This is the 100th article of the column, a good time to address the commonest question: Why is the column called ‘My Husband and Other Animals?’
‘Notions of Nature’, ‘Under the Sun’, ‘Upfront and Wild’ were some of the other contenders for the title. None of them encapsulated my style of writing and everything I wanted to write about as well as ‘My Husband and Other Animals.’
Most readers who wrote to me thought the title was amusing, while some recognised it was in the tradition of Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals”. Others didn’t get the point, and a few were outraged. One gave me a lecture on my apparent lack of respect for my husband.
Are you discomforted by the thought I consider my husband an animal? We are 96 per cent chimpanzee. I’m being provocative, of course. What I mean is we share 96 per cent of our DNA with chimps. More astonishingly, scientists have discovered almost 500 segments of human DNA that have remained totally unchanged, some of them for 400 million years, about the time our remote ancestor split from fish. We share these ancient fragments with fish, chicken, rats and dogs. Perhaps we are animals in blood and tissue, but outclass them in brain power.
We think we are unique because we have culture. Some animals do too. A herd of moose in central Norway goes up into the higher reaches for winter, while elsewhere, moose head for lowland pastures. Five thousand years ago, the ancestors of the central region herd were hunted in pit traps, and in response, they fled upwards. Although the threat has disappeared, moose of this region continue the culture of spending winters in the high hills where food is scarce.
Is it our use of language? Most animals and birds have a form of language. Some, such as dolphins and whales, have a huge vocabulary. Baby bottlenose dolphins even name themselves. When two strange dolphins meet they exchange names, like we do at conferences and parties. With each passing year, scientists studying animal cognition reveal birds and animals are smarter than we previously thought. And it’s becoming harder to define what it is to be human.
We are a self-aware species, some scientists say. Robins will peck at mirrors viciously, mistaking their reflections for rivals. But elephants, apes, dolphins and magpies groom themselves by looking at the mirror, demonstrating self-awareness. There goes another definition of human.
Is it our ability to empathise? Bonobos empathise. So do rats. But many humans don’t. Sense of humour? Chimps and dogs pant with laughter. Rats chirp when tickled. Does their ability to laugh indicate an innate sense of humour? No answers yet. But I sure wish some humans had a sense of humour.
Art? Seals, ravens, and elephants paint, but we don’t know yet if they intend their creations to be symbolic of the world they see. Chimps and gorillas indicate what they are painting by sign language so we know they are creating art and having fun doing it.
Are we human because we experience spirituality? The part of our brain that lights up during a spiritual experience is also present in animals. So there is no reason why they may not have similar moments.
After heavy showers, primatologist Jane Goodall reported chimps dance with gay abandon at newly formed waterfalls. Some even go into a trance-like state. Later, one of them may sit on a rock, and stare at the waterfall as if mulling over the nature of water.
In trying to define what it is to be human, we invariably turn our gaze to the animal world. We are, in effect, exploring animal cognition in an effort to understand what makes us human. The more we try to set ourselves above animals, the more they demonstrate they are no different.
Whatever it means to be human, my husband is, first and foremost, an animal. And so are you and I. Don’t agree? Sue me.