Ah, now wimpy little Man begins to really come into his own. Wouldn’t you just know that our ancestors, who didn’t seem to be good at much else compared to the other big beasties, would at least be good at eating?
In fact, they were, and we are. We humans can eat everything from raw plants to long-rotten meat, and just about anything in between. We have versatile dentition that can cut, crush and grind, and an even more versatile digestive tract to go along with it.
Advantage? A darned big one.
We eat roots, seeds, nuts, fruit, bark, leaves, stems and tubers.
We eat birds, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, worms and both the larval and adult forms of insects. (I once told a natural history buff friend that the only type of creature I could think of that people didn’t eat was arachnids, and he promptly told me that the Yanomamo people in Brazil and the Piroa tribesmen of Venezuela include certain large spiders in their diet. Yuck.)
When it comes to edible mammals, we can make a meal out of everything from the skin of its nose to the last kink of its tail.
We eat things from the tops of trees, we eat things we dig up from under the ground. We eat things from the land, we eat things that fly, we eat things from rivers, lakes and oceans. We eat the biggest things – elephants and whales. We eat the smallest things – micro-organisms such as yeasts and molds – in our beer, wine, bread, cheese and yogurt. We eat fungi such as mushrooms.
We can eat things raw. We can eat them cooked. With proper care, we can consume foods from temperatures below freezing to those steaming hot.
Yes there are plenty of plants, a great number of them, that humans can’t eat due to the presence of toxins or indigestible substances. The fact remains that we’re not just omnivores, we’re amazingly gifted omnivores.
When it comes to eating, we’re more versatile than rats – and a helluva lot more voracious. By rights, the human animal should have its own unique designation – rather than “omnivore,” maybe we should be called “megavore” – the animal that consumes anything and everything.
Hands and Arms
Here’s yet another big advantage on Man’s side of the table.
Even if we had few of the other assets named here, human hands and the complex and versatile limbs to which they are attached would still convey an immense competitive advantage.
Hands allow us to tie, tear, twist, throw, push, pound, pinch, pick, rub, roll, choke, squeeze, sew, shake, swing, swim, strike, stroke, dig, drag, drop, weave, wring, bend, break, carry, climb and club. To say nothing of caress and hold.
Hands can be deadly weapons, too. At the age of 27 in 1950, karate master Masutatsu Oyama killed a charging bull with his bare hands. He repeated the stunt 46 more times. (Irreverently, I picture Mas Oyama as a young man forced into the family business, karate, when what he really wanted was to open a chain of meat markets.)
No other animal on the planet can do all these things.
Here’s another biggie – possibly THE biggie. This is the advantage we crow about. The one we’re proud of, the one that separates Us from Them.
Our intelligence is so well known that it would be a waste to belabor the point. With our big human brains we can plan, learn, think, imagine, remember, calculate, communicate and invent. And not only can we benefit from our own experience, even our most primitive tribal brothers can benefit from an accumulation of human experience that spans generations.
Tigers occasionally attack people from behind in India. Locals discovered a surprisingly effective deterrent: simply wear a facelike mask on the back of the head. Hardwired into being an ambush-type predator, most tigers see the face and are undone. Not only are they not well able to alter their hunting plan to include attacking an otherwise defenseless animal which happens to be facing them, they also have trouble learning that the mask is not a face.Being unable to acquire the knowledge in the first place, it goes without saying that they’re not well-equipped to pass that knowledge along to other tigers.
Human intelligence and its application are hugely advanced, beyond anything any other creature can manage.
Gifts in Concert
In evaluating advantages large and small, it’s worth making the point that none of our assets exists in isolation. If we really want to make a fair evaluation of relative advantage, we simply can’t consider any one of our assets all on its own.
Add hands to superior intelligence and you end up with the competitive advantage of tools: snares and fire and blades.
Add binocular vision to hands and you get hand-eye coordination that allows accurate throwing of rocks and sticks. Toss in inventive intelligence and you get bows and arrows and other superbly accurate projectile weapons.
Join naked skin and hands and intelligence and you get the ability to occupy virtually any environment on earth. Thanks to our naked skin and the ability to use our entire surface area for evaporative cooling, for instance, we can remain extremely active even in very hot environments. Thanks to the intelligence and manipulative ability that makes us able to cover that naked skin with ever-thicker furs, we can also live in some of the coldest parts of the world.
Combine endurance and fair night vision with the above and you get a predator that can hunt continuously from the pre-dawn hours, into the heat of the day, to twilight and beyond – in summer, spring, fall or winter – on almost any continent.
Add pretty good eyesight to superior intelligence and you get superb pattern recognition. Couple our binocular color vision with the fact that we’re smart enough to understand the concept of camouflage, and we can see through any animal’s protective (or deceptive) coloration. Citified duffer that I am, I once spotted a bull elk at more than a hundred yards in heavy cover, by picking out the tiny spot of its light-colored rump from the visual confusion of surrounding vegetation.
Our assets combine with each other in ways that would have to be considered more than simply additive. Put them all together or in any combination and you get a very, very large body of advantage. Even if you were being immoderately modest, you’d still have to say that we humans are extremely gifted sonsabitches.
Compared to Man in all his glorious complexity, every other animal on earth is disadvantaged.
In fact, out in the real world, the story set-up of Poor Little Man against Big Terrible Grizzly is so incredibly lame that it’s practically a fairy tale for the mentally handicapped – notwithstanding the full-color painting of the ten-foot-tall-grizzly-in-full-attack-mode on the magazine cover, with every tooth and claw showing.
Place a hypothetical grizzly down at the metaphorical card table with a human opponent and what really happens is that Nature seldom deals the grizzly anything more than a pair of twos; the Man gets a royal flush almost every time.
Lurid hunting magazine covers to the contrary, there is ample reason to believe it is very seldom any different.
Having made this point, it might seem like beating a broken drum to go on. But in fact, a true picture of the advantages of humans over animals is still quite a bit further up the descriptive road.
There are orders of magnitude yet to go.
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