In the talk- show style lecture, Zoobiquities, researchers Barbara Natterson -Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers explained the implications of some of their findings and their significance to our understanding of the relationship between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. It was fascinating the similarities often overlooked between humans and other animals. Diseases and behaviors we solely attribute to humans are really not so unique. From the beginning, animals have been afflicted with disease that devastate humans today. Evidence of cancer has been found in the bones of dinosaurs, breast cancer in whales, chlamydia in koalas, syphilis in rabbits, HPV in dolphins. From behavioral perspective, a herd of llamas collectively stare at a newly sheared llama and collectively pull away from it much like humans would react to a naked person.
Further examples of the deeply psychological and biological components of humans that are also shared with animals are ones that cause the animal to participate in self injurious behaviors. Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers compared the compulsive feather plucking behavior of some birds to human cutting. The intoxication of animals is also real; wax wing birds seek out and consume the fermented berries of the pepper tree. This, like drunk driving or intoxication in humans can result in very reckless behavior and impaired judgment; these birds often crash head on into windows and fly into buildings, unfortunately resulting in death. Substance abuse and other self injury are more universal than we normally believe. It seems so anti- evolutionary, so counterintuitive, for an animal to participate in destructive behavior, yet it simply proves we are not so far removed from the rest of the animal kingdom as we like to believe. Enclosure can be a problem for both animals at a zoo and people in prison. In both environments (especially in zoos before they moved toward a more conservation based focus) there are higher rates of self injury. Isolation tends to produce other harmful results, and it is seen that both animals and humans need interaction.
With the explanation of their obesity study, Natterson- Horowitz and Bowers reminded us that a benefit of their research is their ubiquitous approach, taking the focus off of the individual and focusing on trends in a population. If a doctor is dealing with an obese patient, they argue, it may be more helpful to take a step back and instead of analyzing that individual’s diet and exercise, to look at biological mechanisms of a population instead. Their comprehensive look at metabolism in the animal kingdom revealed that animal intestines expand and contract according to various seasons, stress levels, and other biological causes. When the intestines are relaxed, there is more surface area for nutrients to pass through, resulting in a higher metabolic rate; when they are contracted, less surface area constricts (this is found in animals who need to go a long time without food), resulting in reduced metabolism. Certain animals have adapted to use this based on seasons, humans have not. There is also further research with flora microbiota inhabiting the gut; different makeup of bacteria can influence metabolism.
Another interesting point Natterson- Horowitz and Bower brought up was the similar nature of adolescents in humans and other species of animals. They argued that adolescence is not a disease, though it has been pathologized in America, but a vital period for growth and development present in all animal species. In many species, there is some form of predator inspection; the best example of this is the Thompson’s gazelle, which while in the adolescent stage, will creep up to its predator. If it lives to tell the tale, that gazelle becomes stronger and more autonomous. Natterson- Horowitz and Bowers compare this to human adolescence in which teenagers seek culturally acceptable ways such as driving cars to take risks and explore their surroundings to become more independent and experienced. Behavior follows neurobiology and animal adolescents take risks because of an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.
There is no denying Natterson- Horowitz’s claim that “every species in uniquely unique”. If the similarities were universal, and everything was the same from organism to organism, there would be no such thing as a species. The true distinction lies in the difference between animals and humans. If we really are so innately different from the animals, or is this is a distinction based on human imposed institutions of culture and society? The fact that we must always voice the distinction “animal” versus “human” when humans are indeed animals are draws a distinction that may not be as strong as we make it out to be. The similarities between humans and other animals can help us further understand disease, behavior, and assist in the research and understanding of ourselves.