I've been struggling with this question for some time now. A member of my family and I recently got into a debate about what is natural and what is unnatural. They are Christian so their opinion was "naturally" a warped one, but it got me thinking nonetheless.
I think that what separates us from other animals is fairly straightforward from a cognitive and technological perspective, but no one, not even the omniscient Google, has been able to give me an answer as to WHY this is the case.
Why are humans more technologically and cognitively advanced than other animals? Why are we the dominant species on this planet? Are we more evolved than other animals? If so, why have we seemed to evolve further (and faster?) than others?
On a less scientific note, do you envision a world where humans de-evolve or stagnate in their evolution allowing a new dominant species to take over?
I think humans may well extinguish themselves and maybe all life as well.
I doubt it. We spend billions yearly trying to get rid of pests and germs, and we only improve their resistances.
Because we developed tool use.
That tool use means we can EAT anything else on this planet that we want.
Thus we are at the top of the food chain, thus we must "be more advanced".
-We're not better, one human alone isn't better, one human without the collective knowledge of teachings and lifetimes and the ability to hunt anything isn't "better" than most of the prey that one human will take down. But we're social beings, and that social ability to have a knowledge "collective" if you will, is what means we can do whatever we want.
-That doesn't make us better. Especially if we just use that knowledge to subjugate the rest of the world and each other.
There are quite a few species that are tool users just like us.
Only our tools are more advanced, and we make tools that make better tools that make better tools that make better tools......
If our tools were taken away now we would be in deep trouble, it takes a long time to make the tools that make the tools that...well you get the point.
Since most things are now developed on computers we would lose the most advanced blueprints and such, we would have to reinvent alot of stuff just to get back to the level we are accustomed to.
Our tools aren't more advanced, they are more efficient. Advanced is such a subjective term, it comes to have no meaning. Efficiency is objectively assessable.
[...] we would have to reinvent alot of stuff just to get back to the level we are accustomed to.
Which is exactly what the middle ages were. Humans temporarily loosing technology. The next decline of humanity will hurt a lot more, because the modern human is so removed from anything natural and uber specialised in our field of knowledge. At least in the middle ages, humans were still connected to nature for their food, for their shelter construction, and the rivers/streams were still generally potable. We have lost our ties to nature. The destruction of the ecosystem is not accomplished by individuals but by groups made up small bits of expertise. Humanity has become more than the sum of its parts. Which is why humanity's 'parts' now have so little value, we are each and everyone one of us but a replenishable resource for the power elite. Individual humans are like the trees of the forest in the eyes of a forestry engineer. Fell one down, another will grow.
We are so screwed if all the people who know how technology works die off.
Then again, we're screwed if people who know how to grow food die off.
Specialization allowed us to focus on one section and expand it, but it also means that if a group of people responsible for something disappear, or revolt, then the rest of society suffers for it.
We're not "advanced", we're complicated. Amiright?
In debates of cataclysms, I used to joke that all I'd need to do is return to live with my mother, she can grow anything, she really knows food. But then I thought... hmmm, what would the world's population of hungry thugs do... they'd enslave my mother for their own benefit. :(
We'd have to run and find a secluded place were no thugs would find us. But it also begs the very fundamental question: In the event of a cataclysm, which is the best strategy, food or muscle. I've come to think that muscle seems the likely winner.
Muscle is the short-term winner, but unless society reboots itself relatively quickly, food is the long-term winner.
Stock up, live underground, wait for the roving gangs of thugs to start to die off because all the bullets have run out(which will happen pretty quickly--I daresay within a few months), and none of them know how to make more, and then things like seeds, and seed vaults will come in handy--there will be plenty of land, but things like crop animals--horses and oxen to pull plows, will be at a premium. Places like China or India where lots of things are still done without machines or with animal labor will fare much better than here.
And yeah, My plan is to go home as well--just because of the lower population densities. The trick would be to make any property you live at look like it's not worth looting or looking at, and then growing food far away from roads in a camouflaged area.
But I do agree, muscle is a winner for any cataclysm, whether society rebuilds or not, it will be what keeps you fed, alive, and safe from some of the major things like rape and theft that will likely happen.
For anyone going "you're crazy", there is a group called "Zombie Squad" that focuses on prep for a zombie apocalypse as a proverbial worse-case scenario. And it doesn't have to be global either, Katrina and other Hurricanes and even the recent events in Egypt, to the Blizzard going on up north, have shown us that emergency preparation is never a bad idea, no matter where you are or what time it is.
It is one reason why I want to take up hiking. Easy to re-purpose gear from a hobby into survival gear.
Technological and cognitive abilities are part of our evolutionary adaptation, just like tigers' claws and deers' antlers are part of theirs.
The 'natural/unnatural' distinction is a purely anthropocentric one. There is no such thing as 'unnatural'. What we are really trying to distinguish is 'man made vs everything else'.
There is no specific trait or behavior that separates us from other organisms. The things which define us as human only differ from other organisms in degree. Some examples include language - other animals have language, we just do it more, technology - other animals use tools, we just do it more, cognition - other animals think, we just do it more...
On your last idea - allowing a new dominant species to take over, this has happened thousands of times in the earth's history, and there is no reason to think it won't happen again. Either some of our own descendants will evolve into a new dominant species, or some completely different species will assume that role. Perhaps cockroaches!
The way that i understand this is that there are several aspects to this including biological change as well as cognitive change and culture. I agree with other people though, we are no more evolved than other animals we simply think because we seem to have an idea similar to the great chain of being. I think Dawkins speaks about this in the greatest show. We evolved bigger brain to body size compared to other animals but in many ways we are "less evolved" other animals.
Biologically, our ancestors seem to have gone through a bottleneck (down to a very small group of genetically related females) in Southern Africa which provided the environmental pressure to continue the trend of larger brains that we see in hominid evolution. This lead to the origins of homo sapiens sapiens.
The other aspect is language. Only humans have language really. Other animals communicate but they do not have an external system of signs as we do. It seems that we needed language for our social structures to function, i think Merlyn Donald speaks about this. This did two things, firstly Vygotsky argues that language is an essential part of thought. We learn language from our parents, speak to ourselves and then internalise this speech as thought. This means that our thinking is necessarily cultural in nature. Language also allows us to teach things to our children.Vygotsky calls these things "cultural tools"and they allow us to be better at acheiving the things we need to do as human beings. This means that we havent needed to rediscover things but rather can know a lot more than animals that have a limited capacity to do this.
So we have a biological advantage which allows us to create and use language systems. These systems give us a way of "thinking" as well as a tool we can use to learn. Easy!!! :-)
Scientists have had difficulty determining why humans and chimps differ so much at a physical and [...] behavioral level but are genetically so similar. [...] "There is still no final answer as to why chimps and humans are different," [...]
That is a very strange things for a scientist to say... consider a Caucasian midget. Phenotypically incredibly different from a Massai, yet the genome is practically identical.
Talented scientists no longer ponder such questions. That sounds like a soundbite from an un-scientifically cultured journalist to me. In science we have known for quite some time that speaking of genes in terms of quantities is quite irrelevant to phenotype, as some genes have huge phenotype impacts and other have none.