photo of victorian gentlemen

A lot like us

Humans tend to see things from a human perspective. Does this distort our view of the world?

It is perhaps inevitable that our views reflect our individual circumstances. We cannot escape our genetic inheritance, our upbringing, our nationality, our cultural and political surroundings – or even our species history.

One of our defining features, however, is our ability to see things from others’ perspectives. We can see other people’s points of view and imagine how they might be feeling. We can adopt ‘neutral’ positions and be objective.

Yet this is easier said than done. Thinking throughout history has been heavily influenced by the idea that humans are ‘special’, and we have tended to see the world only through our own eyes.

In Christianity, Islam and Judaism, for example, we were created in God’s image and have ‘dominion’, or power, over all other animals. In Darwin’s day, evolution was seen as the inevitable march towards perfection – a Victorian gentleman. Hence the illustrations of evolution with humans at the top of an evolutionary tree.

A branching tree

Evolutionary theory challenges that idea. Organisms alive today do not fall into a hierarchy in which some are more ‘primitive’ than others; they are adapted to different niches.

Some are widely distributed, others more narrowly. Some may be less well adapted and dying off, and others may be thriving. Humans do not occupy some special spot on top of the tree of life, but are a short terminal twig on the primate branch coming off a eukaryotic bough. Indeed, evolutionary ‘trees’ now tend not to look much like trees.

Humans have been highly successful at colonising the planet, but so have bacteria. Archaea and bacteria live in places we cannot. It's worth remembering that there are more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells.

The theory of evolution positions us as one species among millions on Earth. Appreciating that point of view might help us make better decisions now that we have such power to influence the planet’s future.

Lead image:

David Flam/Flickr CC BY NC

References

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Topics:
Microbiology, Ecology and environment, History
Issue:
Evolution
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development