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Cracker Barrel: Reconsideration

We've heard it all before. From infancy we've been taught that members of our species, Homo sapiens, are the cleverest creatures in the cosmos, endowed with any number of unique and marvelous abilities.

We've heard it all before. From infancy we've been taught that members of our species, Homo sapiens, are the cleverest creatures in the cosmos, endowed with any number of unique and marvelous abilities.

"Only humans can learn to use tools."

"Only humans are self-aware."

"What sets us aside from the other animals is our ability to use language."

"We're the only species capable of looking ahead."

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Or Mark Twain's famous claim that "Man is the only animal that blushes - or needs to."

The list goes on and on and changes as the years go by. Far-seeing folks now stare with fear and fascination at the prospect of Artificial Intelligence taking over many of the tasks we used to think defined us, and even the everyday experience of dealing with computers frustrates plenty of us.

The mess we humans have made of the environment doesn't add to our sense of self-confidence. In short, we're at a point of re-evaluation - and two recent books may help us with the task.

The first, "Beyond Words," is written by Carl Safina, a marine conservationist and professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island. Dr. Safina accepts as a given that animals other than humans are capable of thought and emotion, and deplores our insistence on treating them as somehow less important than ourselves.

Throughout the book, he draws the reader close to his subjects, explaining their habits and family structures, and then details the ways our culture is destroying their way of life.

For elephants, that means ivory poaching. For timber wolves, the threat of hunters and trappers. For killer whales, everything from overfishing to underwater military explosions to the continued practice of capturing young whales for use in aquarium shows.

By helping us understand the many behaviors we share with other creatures, Safina makes us confront the flaws in our own thinking.

"Only humans have human minds," he writes. "But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons."

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A second recent work dealing with the same questions is Frans de Wall's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" Like Safina, de Wall dismisses many of the historical claims for human exceptionalism, suggesting instead that many of the erroneous conclusions we've reached have stemmed from flawed observation or poor test designs, and that it is only recently that humans have begun to understand the full extent of animal capabilities.

Thanks in part to the advances made in brain science and the decoding of DNA, we have come to see that a huge part of what makes us recognizably human also makes other creatures what they are.

Mother Nature uses and reuses the same solutions to design hundreds of different life forms. We share the same basic layout with countless others: a spinal column with two upper appendages and two lower ones; a "command center" at the top of the column containing a brain and various sensory organs; a pump in the chest to circulate blood, etc., etc.

The good news here is the growing awareness of the fact that we are not alone, and that somehow, despite eons of unkind behavior toward other life forms, they have in the main not chosen to return our violence and mistreatment with that of their own.

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com

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