What Makes Us Human?

Understanding the evolution of Homo sapiens, and how humans came to be human, has been a fascination for people since Darwin’s time, but it has also proved to be one of the most controversial of the sciences. Humans and Chimpanzees diverged about 7 million years ago and during this time a great deal of anatomical and behavioural changes occurred which now distinguish us from our closest relatives. Despite this, we still share over 99% of our genetic make-up with Chimpanzees; only 1% of our genes truly make us human. What is the manifestation of this 1%? Some of these differences are very clear visually; we are taller and less hairy, with larger brains and an upright, two-legged stance. Other differences are slightly more subtle; we have language, we use tools, we have culture and art enabled by abstract thought, we have a concept of self… but as that list continues, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine whether Chimpanzees, or indeed other animals, also share these qualities. If Chimpanzees can be taught language, then this indicates they have a brain capable of understanding and learning language, and thus, surely they can in some sense be said to have language themselves? Other characteristics are even more difficult to pin down; how do you measure self-awareness? Although there is a long list of traits that most people would consider to be exclusively human, the situation is in fact far less clear cut than that.

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Ants: Civilisation in Minature III

Crime and Punishment

Ant societies are remarkably complex and ants exhibit extremely high levels of cooperation. Workers will often sacrifice their own lives to defend the safety of the nest. However, just like human societies, ant nests are also rife with conflict. Where there is cooperation there will always be individuals who try to take advantage and cheat the system.

The defining characteristic of ant colonies (and social insects in general) is reproductive division of labour, where reproduction is dominated by one or a few individuals, known as queens. In this matriarchal system, reproduction is forbidden for most colony members, and in many ant species worker ants are physically incapable of mating. Despite being unable to mate, due to their unusual genetic system, ant workers can still lay male eggs. This gives them the opportunity to try and cheat the system, and in many ant species workers have been found to illicitly try and lay eggs, when the queen isn’t looking. Such crimes do not go unpunished, however, and in many species the honest workers will punish cheaters, either through physical aggression, or by destroying the illegally laid eggs.

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Ants: Civilisation in Miniature II

They might seem simple and insignificant, but like humans, ants have discovered the benefits, and costs of agriculture. In the ant world there are species which farm livestock, protecting them from predators and milking them for rich nectar, and others which cultivate tiny underground fields of fungus, pruning it and using chemicals to prevent disease and pests.

Crops and Livestock

Humans developed farming around 10,000 years ago, but the ants have been at it much longer. In its simplest form, ant farming consists of simply pruning the surrounding forest. Ants of one species found in the Amazonian rainforest have been found to remove unwanted plant species when they appear in its foraging area. Although simple, this ‘weeding’ behaviour can be devastating, with ants clearing huge sections of forest of any species which is not beneficial to them.

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Ants: Civilisation in Miniature

You might not think you have much in common with the small, six-legged creatures that occasionally break into your home to raid jam jars, but over the next three articles I hope to illuminate some of the parallels between people and ants. Like humans, ants are highly social; building civilisations, utilising sophisticated mechanisms of communication, and nurturing other living creatures in various forms of agriculture. And just like us, their societies are sometimes compromised by cheats and criminals. Ants share many of these traits with other members of the social hymenoptera, which includes most bees and wasps. Few species outside this group have developed cooperation as sophisticated or complex.
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