Humans And Other Animals: A Voice From Anthropology : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture In considering some "big questions" about the evolution of human behavior, an anthropologist explores how we became the meaning-making primate. The creatures with whom we share our world, she finds, have much to teach us about our past and our present.

Humans And Other Animals: A Voice From Anthropology

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An orangutan sits in its an enclosure in Ragunan zoo in Jakarta on January 27, 2011.
Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

Humans, and almost all the primates with whom we share a recent common ancestor, are intensely social creatures. Evolving over many millions of years to thrive in the collective, we come together naturally in societies, groups, families (families of various configurations, not only nuclear) and, nowadays, in online communities.

It is through the social bonds experienced in these collectives that we most readily forge our cognitive and emotional responses to the world. It's a process beset as much by edgy negotiation and messy dissent as it is by coordinated thinking and harmonious cooperation.

Anthropology asks some big questions about how this state of affairs emerged. How did Homo sapiens come to be the primate for whom social meaning-making is as natural as bipedal striding, technology making and communicating through endlessly inventive words and gestures? In what ways do we overlap with, and in what ways do we diverge from, other primates in this regard, indeed from other animals generally? How has our evolutionary journey been shaped by our interactions with the other animals who share our habitats, and who — in many cases — approach their lives as thinking, feeling beings in their own right?

The author Charles Hogg/Barbara J. King hide caption

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Charles Hogg/Barbara J. King

In a series of guest posts over the coming weeks, I will fling an anthropological voice into the 13.7 blogging mix. I invite you to engage with me as we pick through some of these big ideas.

By way of background, I am a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia; a monkey-and-ape observer who has collected primate data on the Kenyan savannas and in zoos here at home; and a writer of non-fiction science books, most recently Being With Animals.

I'm also an avid consumer of contemporary fiction; half of a cat-rescue team that helps feral and homeless cats in southern Virginia; and a Twitter addict.

The biological anthropology I practice today centers largely on topics that continue to captivate me more than 30 years after I first stumbled onto the field as an undergraduate. The extent of nonhuman primates' ability to reason and to feel is coming more fully to light by the year. For instance, we know now that the nonhuman great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, the gorillas of Africa, the orangutans of Asia — are hotbeds of political intrigue, technology aided problem solving and an all-too-familiar mix of compassion and cruelty.

It's too limiting to think only at the species level, though. Jane Goodall appreciated this fact soon after launching her studies of wild chimpanzees 50 years ago. It's just taken decades to become widely accepted. Individual animals are behaviorally distinct, within as well as across populations. This variation, far from being mere statistical noise, is central to scientific understanding of animal behavior.

The species-level trap is an easy lure. You've heard the claims, maybe, about chimpanzees and bonobos? Chimpanzees are the male-violent, make-war apes, whereas their close cousins the bonobos are female-empowered and sexy-pacific. Don't believe it, at least not in this overly-simple form. Gentle chimpanzees and feisty bonobos exist, as do apes who one day are kind and the next cruel, shaped (as are we humans) by some combination of how they were raised, their day-to-day social encounters and their genetics.

Often defined as the comprehensive study of humankind, anthropology increasingly embraces the natural world. I lean towards what the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn has called "an anthropology of life," an embrace of elephants, bison, monkeys, crows, dogs, frogs and a thousand other species. Or, more precisely, it's an embrace of the intersection of the lives lived by these animals with the lives lived by human animals.

From the ancient days when our hunter-gatherer ancestors first brushed color on cave walls, leaving glorious animal images behind, or when the first village settlers entered into an unspoken contract of domestication with goats and sheep, our lives have been entwined.

Questions about meaning-making in humans and other animals are not just fodder for reflection. They are a practical matter. How can an appreciation for evolved plasticity, the responsiveness of the human brain and body to learning and social change, speak back to overly-biologized theories of human behavior? To cede too much power to ancient genes and brain modules is to miss a key aspect of the human evolutionary story, the impact of evolving cultural forces on our behavior.

How can an understanding of other creatures' lives guide us beyond study of animals to acting for animals? Whether from habitat loss and poaching in the wild or from abuse and exploitation in captivity, animals face unprecedented threats in the 21st century. Science, broadly speaking, presents an exciting counterpoint to these threats. Science is leading a sea change in our thought as we wake up to the intrinsic value of the lives all around us.

I look forward to touching on these issues, and others, as I write for 13.7. A shared foray into meaning-making with those who read (and write) this blog is certain to be a pleasure.