Thirty million years ago, humans shared a common ancestor with baboons and chimpanzees. Today baboons and chimpanzees have changed very little relative to the change in humans. But the discovery of DNA and the reading of the genome have revealed that baboons and chimpanzees share with humans a similar genetic profile. The similarity of chimpanzees and humans is 98.4 percent; that is, the difference in the genetic composition of the chimpanzee and a human is just 1.6 percent. Yet the chimpanzees are considered beasts and it is believed that what they do is owing to evolutionary pressures; that is, what they do is genetically determined. But most humans believe that what humans do is done with a free will; that is, free of evolutionary pressures, and that they are not beasts but some select species endowed by God with a soul.
Edward O. Wilson, a sociobiologist, from his studies has premised that evolutionary pressures, that is, genetic determinism, have given shape to social behavior in animals as best to enhance species’ reproductive success. No one doubts that his premise is the determining factor in the motivation of baboons and chimpanzees but there is widespread doubt that the acts of humans are determined by evolutionary pressures. Why the doubt, since humans are such close relatives of baboons and chimpanzees?
Those who are opposed to Wilson’s belief that humans are incapable of rising above and extricating themselves from their biological origin are dubbed by Wilson exceptionalists. They believe that through intelligence and culture, humans have escaped evolutionary pressures and are thus not subject to genetic determinism.
A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at BirkbeckCollege, University of London, in an article in the New York Review of Books challenges the exceptionalists: “Yet historical and cultural factors can themselves be seen as evolutionary adaptations. In place of thick fur and big teeth, humans evolved a high degree of self-reflective intelligence, which allows many possible strategies for dealing with the environment. Even if the fundamental drive is our genes’ imperative to maximize the number of our copies in succeeding generations, and even if in all creatures other than humans the result is a relatively inflexible repertory of strategies—chimpanzees do not write piano concertos or design dresses as part of theirs—it does not follow that creative variety of human capacities cannot ultimately be explained by evolutionary pressures.”
That is, that culture and high intelligence can themselves be the result of evolutionary pressures; and human are no freer to extricate themselves from genetic determinism than the baboon and the chimpanzee. Further, the notion that humans, who are the descendants of a common ancestor of baboons and chimpanzees, have an eternal soul breathed into them by a god is implausible and highly unlikely. The chimps may believe erroneously the same of their species.
Jane Goodall studied the chimpanzees in their home place and she wrote books in which she described chimpanzees using tools to provide food for themselves. She also discovered that the animals cooperated in hunts and took part in organized warfare. She described the central importance of close and lifelong bonds between chimp mothers and their offspring and the grief experienced by young chimpanzees when their mothers died and that of older chimpanzees when siblings or long-standing comrades died. She humanized the beasts.
Charles Darwin detected the human in beasts long before Goodall: “Nevertheless the difference in the mind of man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, &c., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient; or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.”
Anyone who has owned a dog or cat or has lived close to nature and observed domesticated and wild animals has discerned evidence of the evolution of all life from a common ancestor. One learns to be wary of a protective mother with offspring. And one observes incidences of mother love, of communal protection and animal emotions similar to human emotions. The fake display of a broken wing by the killdeer to protect her nest is an example.
Humans live in a world of myths and illusions. Most religions are based on supernatural myths and allegedly divine revelations. Human illusions run from a flat earth, an earth and human-centered universe to the illusion of a soul, a hereafter and free-will. Science has destroyed some of them and undermined the others. But free-will is an illusion that will die hard, if ever. It is so much the basis of social culture and religious belief that to forsake it for evolutionary determinism would turn society upside down.
Yet, it is becoming clearer as science progresses that humans are subject to evolutionary pressures and are in fact no more free of them than are the chimpanzees and baboons. Humans have built the cities and have therein created a toxic environment alien to that in which they evolved but one that is more harmonious with their myopic image of an Eden on earth. And also one that strengthens their belief in anthropocentrism and free will.
But the exceptionalists probably are wrong. It is probable that even if humans exist in the culture and environment they created for a million years, they will still be subject fundamentally to the evolutionary pressures that have over multi-millions of years fashioned them and shaped the baboons and the chimpanzees, their relations.
When one contemplates the ultimate deleterious effects on the biosphere and on humans and all other life of a thousand more years of the expansion of the exceptionalists’ alien and toxic environment, one cannot but sense that humans should reconsider their evolutionary heritage, to acknowledge that they are powerless to emancipate themselves from it and concede that life on earth depends upon such an acknowledgement and the requisite policies to implement it. Otherwise, it may be that the chimpanzees will still be here when mankind is long gone.