Let’s say a dominantly ranked chimpanzee and a lower-cast chimpanzee are placed behind two screens of glass with a room in between. A screen is placed inside the room, and can be opaque or transparent. If the screen is opaque, and a banana is placed in front of the screen facing the lower ranking chimp, the little chimp uses theory of mind to decide if he should grab the banana. In this case, once they are both released into the room, he does. This is because he knows that the dominant male did not see the banana and therefore would not be angered if he thought that some peasant chimp took a banana that was rightfully his. However, when the screen is transparent, the lower-ranking chimp will not take the banana. Either way, if the screen were transparent the dominant chimpanzee would always take the banana.

This demonstrates the chimpanzee’s ability to use theory of mind. This is a talent we, and other species of animal, have for evaluating other people’s thoughts and judging our actions accordingly. Rest assured, we do trump the chimps in that we can apply secondary theory of mind in that we can tell what people are thinking about what people are thinking. No other species could follow A Midsummer Night’s Dream like we could. Team Animal 2, team Human 1.

The Golden Rule is also one way in which we are evenly matched; we aren’t the only ones who abide by it. Two specimens can cooperate harmoniously until one betrays another, and then the betrayed seeks revenge of an equal degree upon the other. This is seen commonly through vampire bats. Those little suckers are cold when it comes to equality, yet benevolent as well.

Vampire bats don’t just go out to suck blood for their own bat baby, they share it with an entire group of bat babies. If in anyway one mother bat isn’t pulling her fair share in blood for the other babies, vengeance is sought out. All the other bat mommies stop feeding the unfair bat mommy’s baby, and soon that mother goes out and has to accommodate for the baby’s loss of food and stops feeding the other babies all together.

Empathy is yet another way in which the animal world has equaled us. When a big brute chimp maliciously attacks an innocent little chimpanzee, bystander chimpanzees often seek out the victim and socially comfort him by grooming his fur. This shows outrageous proof that other species in general have the ability to empathize just like we do when we read sad stories like Chinese Cinderella. We do 1-up other species when it comes to empathy, though; we can take empathy to a new intensity. Our immediate response to the ASPCA commercial is proof of our ability to empathize the tortured animals.

Other animals and humans are alike, yet again, in the way we manage rewards. With varying chances of receiving a reward, our anticipation and diligent work efficiency get higher and higher until we receive it. Also, we are not the only species of animal that passes down culture from generation to generation. Sapolsky says that there are 27 regional varying types of cultural differences in chimp populations that are passed on and taught as tradition. Tools that are applicable in different topographic locations are passed on, and the art of making them, habits are sometimes cultural between baboons, and class structure and enforcement is highly varying in different clans of animals. Our only topper on this topic is the complexity of our world cultures that other species of animal would “wither in envy” at.

The only domain of behavior of humans in which there is absolutely no equivalent is when the less possible something can be, the more will we have to make it be. This is not as vast a domain as culture or sophistication of the brain, but it is a fundamental component of human nature that is not equaled in the wild kingdom. Sapolsky uses an anecdote that involves a nun’s will to change the criminals held in death row at a prison to explain this phenomenon. The nun concluded that the more it had to be done, the more she tried to do it, the verb in this case being save from damnation or metamorphose the lives that needed to be purged of sin. This behavior is unexplainable and unprecedented.

So in this game of superiority, we can easily call ourselves the best of the best and claim that that is the end of the game; we have electricity and sit-coms and Vanna White so we win. We may have cooler stuff, but we can’t forget that we are animals still. The dream team is comprised of the same basic genetic material that makes up koalas and leeches. Although we may not be challenged to a rematch any time soon, the smarter animals will watch with smug looks as the New Yorkers drown in the Atlantic Ocean. Then, when we bring ourselves to our demise, we will shamefully relinquish our crown as ultimate animal species as all the fish begin sizing up their new real estate.


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