We like to think of ourselves as exceptional beings, but are we really any more special than other animals? Humans are the slightest of twigs on a single family tree that encompasses four billion years, a lot of twists and turns, and a billion species. All of those organisms are rooted in a single origin, with a common code that underwrites our existence. This paradox – that our biology is indistinct from all life, yet we consider ourselves to be special – lies at the heart of who we are. This was also the paradox that lies at the heart of Darwin’s second magnum opus, The Descent of Man.
In this lecture I will explore how many of the things once considered (including by Darwin) to be exclusively human are in fact not: we are not the only species that communicates, makes tools, utilises fire, or has sex for reasons other than to make new versions of ourselves. Evolution has, however, allowed us to develop our culture to a level of complexity that outstrips any other observed in nature, and it is the sharing of ideas that our own evolution has taken us down a path distinct from other species.
Adam Rutherford is a science writer and broadcaster. He studied genetics at University College London, and a PhD on the genetics of the developing eye. He has written and presented many award-winning series and programmes for the BBC, including the flagship weekly BBC Radio 4 programme Inside Science and The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry with Dr Hannah Fry. He is the author of several books about evolution and genetics, including A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, the Book of Humans and the forthcoming How To Argue With a Racist.