What separates us from other animals?

19 Apr 2016

Professor Thomas Suddendorf’s Global Leadership Series lecture was presented at Customs House on the 6th of April 2016.

What makes us the peculiar creatures that we are? Why are humans, and not, for instance, baboons, running the zoos? In his sold out GLS presentation, Professor Suddendorf provided a fascinating introduction to what science has recently revealed in answer to these question.

Drawing on his critically acclaimed book, The Gap – The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals, Suddendorf discussed what is unusual about human brains and minds. Describing some of his innovative work with chimpanzees, gibbons and children, he illustrated how comparative psychologists establish mental capacities and limits of other animals.   

Recent research has shown that animals have more sophisticated and diverse mental capacities than is widely assumed. And yet, human minds have created civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while even our closest animal relatives live inconspicuously in their remaining forests. Professor Suddendorf described how we have managed to become the dominant species on the planet through our collective wit.

He also noted that the gap between humans and other creatures has changed over time.

“Chimpanzees and other apes have not always been our closest living relatives," he said.

"Some 50,000 years ago, we still shared this planet with several smart, upright-walking, stone tool-carrying cousins, including Neanderthals, Denisovans and the "Hobbits" of Flores.

"Go back further to around 2 million years ago and there were three distinct genera of hominins (Australopithecus, Homo, and Paranthropus), each likely comprising several species.

"Though there are debates about how many species need to be distinguished, it is clear that for much of our past our ancestors were but one of a group of diverse hominins.

“A gap is defined by both its sides: We appear so different from other animals because all our closest relatives have become extinct.

"And our ancestors may well have contributed to their fate. Humans have been responsible for the demise of many species in recent times and may well have had a hand in the extinctions of Neanderthals and other close relatives.

"The only other primates known to cooperate to directly kill members of their own kind are chimpanzees.

"So cooperative aggression may have ancient roots indeed.

“The reason the current gap between animal and human minds seems so large and so baffling, then, may be because we have destroyed the missing links.

"By displacing and absorbing our hominin cousins, we might have burned the bridges across the gap, only to find ourselves on the other side of the divide, wondering how we got here.

"In this sense, our exceedingly mysterious and unique status on Earth may be largely our own, rather than God's, creation.

“And we could make us even more apparently special, if we were to cause the extinction of our closest remaining animal relatives.

"Let’s face it: we are in the process of doing just that. All the ape species are endangered, and their numbers are declining for essentially one reason: human activity.

"Whether through habitat destruction, bush-meat consumption, or the pet trade, we are causing their demise.

"So apes may eventually join Neanderthals and other hominins as half-forgotten creatures of the past, leaving monkeys, rather than apes, as humans’ closest remaining animal relatives.

"But it is up to us – unlike other animals we can model the long-term impact of our actions and deliberately plot a path toward a desirable future.

"And we can tell others about our options. With great power comes great responsibilities – to paraphrase Spiderman’s uncle Ben.”

Thomas Suddendorf is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of "The Gap: The Science Of What Separates Us From Other Animals”