I’ve slowly come to accept that humans are not special. Or we are, but no more than any other life form. As much as I like the idea of being a member of a privileged, ‘higher’ species, I just can’t find any clear distinction between us and other animals.
Superficial differences are easy to find: sure we can build cars and write novels and vote in elections, but these are just behaviors we’ve come to engage in; they don’t exactly make us anything different that just a spectacularly intelligent animal.
In school, children are taught in certain terms that animals are a different type of being than people. There’s Old McDonald, and his animals: the pig, the goat, the rooster. Even a five-year old playing with farm animal toys knows that the chicken, cow and horse go inside the little white plastic fence, and Mr and Mrs McDonald belong firmly on the outside.
There are cultural and economic reasons for this imaginary line in the sand, and I won’t get into them here, but it seems clear to me now that all organisms on earth are just different approaches mother nature has taken towards the same end. Life simply insists on living, in whatever way it is able. In all of its forms, from people to dandelions to mosquitoes, life just stubbornly does its thing, whatever that may be.
I like this way of thinking, that every living thing around me, and not just every human around me, is fundamentally the same: each is a refined biological system that sustains itself by using its own methods. Whatever form it takes: a weed, an insect, a mammal, it just wants to continue to live and to reproduce. All life forms share this same peculiar insistence on existing.
I’m often struck by the tenacity of the tiny little yellow-flowered weed that pushes its way through a crack in a concrete sidewalk. Something in it makes it really want to be there, no question about it. All life shares this tenacious spirit.
What is so miraculous is the astounding variety of forms this universal insistence takes. Every plant, animal and fungus has developed its own collection of habitual behaviors and methods for survival, which one could describe as its culture, its way of life. We humans have our ways of going about the tasks of foraging, building shelter, and courting the opposite sex, and so does each other species.
The act of using tools — despite the bombastic, femur-smashing monolith scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey — is not unique to humans or even primates. Some vultures, with one talon planted on a stolen egg, will smash it open with pointed rocks held in their beaks. The woodpecker finch uses twigs to fish for insects in the hollows of trees; they have even been caught on video fashioning a piece of wire into a hook for this purpose. Gorillas use walking sticks and chimpanzees wield clubs sometimes. And then there’s this incredible photo.
No, technology doesn’t make us special either.
Language seems, at first thought, to be a unique human achievement, but then we remember that birds have been singing to each other for millions of years, and monkeys have been taught sign language. Even whales have been found to sport a vocabulary of 35 distinct song tones or so. Their vocalizations are not as sophisticated as us, but perhaps they don’t need to be.
One of the other ways that people have attempted to distinguish their species from other animals is to point out that human beings are the only life forms to produce art, and the innate urge to do so confers some unique, higher status on our kind. While it’s true that spiders can weave intricate webs, oysters produce pearls, and wasps build nests that look like designer lampshades, we know that none of these behaviors are motivated by an appreciation for beauty; they are all acts of utility and not art.
But there is at least one other animal species whose appreciation for art — and talent for creating it — cannot be denied.
There is a family of birds called bowerbirds. The males exhibit a fascinating courtship process: they build a shrine, called a bower, to attract a mate.
The centerpiece of most bowers is an inviting arrangement of stems or twigs, individually positioned by the industrious artist. Some varieties actually build an elevated, thatched roof, supported by pillars, over their bower. Around the twig arrangement, the male will place collections of whatever he thinks a female would find pleasing to the eye. Flowers, acorns, nuts, insect wings and pebbles are common adornments, but bowerbirds will just as often employ shards of glass, twist ties, hair elastics, and other carefully-chosen and color-coordinated human refuse.
The females will often visit the bowers of several of her suitors, and decide which she finds most pleasing. Quite often one particular male proves to be a budding Rodin, and his masterpieces will capture the affections of several females, and some of the less talented males will not have a chance to mate. Life is cruel.
What is particularly impressive about these feathered artists is their dedication to achieving their own unique vision for their personal objet d’art. The bowerbird is patient and meticulous, and will not tolerate a rushed job or an inappropriate substitute. Many birds will spend months gathering just the right objects and adjusting his bower until it meets his lofty standards.
Though bowers often appear to be disordered stockpiles of random objects, researchers have discovered that if they move just one of the hundreds of objects while the artist is away, he will recognize it immediately upon his return and fix it. It’s clear they aren’t just messing around, they really do have genuine artistic visions, even in their little bird brains.
To really impress his date, males will often build a twig-floored walkway of sorts, marking it with colored artifacts, leading up to his gallery in order to present it from the best possible angle. Some subspecies of bowerbird will even paint the walls of the shrine with regurgitated plant juices. How romantic.
Bowerbirds remind me that humans are just one of millions of incarnations of life on this planet. While I’m worrying in my little apartment about getting my writing done or doing my laundry, it lends me some perspective if I can remember that somewhere out there, precisely as I’m tending to my human to-do list, there are beavers taking down trees, ants hustling to feed their queen, rabbits feasting on backyard gardens, and elephants showing their children where the water hole is. And none of these tasks are intrinsically less important than our own human habits and dilemmas.
We can’t help but favor ourselves over other species (all species probably do) but at least we can keep in mind that we’re not really different in any meaningful way. Sure, other species look different, act different, and have different talents. But those differences are all just superficialities when you consider their identical purpose: to survive, to feed ourselves and our offspring, and live our way of life. And if interior design, of all things, is not a value unique to humans, then maybe it’s time to admit we’re just another gorgeous contestant in nature’s incredible pageant.
Any differences are just a matter of style.
Here, watch one of these incredible artists at work: Bowerbirds on BBC with David Attenborough