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What Does Science Suggest About Human Uniqueness?

The answer to this question depends on what we mean by “science.”

If we are interested in what the sciences of chemistry or physics tell us then there is very little, if anything, that is unique about humans relative to other living things on the planet.  If we are interested in molecular biology, we end up in almost the same place, as there is almost nothing unique about the molecules that make us up.  However, when we start to ask questions about the science of human evolution, some distinctions begin to emerge; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The evolutionary history of human bodies and behavior suggests that humans cooperate, coordinate, create, destroy, imagine, believe and hope in ways that are distinctive from the rest of the world.

Evolution is change over time and it results in two key patterns: continuity and discontinuity.  Shared ancestry gives all life continuities. Those with more recent shared ancestry (like humans and apes) share more in common than those with more remote shared ancestry (like humans and codfish). When talking about evolution most people focus on the continuities. Humans and the other primates, even many social mammals, share much in common: we come from the same ancestral lineages, our bodies work in very similar ways, we care for our young, form strong bonds with one another, and navigate complex social lives via friendships and fights. In these contexts humans are not at all unique.

The discontinuities, however, are a different story. Although our chemistry and molecules are not different from those of other animals, the way they have been shaped over the course of our evolution produces a system (our bodies/minds) that has a much wider range behavioral options, capacities, and flexibility than most others. We have a distinctive ability to bring our bodies/minds together to shape the world around us. Many animals cooperate (ants, scrubjays, meerkats, etc…), many impact the environment (beavers, termites, earthworms, etc…), and some are certainly self-aware (apes, elephants, whales, etc…), but none combine these elements with the intensity, scale, and complexity that humans do.

In the time since our line split with the line of African apes (about 8 million years ago), and especially since our genus (the human lineage, Homo) emerged and began to spread across the globe (around 2 million years ago), humans have become a particularly distinctive, maybe even unique, presence on this planet.

The earliest members of the our lineage were little fangless, hornless, clawless ape-like beings, living in small groups in the forests and savannahs of Africa…where there were a lot of very large predators.  Our ancestors had no natural weaponry, but they had something better: each other.

Together they created stone, wood and bone tools and developed new ways to use and modify the landscape.  They were able to avoid predators, to hunt, to create and use fire, to trade with, fight, and make alliances with other groups, and to expand their range across the globe meeting the challenges of every new environment they encountered. They did so by making cooperation more than just working together—they thought together, shared ideas, developed solutions, taught one another, and took risks that are only possible when you know that you are not alone.

The human adaptive niche (the way we live in the world) is one of cooperating, coordinating and creating. This gives us the context to understand how our indistinctive molecules and chemistry became distinctive biology and behavior.

Take our brains, for example. Humans have large brains relative to our body size, and while that is rare in the animal kingdom, it is not unique. What is distinctive is how our brains develop and how we use them. Humans have the longest and most dependent childhood of any animal—and we need it.  It takes an amazingly long time to learn even the basic information, skills and processes we need to successfully be a member of a human community.

At birth, the human brain is woefully underdeveloped leaving the infant completely defenses for years. Because of their defenseless and slow development, human infants have an extreme need for social and physical interaction, thus humans need a lot of help in raising offspring. We are what researchers call cooperative breeders—evolutionary science tells us that it really does take a community to raise a child.

The infant’s brain and the rest of the body grow at a similar pace until about 2 years of age when the brain hijacks the lion’s share of the energy and grows at a startling pace for the next 5 years or so. This is also when the young human is learning the core complexities of life: language, gender, morals and ethics, social expectations and cultural mores.  It is also the time when the young human is learning to use their body to walk, run, laugh, play, hide, seek, etc…

Our bodies and minds develop in concert, intertwined and shaped by the social, material and symbolic contexts in which we mature. These processes are seen in the ways we react to getting along, to fighting and to making up. Our hormone systems, the activity of our brains and the ways in which our immune systems and digestive physiology’s work shape, and are shaped by, this distinctive human niche.

Cooperation is at the very heart of our species’ ability to reproduce and living in a community of self-aware and collaborative individuals is a central component of our species’ long, slow social and biological development. To do this well, in the past and today, we have had to become a particularly creative species. Without natural armaments to defend themselves, our ancestors had to innovate ways to work together and to use the world around them by altering it. They did (and we do) so by making plans, and strategies, by negotiating conflicts and collaborations, by making make tools, shelters, clothes, villages farms, towns and cities. But this creativity does not only come from single ideas. It comes from individuals getting together and sharing ideas and thoughts and working together to make them happen. Humans do not shape the world individually, we shape it together as a community.

As humans became more and more reliant on creativity, innovation and cooperation to make it in the world, our sharing of ideas, our abilities to communicate them and our capacities to manipulate the world around us created a novel context, a conflux of processes not seen in other organisms, which produced one of the most distinctive patterns of humanity: imagination.

Imagination is the ability to exist in a perceptual reality wherein everything—be it trees, colors, foods, daily routines, social relationships, etc.—is infused with meaning that goes beyond the material items, beyond the specific actions, beyond the tangible at-hand experience. As early as ~300,000 years ago we find archeological evidence of this imagination: lines traced on pieces of ochre or shells and beautifully symmetrical stone tools that were made but never used. In the last 120,000 years we find carved figures, shell necklaces, cave paintings and murals– evidence of a full-blown human imagination.

And from this imagination, in the context of our fundamental patterns of cooperation and creativity mixed with our self-awareness, sprung distinctively human processes of belief and hope. In humans, hope is the use of the imagination to provide individuals, and communities, with stimulus and justification to undertake actions or endeavors with wholly unpredictable outcomes or that under normal conditions of predictability would be interpreted as leading to failure, danger or even death. Hope enables us to be even greater at creativity and cooperation. Belief emerges from the interface of imagination and hope. The history of humanity, especially over the last ~12,000 years, demonstrates that the development and spread of major systems of belief (faiths, moral systems, political and economic ideologies, etc…) has had a great hand in shaping the distinctive landscapes and societies of the world today.

Unfortunately, all of the elements that have enabled humans to beat the evolutionary odds and be such a successful species (our distinctive human niche) can also lead to what might be a truly unique capacity of our species: cruelty and intentional destruction.

Other animals kill and eat one another, at times in a gruesome fashion…sometimes with premeditation and even elation.  However, no other species is capable of combining cooperation, creativity and imagination towards intentionally making others suffer, even in the absence of specific material reward.  We can, unlike any others on this planet, coordinate and willfully and creatively cause great suffering to others, to landscapes and even to entire ecosystems. And we sometimes do so with alarming efficiency.

So what does science suggest about human uniqueness? It suggests that we are complex, cooperative, creative and imaginative beings whose bodies and minds have amazing aptitudes for caring, understanding, hoping, believing and for reshaping the world around us and that these same skills give us the capacity for willful cruelty and destruction. It is up to us to decide what to do with what science suggests.

Discussion questions:

  1. How do this essay’s assertions fit with arguments for a very strong role of genes in controlling/influencing human behavior?
  2. If we are so cooperative, creative and imaginative are we a species that has outgrown the constraints of biological evolution?
  3. Does this mean that cruelty is part of human nature?
  4. How do we know that apes, whales and elephants aren’t creative and imaginative and humans?
  5. Can the concept that the potential for belief emerges over our evolutionary history fit doctrines and philosophies of world religions?

Discussion Summary

In response to the question “What Does Science Suggest About Human Uniqueness?” I answered that what we know from a scientific approach to human evolution suggests we are complex, cooperative, creative and imaginative beings whose bodies and minds have amazing aptitudes for caring, understanding, hoping, believing and for reshaping the world around us.  I also cautioned that these same set capacities give us the ability for willful cruelty and destruction. I concluded that it is up to us to decide what to do with what science suggests.

The responses to my essay varied but settled on a few key topics: How much do we actually cooperate?  Are humans innately aggressive or warlike? And, how can we best think about a human imagination?   I’d like to expand just a bit on these thoughts and close with a few options for future Big Questions that stem from these musings.

There is a broad set of behavioral and evolutionary literature supporting the notion that cooperation is core in human societies. It appears that cooperation and shared information exchange, combined with socially negotiated distribution of labor, effectively coordinates large groups of people. The case for cooperation as central to human success has been made for human ancestors, modern humans in simple foraging societies, agriculturalists, and modern nation states.  There is copious fossil and material evidence that early on in our evolutionary history increasing the ways in which we worked together as opposed to selfish and individually based behaviors is what enabled humans to spread far and wide across the planet. There is also a large body of evidence that demonstrates that agriculture, village and city structures, large scale religious organizations and political systems, trade and market economies all rely on a substantial infrastructure of human cooperation for their success: simply put, cooperation is what humans do best and what makes us such a successful species.  This does not mean that competition and conflict are not also common, they are.  It is just that they are not the basis for our success as a species.  Aggression can emerge out of cooperation, or the breakdown of cooperation, but nearly every study conducted on human social behavior indicates higher frequencies and greater emphasis on cooperation than any other single behavioral pattern.

But what about aggression in human evolution?

In the human fossil and archeological record there is no good evidence of intense, frequent inter-individual aggression or warfare until recently (the last ~14,000 years), and it is associated with the advent of settlements, agriculture, and social stratification. Increased social inequality and more complex political and economic systems seem to correlate with more types of, and a higher frequency of, coordinated aggression and violence in human societies. Interestingly, these same scenarios also correlate with larger and more complex peaceful relationships amongst and between peoples- peace and war are not opposites, they both emerge from the same human capacities.

Humans can, and do, engage in a wide variety of aggression.  However, aggression is not our primary “go to” behavior as successful organisms. There is insufficient evidence to argue that we have evolved a suite of specifically aggressive behaviors to succeed in the world.  It is largely our abilities to get along and to negotiate complex social problems, with and without aggression, that make humans one of the most successful species on this planet.

Finally, a key to understanding human success lies in the realization that the human imagination is distinctive. A significant component of human distinctiveness is our being a species where symbol and profound meaning are central to our lives. The ways in which symbols are generated, perceived and utilized structure our perceptions and behavior such that the “material” world is never without symbolic contexts. This influences how we interface with the challenges and affordances the world around us offers.  Humans exist in a  landscape of meaning, where our way of being arises from the interactions of many elements (bodies, brains, senses, perceptions, experiences, other beings, etc…) but that none of these have in themselves the specific property of symbolic experience–it emerges from the interrelationships of these components. This process creates our species’ distinctive imagination.

Given what evolutionary science tells us about humans, two interesting big questions emerge for future conversations.

New Big Questions:

1) Can we use the human propensity to cooperate and coordinate to tackle current social ills generated by inequality and injustice?

2) Can a deeper understanding of the human imagination move us towards new avenues for dialogue between religious faiths?