Building a Nuclear Reactor, Rolling a Ball of Poop in a Straight Line: What's the Diff?

Readers of my posts know I'm drawn to discoveries which shorten that perceived distance between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animals on Mother Earth. It's not that I don't think we're special; rather, it's that I think all of life is special.

Back those many decades ago when I was in school, biology class curriculum included the "fact" that the yawning gulf between us and the "lesser animals" was evidenced by our two "unique" abilities: use of language and use of tools. Marine mammals were the first group of animals who toppled that theory, at least in the public's mind, followed then by primates who learned to communicate via sign language.

Over the years I've enjoyed reading the scientific journals and reporting here about everything from language (rather than just song and mimicry) in birds to tool-using octopuses. Fresh in, two more and I think two especially interesting examples.

Tool use has actually been more frequently observed among fish, birds and even invertebrates than among non-primate mammals, but added to that short list we now have the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos). According to a report published online a year ago a bear up in Glacier Bay was seen selecting among a number of rocks and finally grabbing one especially well encrusted with barnacles it in his right hand to rub against his face and neck for several minutes. Quoting from the paper, "The stone-rubbing behavior fulfils all commonly accepted criteria for animal tool-use: the bear used freely manipulable objects (barnacle-encrusted rocks) in a complex mechanical interaction (rubbing behavior) to effect a physical change in a target object (in this case, the tool-user itself)." This of course is science-speak for intentionally using some thing for some purpose.

Bears being such massive and amazing animals, this next example may be a bit more humbling for human-centric humans. In a report published earlier this month titled "Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation" the authors demonstrate that "dung beetles exploit the starry sky for orientation, a feat that has to our knowledge never been demonstrated in an insect." Insects navigating by the stars, take that my seventh grade science teacher!

Yes, of course I see a difference between building a nuclear reactor on the one hand and using a barnacle-encrusted rock on the other (paw) just to scratch an itch, just as I see a difference between the mind that maps the universe and that which keeps a ball of poop rolling in a straight line on a star-filled night.

My point is not that we are all the same. My point is that we are not entirely different. And in that commonality, in noting even a remote familial relationship, is a seed for empathy.