Homo Uniquus?

08/14/2006 05:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Here is a quiz question for you: How is the animal species Homo sapiens different to all other animal species. 'Don't tell me' I hear you say, 'I know the answer to that. Is it ...?' Well, no, it probably isn't. Let us run through some of the common answers.

Unique DNA? No, you share a lot of DNA with all the mammals, and considerable amounts with other groups. By the time you get to the great apes your DNA doesn't look very different at all.

The only species that walks upright? No, even penguins do that.

The only species that use its hands? No, plenty of those among the monkeys and even bird species like parrots.

Only species without a tail? No, that's silly.

Only species that uses language? No, essentially all species use sound to communicate, and those communications can be very complex indeed, amounting, clearly, to language in many cases.

Only species with a written language then? Well, that's getting closer, but many animals use signs of various kinds to communicate, and remember that written language is only a few thousand years old in any human society, and many human societies never developed a written language.

Only species with emotions? Nah, spend a few minutes looking at a flock of sheep with me and I can show you love, friendship, fear, grief, hate.

Only species that dreams? Oh, come on, you are not trying, did you never have a dog?

Only species that hates strangers? Nope, that's pretty common in all kinds of animals.

Only species that kills its own kind? Now you are getting closer, but while tempting, particularly given the history of even just the last 5 years, not true. Many animals will turn on and kill a sick member of the flock or herd, mothers will kill other mother's babies, and male fights to the death over females are not restricted to West Side Story.

I can see someone in the back row getting impatient - yes? 'I know, I know, it's to do with death, isn't it, we are the only animals that know about death.'

Mmmm, getting close indeed, but no cigar I'm afraid. Animals, at least including the more complex bird species, and most mammals, certainly know when other group members are dying, respond to deaths, grieve for varying periods, and often seem well aware that they themselves are near death. They probably don't think about it in an abstract way, or anticipate their own inevitable death in some distant future, but death is clearly as much a reality to animals as birth.

OK, enough tormenting, it is to do with death, I think. We are certainly the only species which has many, possibly most, members who believe that being alive, living a life, is of far less importance than being dead. There are humans, believe it or not Huffposters, who seem to believe that faced with a rich and varied life lasting say 70 years which we know is real, you should turn your back on it, sometimes actively by committing suicide in a religious cause, or helping to destroy a civilisation in order to fulfill some prophecy. You will spend your life in ways that have nothing to do with the real nature of human beings, in order to die and then have an imaginary different life. A life, after death, for which there is no evidence except imagination. So I have a real life here, and I discard it in order to gamble on death not being real.

Don't believe me? Think of the British train bomber's taunt 'I love death more than you love life'. And think of the rapturists, eagerly encouraging more and more death and destruction in the Middle East, in the hope that the whole world will commit suicide.

Hmm, no animal except Homo sapiens is that silly, eh? Time religions stopped glorifying death, and we all taught our children to value the only life that is real. Real life. We need fewer theists with a death wish in the world, and more atheists with a life wish.