What's So Special About The Human Animal? Science writer Hannah Holmes has studied everything from the hissing beetles of Madagascar to the spider on her window. She's even studied space dust. Now, she turns her scientific eye to Homo sapiens for her book, The Well-Dressed Ape.
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What's So Special About The Human Animal?

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What's So Special About The Human Animal?

What's So Special About The Human Animal?

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In our unending curiosity about our fellow creatures, we've compiled wrap sheets on every beetle and bird. Open a field guide or a biology textbook and you'll find handy lists that answer the usual questions. A general description - height, weight, plumage - where it lives, diet, mating habits, predators, methods of communications and so on and so forth with one notable exception - Homo sapiens. That's us.

Now, writer Hannah Holmes takes us on that considerable challenge in a new book, "The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself." Later in the program, the hits and misses on today's list of Oscar nominations. But first, we want you to contribute your field observations. What specific trait do you think belongs in every field guide to the human animal? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you could also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. Hannah Holmes joins us now from Portland and the studios of Maine Public Broadcasting Network. And Hannah, nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. HANNAH HOLMES (Author, "The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself"): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you note that where you live in South Portland, there's a family of crows whose territory, about eight blocks, includes everything they need to survive. Sure, they'd like more, but then they'd have to defend it. And that studies of human hunter-gatherer tribes shows that they, too, make fine calculations to balance resources and defense, but that in our culture, we define territory rather differently.

Ms. HOLMES: Well, yeah. In much of the world now, we have specialized who will do which jobs. So, one territory no longer has to meet all your needs for food and shelter and water and, you know, a place to mate and that kind of thing. We've spread those things out all over the place. I got thinking about this in terms of the graveyard at the top of the hill in my neighborhood. In the era when our species evolved, everything had to be done in your territory. If you ventured out of your territory, you very seriously risked getting your head chopped off. We've so decentralized now that our territory spreads, in some cases, thousands and thousands of miles, if you think in terms of where your food comes from. It may come from a territory in Peru, while your shelter is in Maine.

CONAN: And nevertheless, though we still could survive in our modern culture with territory no bigger than a park bench, nevertheless, that sense of territory that we claim identity with expands, in your case, from your yard to the city of Portland to the state of Maine to the United States to North America, even slivers of Western Europe.

Ms. HOLMES: Yeah. We humans, because of our culture, tend to trace our roots. And so, while my legal territory is - that would be the equivalent of what the crows own - is two-tenths of an acre, I have an identity that expands into the territory of Maine. And I feel sort of protective of the state as though it's part of my identity, and I don't want other humans to get in and mess it up.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. HOLMES: And ditto for the entire nation. I have a cultural connection to the entire block of land that we've arbitrarily declared to be our group territory. And so - and it kind of expands outward, and my holdover gets weaker and weaker obviously, but yeah it - it's a sprawling and odd territory and humans even carry some territory with them, most notably and obviously, in our cars, where we get very aggressive if someone tries to invade.

CONAN: And some argue that, in fact this human sense of territoriality is the source of a lot of our problems. You argue rather vociferously that indeed without territoriality we'd have terrible problems.

Ms. HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, look at the pattern of your daily life. You leave your territory in the morning, you go to a different territory where you do your work. And at the end of the day, you go back to your home territory, and you feed yourself and get some sleep, which is essential for all animals. These are very necessary functions and we tend to centralize those in our little personal shelter and territory.

OK, so erase all the territorial boundaries. You go to your place of work in the morning and somebody has already taken the desk that you think of as yours. And so you scamper around and try to find a comparable place where you can earn some resources to get that food that you're going to need at the end of the day for your young. And perhaps you end up working in the broom closet that day. You leave at the end of the day, and it's a mad rush for the suburbs because everybody wants the big mansion with 18 bathrooms, or they want the high-rise with the doorman and an elevator. Nobody wants the eight-story walk up, nobody wants the tenement.

So, there's a huge crush of humanity all trying to crush into these sort of free-form territories. It would be immensely wasteful of our energy as an animal to live this way, and that's why so many animals are territorial. It just cuts down immensely on all the fighting we have to do.

CONAN: We're talking about territoriality, which is, of course, just one aspect, one descriptor of Homo sapiens, with Hannah Holmes, who describes many of them in her new book, "The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself." What characteristic of our species do you think ought to be included in any field guide to Homo sapiens? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. And let's go to Kevin, Kevin with us from Cape May, New Jersey.

KEVIN (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for having my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KEVIN: The book sounds very interesting. My question is on plumage. In most species - (unintelligible) if you notice this, that in most species, plumage seems to be had by the male - the extravagant plumage - you know, sexual selection. Whereas in the human, it's the woman that wears the make-up and the high heels and all the things that, you know, aren't necessarily easy but serve a purpose in the plumage area.

CONAN: What do you think, Hannah?

Ms. HOLMES: Well, two points. One is that our version is very much culturally influenced, and birds don't have to fuss with culture so much. We've decided in our culture that the females shall be the pretty ones, but this is not universally true in the human animal. In some cultures, the sexes really dress quite similarly. And now we're seeing a shift, in fact, to - within our culture wherein the males are actually spending a little more time putting on the pretty plumage. So, we're in the middle of a shift of that cultural sort of display that the humans do for mating.

The other point, though, is that the human fur pattern is probably somewhat related to the plumage of birds, in that it's really kind of a strange little place to have all your fur concentrated on top of your head. Humans have very little of it on the rest of their bodies, but then the male has this big blotch of it on the top of the head and little clumps of it all over the face. There's really not a great explanation for this, especially because in some subgroups of humans there's very little facial hair on the male. The best explanation is that the females prefer certain fur patterns in their males.


Ms. HOLMES: And that human populations have been spread apart long enough that the males have actually evolved different fur patterns in different populations.

CONAN: And let me anticipate - by the way, Kevin, thanks very much for the call. Let me anticipate a zillion emails. Fur? Fur? Isn't it hair?

Ms. HOLMES: Fur and hair and porcupine quills - they're all the same thing. I know, I'm going to get a lot of hate mail over the fur or hair question because I know that poodle owners in particular are passionate about the subject of hair and fur. Nonetheless, it's all the same stuff, and humans have it just the way chimpanzees do. You don't call chimpanzees - you know, you don't refer to the stuff on their backs as hair, and you wouldn't give them a hairdo; it's fur, and you'd give them a furdo.

CONAN: Let's get Peter on the line from San Jose in California.

PETER (Caller): Yes, hi. I can't wait to read this book. I've actually noticed some corrective issues that are very similar to animals. And one of them is the herd mentality, in particularly when it comes to places of worship and things like that. I'm personally - I'm a bit of agnostic, so when I look at a group of people at a place of worship, it's really interesting to me to notice how the behavior seems to resemble a herd.

CONAN: And Peter, we thank you for not mentioning that in the context of the news media but, Hannah Holmes, this would be - come under behavior, no?

Ms. HOLMES: Yes and the animal that we're talking about is an extremely social animal, like the crows again, or like chimpanzees or dolphins or wolves. There are very special rules that apply to social species, and one of the rules is you have to down-regulate the aggression that all animals naturally have. Every individual human deep down inside wants to kill everybody else and have everything for herself. But because we're a social animal, we have to down-regulate that by bonding with our fellow humans. We do this in a billion different ways, but certainly getting together for religious service is one. The human, very commonly and throughout the species, anywhere you find them, humans sing together. It's another social bonding exercise that sort of makes you feel closer and a little less like killing your fellow human.

CONAN: A little less, depending on the quality (Laughing) of their singing. Peter, thanks very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go now to Catherine, Catherine with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

CATHERINE (Caller): Hi.


CATHERINE: I have a theory. I was pumping gas at one of our convenience stores - it's been months ago and that's not important - but I sat there and listened to various different music with these young adult males come in with their - we have pickup trucks here, and they were playing their various kind of ethnic music, and they were all full-tilt amplified. And I was just pondering, and I have come to believe that that's a kind of a combination of mating and marking ritual. I think the use of auditory - you know, you can't escape it. It's like marking my territory as well as a kind of a ritually - I'm here, I'm, you know, to contend with. I'd be a great mate. That's my theory.

Ms. HOLMES: I like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOLMES: I think it does serve a couple of purposes. I think it does also mark territory and proclaim space, and music is often used very aggressively, now that we can amplify it. It's used very aggressively to denote that a space is being claimed. But also, it's quite common, in the human male especially, to draw attention to himself through whatever means is necessary. There was a study recently that a male human is more likely to jaywalk - in other words, cross traffic in a hazardous manner on foot - if females are watching.

CONAN: Really?

CATHERINE: Fascinating.

Ms. HOLMES: Yeah. So, there's really no end to the number of behaviors the human male will undertake in order to get the attention of females, and certainly broadcasting music is a pretty easy one to do.


CONAN: Catherine?


CONAN: Nicely observed.

CATHERINE: Yeah (Laughing). Thanks much.

CONAN: Very. Bye-bye.


CONAN: Hannah Holmes is our guest. Her book is titled "The Well-Dressed Ape." We'll talk more of the traits that make the human animal so unusual in a moment - or make the human animal an animal - and more of your calls, 800-989-8255. You can also use those opposable thumbs to drop us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest is Hannah Holmes, science writer and author of several books that look at nature and the way animals live. Her latest is a field guide to the human animal. It's called "The Well-Dressed Ape." And I want to read a couple of paragraphs about another trait that makes us unique.

(Reading) Unlike my fellow creatures, wrote Hannah Holmes, I'll eat more than is good for me. I am genetically directed to overeat when I can. And while other animals might shelter the same genes that steer them toward high-benefit foods, they don't give up those - they don't give those genes the run of the house. They have other priorities, like being avoided - avoiding being eaten themselves. I, like a domestic dog or a chimp in the zoo, eat without fear of predators.

It is only fear of social condemnation that keeps me from heading out this minute to forage in the chunky fields. And that social condemnation so painful for a social animal to contemplate may itself be losing value. If every one is fat, where is the social risk in over-foraging? Once again, our unusual biology is leading us off the path trodden by all other creatures and into terra incognita.

You can read more from "The Well-Dressed Ape" at our Web site, where Hannah lays out the differences between chipmunks and children. This is your chance to contribute your field observations. What specific trait do you think belongs in every field guide to the human animal? Our phone number is 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation. And let's go now to Vaji(ph), Vaji with us from Palo Alto, California.

VAJI (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

VAJI: So, I want - this call is motivated by the earlier caller who mentioned the herd mentality. And I recalled a show on CSPAN book TV where the author of a book - I can't remember the title - cited a study where they examined deer and the process that the deer used to select a watering hole that they would go to. And the assumption was that the deer would follow the - a process of an alpha male making the choice, but as it turned out, the - as the time got closer and the decision had to be made between the three watering holes that had different distance and time of day, et cetera, and predators along the way - that the decision was finally made based upon the - when the 50th - above 50 percent of the noses that were turned in the herd pointed to a particular water hole - at 50.1 percent, the herd suddenly got up and left. And they used that same analysis on birds and other species. So, I suppose we could add that the - that perhaps we're all democratic. I don't know. I...

CONAN: Are human - are other animals, like humans, democratic, Hannah?

Ms. HOLMES: Well, that's a very tough term. Again, it comes back to the animal's social biology, and the deer isn't a social animal the way a human is, because herd animals are a little bit special. And that goes for flocks of birds, too. They operate by different rules. They really do not care much about each other. They don't have a lot of empathy and the kind of stuff that makes humans a little bit special.

They stick together because, if you're one in 100, your odds of being eaten are one in 100, as opposed to, if you're a solitary deer when your odds of being eaten, if there's a predator around, are pretty much one in one. Humans are a bit different, or we bury our behavior a bit deeper than the flocking and herding animals, who really only band together to - under the hope that someone else will be eaten first.

CONAN: (Laughing) Exactly. All right. Van - Vaji, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. This is an email from Jack in Berkeley, California. I would add to the field guide - approach with caution; often friendly but also prone to unexpected and unprovoked violence.

Ms. HOLMES: Absolutely. People often bemoan the violence of our times, but let me tell you, if you go back to - you don't have to go back far - a few hundred years in Europe, and just look at the - whatever they're called - like the - essentially the actuarial tables, the birth and death records - oh, man, were people murderous.

And that was a fairly quiet time, compared to what we see in some hunter-gatherer societies, where there, you know, aren't courts and policemen and laws and really obvious ways of keeping people in line. The human animal is extremely aggressive when its territoriality and its access to resources are threatened. I've read so many accounts of a human straying out of territory, in a hunter gatherer sort of situation, and being greeted in the neighboring territory by, you know, a spear through the gut.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Jerry, Jerry with us from Washington, North Carolina.

JERRY (Caller): How you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead.

JERRY: I was curious to know your take on, I guess, the killing for sport - on how that is incorporated or how is that reflected in other animals, although I don't really consider us animals, but anyway, I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, Jerry. Thanks.

Ms. HOLMES: I'm presuming that he's talking about, you know, bull fighting...

CONAN: Or just those deer maybe.

Ms. HOLMES: (Laughing) Yeah. Although people do tend to eat the deer, and I would classify that as foraging. But in terms of killing for sport, or even killing deer to eat - this brings up what I find really fascinating about the human. It really looks an awful lot like a domesticated animal in many ways. The human is fairly comparable to a big fat house cat who gets a good meal of fancy feast in the morning and then waddles out the door and kills a robin, not because it's hungry, not because it even has room to eat the robin, but because the instinct remains. The animal has been domesticated to a point, but the instinct remains to forage and to respond to certain cues. So, people still hunt deer, even though there are McDonald's on every corner, perhaps in part because we retain an instinct to forage for food.

CONAN: This from Scott by email - add the ability of the animal to both imagine the future and delude itself that its conclusions might be reasonable.

Ms. HOLMES: Oh, yeah. On the other hand, you can't get any better than the human for imagining the future. This is a - well, it's just an unbelievably extraordinary ability that this animal has evolved. The closest relative to the human is, of course, the chimpanzee or the orangutan. And can these animals - I don't know, they hunt down a bush baby and chew it to pieces, rip it limb from limb and swallow it. Do we imagine for a second that when they catch the last one, they go, oh, crap, that was the last one. I kind of wish we hadn't done that.

I don't think so. It's a singular ability of the human, not only to see the pattern of its behavior in the past, but to forecast that pattern into the future to say, do we want it? Do we not? And to collectively say, let's change our behavior to get a different outcome in the future. And we do that in a way that actually engages that sense of morality and altruism that evolved to help us get along with each other. We actually apply those precious abilities to other species.

CONAN: Yet, you also raise interesting question about our relationship with our predators. By eliminating so many of our predators, which we would think, as a species, this is a good thing. Nobody wants to die of a disease or fall under the fangs of a saber-toothed tiger. Nevertheless, by eliminating them, we have changed the ecosystem in unpredictable ways.

Ms. HOLMES: One of the most beautiful examples of what happens when you wipe out giant animals is when people pushed elephants off the African savannah - for whatever reason - pushed them off a part of savannah. The acacia trees marched in at lightning speed and no longer savannah, so no longer grazing areas, no longer grazing animals - zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, all those things.

The big animals make a big impact on their ecosystem, and the humans came into new areas as we migrated around the globe in the last 50,000 years. Each place we arrived, we wiped out the big dangerous ones because we wanted the place to ourselves, and we wanted the prey animals that those large predators were eating. And in every case, it has radically altered the entire balance of nature there. There's a new balance now, but it's quite different.

CONAN: The example you use is wolves, which we drove away from many areas. They were prime predators on deer. The deer population - well, held down for a while because some of those people didn't go to McDonald's, they hunted deer (Laughing) for a long time. But nevertheless, the explosion of the deer population has also exploded the population of the deer tick, and that has created the danger of Lyme disease as a widespread thing, a disease that has affected many people much worse than all of those wolves ever would've.

Ms. HOLMES: Right. And that gets back to the broader question of who are the predators on the human animal? They use - we used to think of them as the sort of big beastie ones with the giant teeth. Now, we've wiped out or controlled most of those, and we're starting to realize that really the terrors of the human race are now the itty bitty things that you can only see under a microscope. We only really figured out how to see them within the last few decades and how they work. So, now we're under siege by zillions of species of microscopic organisms, and we live so close together, now that we're not in little bands spread across a landscape, that these little micro-predators are beating in the snot out of us.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Don, Don with us from Detroit.

DON (Caller): Yeah. I was wondering if there are any other animals in the animal kingdom, besides humans, that self-inflict pain on themselves, and it's socially acceptable. And it's actually done over and over again. I'm talking about of course - I'm sure the host has never done this, but drinking until you vomit, smoking - I mean it's proven that it causes cancer, yet people still do it, and it's socially acceptable in social situations.

CONAN: Hannah?

Ms. HOLMES: This comes back to the question of optimal foraging, back to the dietary thing. Optimal foraging describes the balance between leaving the safety of your shelter to find food and exposing yourself to the eagles and the saber-toothed tigers who are going to bite you as you try to find food. The human used to have to pay a price for searching for food. We used to expose ourselves to large predators, not to mention lightning and broken limbs.

The hazards that accompany hunting for food are now gone for most humans. And so, we forage with zero limits. We forage like crazy. The same biology in the brain that causes us to go forward and find food, which is mainly a dopamine reaction in the brain, also drives us to consume high-calorie stuff, like alcohol, fat, sugar, even salt. Our brains are programmed to drive us toward those things, and if there are no obstacles, we will go.

Unfortunately, those things are so freely available now and there's so little cost that we've sort of run past the ability of our brain to manage our behavior. So, the dopamine system actually takes over and turns you into a sugar freak, a fat freak, an alcoholic freak, a nicotine freak - all of these things don't occur in huge amounts in nature, but they occur in vast quantities in civilization.

CONAN: Don, thanks very much. We're talking with Hannah Holmes about her new book, "The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself," and you're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News. Here's an email we have from Shawn(ph) in Reno, Nevada. Does the human animal have more of a preference towards monogamy or not?

Ms. HOLMES: (Laughing) This is a really interesting question. People often talk about the human as mating for life. But they also talk that way about stuff like the snow goose and it's - you know, the Canada goose. It's oh so romantic, they mate for life. The humans are just the same. Isn't it wonderful? You start to look at the birds, and you get a hint that all is not as it seems. Birds, we now know, are just rampant cheaters, and about 80 percent of bird species just cheat like crazy. If you look in the nest and test the DNA of the eggs, you're going to find at least two fathers per nest.

Cheating is a really great biological strategy, because it's wonderful to find a great mate and mix your DNA with that one and have an offspring, but it's even more wonderful the next time around to find a different great mate, and you might come up with an offspring that can handle a more diverse environment. You want a mixture of offspring with a mixture of abilities, so you want to mix up your DNA with more than one mate. That's the biological truth. On - I'm sorry.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Ms. HOLMES: On top of that, we overlay a cultural desire to stay mated for life and to mate with only one other human. Obviously, we struggle with this as species and not (unintelligible) does even attempt it. There has been one survey of human cultures to determine how broad is the adoption of monogamy. And the result was that most cultures condone multiple mates at the same time. That doesn't mean that most people do, it's just that if there are 3,000 cultures in the world and some of them only contain 100 people, the majority of the cultures espouse multiple mates.

CONAN: Let's go to Nicholas, Nicholas from Salt Lake City.

NICHOLAS (Caller): Hi, Neal. It's an honor to be on the program. How are you?

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate the call.

NICHOLAS: I would actually like to say that ironically, humans are the only animals that heat their food. And heating is an interesting thing because it obviously opens up countless culinary possibilities. But it's just ironic - and I guess this is a question for Hannah. What do you think are the encephalization levels of animals who - well, I guess humans who heat their food in comparison to animals who don't and just to have a - throw a quote in here, which I thought was pretty ironic, from P.J. O'Rourke, a frequent panelist on Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me - he says, humans are the only animals that have children on purpose, with the exception of guppies who like to eat theirs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOLMES: Well, humans occasionally do this as well. Infanticide in the human animal is another fascinating subject. But for the moment, the cooking of the human diet freed up a ton of time for this animal. That was perhaps the most amazing benefit that we got from cooking. The chimpanzee spends about eight hours a day chewing, just chewing. All right? That's not picking the leaf, that's chewing the leaf - eight hours. The human cooks food to break down some of the cellular material and make it more accessible to the digestive system. It's much quicker to chew, we get much more nutrients out of the same bite of food, and therefore, our feeding is much more efficient and quick and over with in three minutes. You know, again, to go back to McDonald's, you can consume a day's worth of calories in about five minutes as a human.

The - one of the odd little side effects of this is that the human jaw no longer has to be as massive as the chimpanzee jaw. So, we're getting a much daintier little mandible down there where the chin is. And it's getting so small that there's not room for all the teeth that a chimpanzee has. And humans are having to have their wisdom teeth pulled out with pliers because we cook our food.

CONAN: Nicholas, you've raised - opened Pandora's box with that match you've thrown into the conversation. Appreciate the phone call. And Hannah Holmes, thank you. I don't know where to begin or where to end. This is a fascinating conversation. I appreciate your time today.

Ms. HOLMES: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Hannah Holmes' new book, "The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself." And we thank all of you who phoned in your field observations of this most peculiar animal. Up next, who got the nod and who got snubbed by Oscar this morning? Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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