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Helene Guldberg's Independent blog. The issues raised will be discussed at the next Birmingham Salon on 8 Dec

Are we just another ape?

Dr Helene Guldberg

Are we just another ape?, battle of ideasToday human beings are constantly denigrated. Prominent philosophers, scientists, social scientists, novelists and aristocrats have gone so far as to call for the mass culling – or even elimination – of humans. Orange-prize winning author Lionel Shriver recently wrote ‘if we [were to] disappear, another form of life will take our place – creatures beautiful, not so self-destructive, or simply weird. That’s cheerful news, really’. Sadly, this notion of the human race as a problem is increasingly mainstream.
Today’s misanthropic cultural outlook – one that continually denigrates humans and blurs the differences between humans and other animals – needs to be challenged. The main challenge we face today is to uphold a human-centred morality – one that always considers the interest of humans over and above those of animals.
Since life began several billion years ago, 99.999 percent of all species that have ever existed on Earth have become extinct. Species come and species go. Nature is amazing: it has created all kinds of weird and wonderful species. But it is also brutal: ‘red in tooth and claw’ as the English poet Alfred Tennyson aptly described it. In the largest mass extinction on Earth 250 million years ago – the Permian-Triassic extinction – it is estimated that 90 percent of all species disappeared.
If a species goes extinct it is not a loss in and of itself – other than that it may be a loss to human beings – because no other species would be aware of what has been lost.
If humans were to be wiped out, however, we would lose something quite exceptional: culture and, with that, civilisation. We are the product of evolution like all other animals, but something amazing emerged – possibly around 60,000 years ago – that transformed us. That is, a capacity for cultural transmission.
Some chance mutation or chance mutations must have allowed us to at some point in our past to start learning from each other in a qualitatively new way and, as a result, build upon the achievements of our fellows and previous generations.
It is this unique ability to copy complex actions and strategies (even those that the individual doing the copying would never have been able to come up with on their own), along with unique forms of co-operation and the ability to teach, that allows us to consolidate and build on the achievements of our fellows, rather than continually having to re-invent the wheel in the way other animals have to.
Even our closest living relatives – the great apes – cannot ape, but can only copy actions that they themselves may have been able to invent on their own. They try to reproduce the result of an action without understanding how it was achieved. The fact that it takes chimps up to four years to acquire the necessary skills to select and adequately use tools to crack nuts raises serious questions about their ability to reflect on what their fellow apes are doing and copy the steps involved in cracking nuts. Instead they get there by trial and error.
Human children, on the other hand, even as young as one year of age show great flexibility in how they imitate – being able to focus on the sequence of bodily actions used to achieve an outcome, or on the outcome itself, or, indeed, on the goal or intention of the person they are copying.
It is this ability to learn from others and connect with each other in a uniquely powerful way that sets us apart from all other species. Our accomplishments are the outcome of us being able to put our heads together and achieve so much more than we could ever achieve on our own.
Of course, humans are not perfect – and never will be. But at least we can reflect on our actions, consider how to improve on our successes and learn from our mistakes, make moral choices and do our best to improve not just ourselves but the society in which we live.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Dr Helene Guldberg is the author of Just Another Ape? published by Imprint Academic in September 2010. She spoke at the Battle of Ideas debate Should apes have rights? on Saturday 30 October.


  1. Let’s look at the historic facts of meat consumption:

    It is agreed that we have descended from the distant primate bloodline. It is known that gorillas/chimps are in the order of 95-99% vegan, with the minority of their diet consisting of insects.

    It’s extremely rare for these animals to hunt (televised documentaries to this day tell us this), but it is a known fact that chimps particularly will hunt and consume smaller simean prey, usually by way of establishing territorial dominance, again rarely.
    Okay let us assume purely for arguments sake that Chimps and Gorillas are true Omnivores. This now categorises them in the same way as Bears and other such Omnivore predators.
    How often do you see any of these animals actually eating cooked meat?. Never…..of course not, it would be totally unatural and unrealistic of them to do so. When did you ever see a chimp with a frying pan on it’s back?

    Let’s look at some of the basic human evolution events, historic meat consumption timelines and assumptions:

    The earliest record of the commonly believed ‘missing link’ Neanderthal existence dates to 600,000 years ago, the earliest known time of existence. It was known that Neanderthal roamed the Northern European mountainous regions and the common belief was that he ate meat to survive. Ok perhaps he had omnivore tendancies. Two things we do know, are that he DID NOT COOK his meat and secondly that Neanderthal faced extinction in the ensuing ice age.
    It was only 128,000 years ago that the earliest unequivocal known use of fire by humankind was scientifically discovered/proven.
    It is also common knowledge that the most basic human farming of animals for consumption did not begin until only 10,000 years ago.
    Considering all of the above as well as human physiology it can draw us to a very clear and concise conclusion.

    The conclusion being, is that from the timeline when fire was first used for the cooking and consumption of meat (I would imagine that this meat was only eaten when most vegan foods were scarce) to the modern day mass consumption of meat, circa 100,000 years (when most humans were actually using fire). That the evolutionary model of the human form has by no means in such a short timescale (Physiological evolution takes millions of years) evolved sufficiently to properly absorb cooked meat. Even Einstein realised the error of his ways when he decided to adopt a vegetarian diet, later on in his life….obviously he may not have been aware of the danger posed by butter fats….but then food back then was probably of better quality in general compared to the junk laden trash served at fast food eateries across the world today.

    What do we know about us?.

    The human form consists of all the dominating characteristics of a Herbivore. If we were scaled to the size of a horse, our intestinal tract would stretch to 1.5 times the length. Google Herbivore Vs Human Vs Carnivore and you will see a plethora of tables outlining the stark similarities we share with the majority of Herbivores.
    Ok, I know you meat eaters want to see some cold stats, well here are some for you to digest if you will:

    Quote: Stroke is the single most debilitating illness in the USA (Source Dr.M.Klaper MD)

    143,579 people die each year from Stroke in the USA

    Not impressed?. Me neither…..

    Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the U.S.

    Still not impressed?. Ok then

    Every year, circa 795,000 people suffer a stroke in the U.S, Circa 600,000 of these are first time attacks!!!

    Now I’m impressed and taking notice! I want to see the Michael Klaper video and will search “Klaper Viddler” on Google

    87% are Ischemic Strokes…”narrowing of the arteries in the neck or head”. Source:

    What is Ischemia? Quote:
    “Most commonly caused narrowing of the arteries blockage by cholesterol (fat) deposition aka ‘atherosclerosis’….or animal fat (meat/dairy/LDL) deposition….” Source:

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