From masturbating dolphins to chimps using tools, animals often display behaviours that we’d consider uniquely human. So what makes us unique?
You are an animal, but a very special one. Mostly bald, you’re an ape, descended from apes; your features and actions are carved or winnowed by natural selection. But what a special simian you are. Shakespeare crystallised this thought a good 250 years before Charles Darwin positioned us as a creature at the end of the slightest of twigs on a single, bewildering family tree that encompasses 4bn years, a lot of twists and turns, and 1 billion species.
“What a piece of work is a man!” marvels Hamlet. “How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! … In action how like an angel! / In apprehension how like a god! … The paragon of animals!” Hamlet then ponders the paradox at the heart of humankind: what is this quintessence of dust? We are special, but we are also merely matter. We are animals, yet we behave like gods. Darwin riffed on Hamlet in 1871 in his second masterpiece, The Descent of Man, declaring that we have “god-like intellect”, yet we cannot deny that man – and woman – carries the “indelible stamp of his lowly origin”. This is the central question in understanding our place in the scheme of evolution.