©2000 Zhan Huan Zhou
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The Great Pursuit
©1999 Zhan Huan Zhou, Fall 1999, Issue 3
What is it that makes us humans any different than the other organisms that roam this ball of dirt? According to classical anthropology, the difference was defined to be the ability to make and use tools. It was thought that Homo sapiens was the only species that used tools. This theory was shattered with research obtained by Jane Goodall.
Goodall spent over thirty years in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania observing chimpanzee behaviour. She observed the chimps used long sticks to poke into anthills. When the sticks were removed, it would be crawling with ants. The chimps would then have the ants for a snack. In essence, they are equivalent to what we call fishing rods. Chimpanzees have also been observed using other tools. But the chimpanzee isn't the only organism observed to use tools. Crows are known to drop rocks on nuts to crack them open. Clearly, toolmaking cannot be used as standard to differentiate us from the animals of the wild.
Other criteria that may seem purely human constructs vanish in the presence anthropological evidence, including warfare, child-rearing, and even sex for pleasure. All of these characteristics have been observed in chimpanzee behaviour. Various other species are also known to exhibit at least one of these behavioural characteristics.
Biologically speaking, the differences are even less distinguishable. There is approximately 98% similarity in chromosome patterns observed in humans, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. One striking difference that may give you relief is that humans have 46 chromosomes, compared to 48 in our ape cousins. However, a keen observation shows that combining two nearby ape chromosomes closely resembles one of the larger human chromosomes. It is quite possible that a mutation caused this fusion of genetic material, resulting in fewer chromosomes in humans.
A very interesting anthropological theory is that of neoteny which literally translates into "holding youth". It points to the fact that humans possess striking resemblance to young chimpanzee. These characteristics include lack of body hair, position of foramen magnum, non-opposable big toe, and period of brain growth. The first point is obvious, humans don't have as much hair as our ape counterparts. The foramen magnum is the hole in the skull that connects to the spine. It is at the bottom of the skull for humans, allowing for our bipedalism. Finally, the brain grows for about 5 years in chimpanzees compared to 10 years in humans. Indeed, could we just be chimpanzees that never really grew up? Wouldn't that really make us lower on the evolutionary ladder rather than higher?
There are some that may argue that the ability to put one of our own on the moon distinguishes us from all other species. The fatal flaw of this argument is attributing 'being human' to milestone achievements. The Romans certainly did not set foot on the moon, but does that make them any less human? Milestones in human history, however, do point to something deeper.
We are actively seeking means of advancing instead of waiting for it to fall out of the sky. We are always looking for something better than what we currently have. Everything in our society is a side effect in our active pursuit of "something better". This applies to toolmaking, writing, landing on the moon, supercomputers, and skyscrapers. The pursuit of something better can be condensed to the single word that shall be called "engineering" and the people that do the pursuing shall be called "engineers". We as engineers apply our knowledge to advance the human race, not to destroy it.
References: Kenneth L. Feder & Michael Alan Park. Human Antiquity. Mayfield Publishing. Mountain View, California. 1997.