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Mammalian chauvinism

6 July 2010

Many things annoy me (and this seems to increase with age), but one thing that annoys me the most is the widespread mammalian chauvinism that is present in today’s society. It ranges from an inbred suspicion of reptiles, amphibians and fish to blatant misinterpretation of facts to ‘prove’ that mammals are really the best animals ever to grace god’s fine earth. We just know that reptiles, for example, are stupid, slow, shifty and unreliable where on the other hand mammals are clever, quick, trustworthy and loyal. And even though birds are sometimes pretty to look at, they’re really not the most clever things around (as represented by the expression ‘bird-brain’).

Your ugly and stupid ancestor.

It’s all very annoying, and it does raise the question why this mammalian chauvinism has gotten such a strong hold on both the scientific world and the public. Why are we so self-righteous and ignorant? Yes, I am aware of that mammals are warm-blooded, big-brained and covered in cuddly fur, but why should those traits guarantee the winning position in the worlds congeniality species contest?

For example, while our high metabolic rate does make us more agile in colder weather, the drawbacks are severe. Mammals have to feed almost constantly just to keep their body warm. Some small mammals literary starve to death in a few hours, forcing them to keep on the hunt for food around the clock, which in turn exposes them to predators. That doesn’t sound too clever to me.

And our specialised teeth with canines, premolars and molars; they are truly great for evolving advanced mastication tools for different types of diets, but the downside is that they can’t be easily replaced. After all, to what use is half a set of scissor teeth? As a result, most mammals only have two sets of teeth (one juvenile set and one adult, life-lasting one), while other animals usually keep replacing theirs all through their life. If a mammal would manage live it’s whole life and escape being caught by predators, it is doomed to starve to death when it’s teeth fall out. This would never happen a lizard or a frog.

Giving birth to live offspring is often though of as a mammalian trait, but many reptiles and some sharks also give birth rather than laying eggs. And anyway, laying eggs in a protected nest leaves the mother free to move around rather than carrying around all the offspring in a uterus.

“Yes, I really am warm-blooded. Come over here and see for yourself. Please, do.”

To be fair, there are traits of mammals that make them truly successful. Since the first appearance of warm-blooded animals (some 200 million years ago) they have consistently dominated the mega fauna, whilst the exothermic animals have been pushed to the fringe. But (and this is a big “but”) mammals have only been holding that position for a quarter of that time. The first successful warm-blooded animals were non-avian dinosaurs, who took over as the dominant group of animals from the cold-blooded mammalian reptiles that preceded them. Even though true mammals where present at the time they didn’t manage to take the lead for over 160 million years – if they really were that great, why didn’t they take over earlier?

And then we have the question of avian dinosaurs (aka birds). They are warm-blooded, just like mammals – in fact they are even more warm-blooded than us, keeping a body temperature of 40°C (104°F), which surely should make them even better than mammals? Their advanced metabolic system is supported by truly amazing two-way lungs that have more than twice the capacity of any mammalian lungs.

‘”Bird-brain’? Well, of course I got a bird-brain! (Stupid mammal..!)”

Birds are also surprisingly intelligent. In the past, chauvinistic biologists have disregarded the bird brain as primitive, just because they don’t look like our awesome mammalian brain. But recent studies have placed some groups of birds very close to human intelligence, reaching beyond even the great apes. They are known to use tools, build advanced structures, communicate with intricate vocalisations and solve very complex logical problems that even the average humans would struggle with. And contrary to popular belief, parrots and ravens are actually able to learn how to use the human language to get what they want, rather than just ‘parroting’ what they hear.

So, to repeat the question raised at the beginning of this rant, by what criteria are mammals the superior group of animals? If it can’t be the high metabolism, giving birth to live offspring or high intelligence – what’s left? The ability to secrete milk? Sheer size? Or is it just the fact that we happen to be mammals ourselves and prefer our own kind?

For me the clinching argument is this: there isn’t a single green mammal in the world, even though green is the most obviously useful camouflage colour. That alone make them truly stupid!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 July 2010 11:40

    Birds are awesome, they beat mammals anyday.
    But as we’re mammals, and God created us in his image (lack of imagination). maybe we’re not intelligent enough to grasp God’s vision? Maybe you should ask a bird?

    Ok, now I feel quite dirty.


  2. Andrew Lawrence permalink
    11 July 2010 11:34

    why the smug arogance of the mammal? for the rest of the mammalian kingdom it is mearly reflected glory, they simply bask in, and enjoy the success by association of being slightly related to the Homo sapien.

    And what has the Homo sapien got to be so smug about?

    the wheel
    Moon Landings
    the abilty to make fire
    Haber process
    tool use
    The internet
    the steam engine
    splitting the atom
    the alphabet

    its a somewhat eclectic list but i think you get the point.

    In fact our technological evolution can replicate the most sucessful traits of biological evolution at a fraction of the time it would take to evolve naturally, to such a great degree that we can travel underwater or maintain colonies in the coldest of places on the planet.

    It is high time we started to distance ourselves from our lazy mammalian cousins, let them no longer bask in our glorious successes, let our smug sense of superiority be our own.


  3. 24 September 2011 20:22

    I’ve often wondered why we don’t have more sets of teeth. If I could replace my teeth like a shark, I wouldn’t have to pay some chatty dental hygienist with a spray tan to scrape the plaque off them with sharp metal instruments. It is quite the unpleasant experience.


    • 24 September 2011 20:40

      Some Japanese researcher has managed to grow new teeth from human gum cells. Perhaps we’ll soon be able to routinely grow replacement teeth when the old ones give up. What a brave new world!


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