Darwin Day marked by question: ‘Are humans unique?’

Mark Sheskin, a researcher and lecturer in Cognitive Science at Yale University, speaks Saturday at the 10th annual Darwin Day, held in Darien at The Waterfront at Giovanni’s.

NORWALK, Conn. — Celebrate Darwin Day by thinking about how you can be the best human possible, Mark Sheskin said Saturday.

That ending to Sheskin’s 50 minutes of case-building on why humans are a unique species on the planet, drew applause from more than 200 people in The Waterfront at Giovanni’s, the biggest Darwin Day dinner yet, according to organizer John Levin.

It’s cooperation over generations that distinguishes humans from chimpanzees, said Sheskin, a researcher and lecturer in Cognitive Science at Yale University.

The upbeat evening was marked by science quiz between the appetizer course and the main meal, with tables competing for gag gifts.  A team that included Sheskin, Dr. Peter Libre and Brien McMahon High School students came in first, winning prizes that included rockets and a DVD of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Revelations about Darwin included the news that he liked to eat the animals he was studying. This ended not long after he discovered that he was eating a rare specimen he’d been searching for, a speaker said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) speaks Saturday in Darien.

Science lovers were also visited by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who both said it was reassuring to see so many people supporting science.

“I leave Washington every Friday to come back and restore my sanity because Washington has become a fact-free zone,” Blumenthal said, calling that “enormously frustrating but also frightening” as there was a fight just to maintain science and research funding at its current level.

“The point here is a fact-free national capital is also a dangerous place,” Blumenthal said. “It reinforces to me the profound significance of a nation that has always welcomed science, whose principal guiding core fundamental reason for being the greatest nation in the history of the world, is that we welcome research, ideas, science, facts. I am here to say thank you. to you, to everybody involved in Darwin Day… this event has grown from a handful of people to a movement.”

Sheskin began with a brief historical review of the question at hand, leading to a quote from Charles Dawkins: “If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.”

The winners of the science quiz.

Dawkins and the Bible agree, humans are different from other animals on the Earth, Sheskin remarked, drawing laughter.

“They are on the same side of this, saying yes, humans are unique,” Sheskin said.

Some people say that no species are distinct, therefore humans are not unique, Sheskin said.

“Ring species” is one of the coolest things he’s learned in the last decade, he said, going on to describe species of animals that are similar to other animals near them, but as you get further and further from the original species the differences become so extreme that the original species would not be able to produce offspring with the end result.

Going on with his argument in favor of humans being unique, Sheskin said animals have communications systems but humans need to be flexible with their communications systems. Animals like the Western Scrub Jay may seem very smart, but their genius lies in one task only, he said.

“What really matters is that we are able to use our flexible intelligence for pursuing different things,” Sheskin said, later quoting author Yuval Noah Harari as saying, “ One on one, even 10 on 10, we are embarrassing similar to chimpanzees. significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals. when we reach 1,000 to 2000 individuals, the differences are astounding.”

A boat such as a canoe was developed over generations, Sheskin said, adding his own addendum to Harari’s thought: “And 1,000 generations of this can lead to difference that are difficult to conceive.”

Humans succeed because they cooperate, because they have an instinctive need for fairness, he said, explaining that there are, of course, bad apples, but humans work together to avoid the people who are out to cheat others or be unfair.

Take AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” he said.

Even if the characters got rid of zombies, “It’s not like suddenly they’d be hosting Darwin Day talks,” he said. “Instead, they’d still be struggling for survival, they’d still have almost no technology. They would still have constant warfare between small little tribes struggling to survive. because these things take generations to build.”

Sheskin concluded, “My suggestion for celebrating Darwin Day is by thinking about how you can be the best human possible, which means how can you best work together with other people, to make the world a better place for future generations.”

A crowd fills The Waterfront at Giovanni’s on Saturday to celebrate Darwin Day.


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