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A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human

by Pat Shipman

Pub Date: June 14th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-07054-5
Publisher: Norton

In an easy, conversational style, American Scientist contributor Shipman (Anthropology/Penn State Univ.; Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari, 2007, etc.) sets forth her theory that our connection with animals is in large measure what makes us human.

The author argues that the urge to care for and connect with other species is a universal human trait and that the animal connection dates from more than 2.6 million years ago when our ancestors began using stone tools to process animal carcasses as food. The use of stone tools not only changed what our ancestors ate but what they needed to know about the behavior of animals around them. Sharing this knowledge about animals was essential to their success as predators, and, writes Shipman, most of the prehistoric art that we can understand depicts medium- or large-sized animals, not landscapes, people, vegetation or insects. The author posits that interacting with animals led not only to the making of tools and to the development of symbolic behavior, including language, but another major advance in human evolution: the domestication of other species. She writes that domestication transformed animals into living tools that enabled humans to expand their abilities and exploit new resources, and that communicating with animals and training them called for a new set of skills that had to be learned, stored and transmitted. Throughout the book are black-and-white photographs of stone and bone tools, art objects and other visual evidence that Shipman presents to back up her theory that the animal connection was instrumental in shaping our species. In the final chapter, she looks at the animal connection in the modern world. Noting that it was what gave humans the vital skills of empathy, understanding and compromise, she concludes that we still have a deep need to be involved with animals and expresses her concern that this need may go unrecognized in an increasingly industrialized world.

Attention animal lovers and science buffs: Although Shipman is an academic, there is no classroom atmosphere here; the writing is refreshingly jargon-free, and the narrative may persuade pet owners to take a fresh look at their charges.