Nancy Sherer considers...
THE COOPERATIVE APE
Remember that old Christmas legend that animals gain the ability to talk on Christmas Eve? It once was one of the standard magical stories that permeates religion. Although many people remember this fairy tale, it is one more superstition that has been abandoned because of the advance of logic. Although most animals can grunt, moo, cluck, and screech, only one species of animal can talk - and that animal is Homo Sapiens. Our language is an important tool to organize information, exchange abstract ideas, and simply figure out who we are and where we came from. Language allows us to reason our way out from the Twilight Zone of magic and superstition.
Although we can’t talk to the animals, we can learn a lot about ourselves by examining other species. Compare human behavior to cattle, for example. Bulls do not tolerate other bulls. Put two of them together and they fight. Their DNA determines this intolerant behavior which is common to male animals of most species. Even social animals such as wolves, elephants, and our brothers, the chimpanzees, have issues when it comes to restraining anti-social behavior.
Homo Sapiens males differ noticeably from other species on this point. Put two men together who don’t know each other and they will buy each other drinks, tell a few stories, and part as friends. The concept of ‘brotherhood’ is a human genetic trait. Peace on earth. Homo Sapiens males prefer to get along.
Most species that rely on living in groups as a survival advantage have a dominance hierarchy. Chickens’ dominance hierarchy gave name to ‘pecking order.’ They don’t tolerate each other very well, tormenting their inferiors mercilessly. Gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees live in social groups that have a loose knit male hierarchy based on aggressiveness and strength. Great apes understand their place in their social structure, knowing who they can bully and when they must kowtow. The ‘submissive’ gene appears to be favored by evolution in all the species of great apes, but it takes an interesting twist in Homo Sapiens.
While Homo Sapiens males have a hierarchy, dominance is not established by abuse. Abusive behavior in our species is considered abnormal and is punished rather than rewarded. No one is less respected than a bully. Conversely, the most powerful males are referred to in terms of ‘father’ and display dominance by being, you know, fatherly. When Ted Turner gave a billion dollars to the United Nations, he displayed dominance. When Andrew Carnegie wanted to mark his territory, he built libraries. Goodwill toward man.
It would go without saying that feasting is an important part of social interaction, unless you were talking about dogs. Not only do dogs lack table manners, but they are absolutely churlish if expected to share meat. Homo Sapiens not only share meat with family and friends, but are gratified if they can feed strangers and even members of other species.
While dark winter nights are a time for huddling around the Yule log and telling ghost stories, how much more fascinating is the contemplation of a rational world. Instead of the traditional nativity of a demi-god descended from heaven, how much more intriguing is the nativity of our earliest almost-human ancestors. Did Australopithecus, who descended from the trees to walk upright, already have the evolutionary edge that comes from cooperation and melioration? When and why did communication become symbolic instead of reaction to stimuli, and what does it have to do with sharing food?
Religion is about belief in
irrational legends. It does nothing to explain who we are or what we
are capable of accomplishing. Not only are we the only animal that can
talk, we are the only animal that strives for peace on earth, goodwill
to man. That trait is in our genes.
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