30 November 2011

What Makes Humans So Special?

[ranked 7th on MySpace in early 2008 when it was cool]

On another blog, someone made the claim that humans are superior to all other creatures because of our ability to piece together sentences. I would simply say, "language," but other animals (notably chimps) are also able to communicate wants and feelings in a way that humans can understand. No, this person said that we were better merely because of our grammar.

I had a decent response, but for some reason no one responded to my comment.
[insert overused sound of crickets chirping]

I then decided to pose the question to you for two reasons:
1) Most of the readers of this blog are well-read and/or educated.
2) All of you are extremely opinionated – some to a fault. ?

What makes a Human superior to all other forms of life?

Is it our ability to use tools?

Is it bipedalism [ability to walk upright]?

Is it the ability to mourn, and understand the loss of our own?

Is it our language that sets us apart?

 Why do we think that just because an animal doesn't communicate the same way as we do, that it is a lesser being?

Though perhaps they don't speak with "proper grammar" in OUR language, we know exactly what they are saying.

What about people who cannot speak – are they not as special as the rest of us?

What about people who cannot even sign? Those who were not born with the facilities necessary to communicate on the complex level of other humans – are they not as special as the rest of us?

It can't be our religion that makes us special. Some humans do not possess religion, but some elephants do. Some hypothesize that Neanderthals had religion, but we know they were not actually human.

It can't be our ability to love. Not all humans do that, unfortunately, but many animals do. Swans mate for life (they seem to be doing better than 51% of America).

It can't be our ability to vocalize. Nearly all animals can make noises expressing surprise or fear or aggression.

The only thing that sets us apart from the rest of animal kingdom would be our DNA. However, even a mouse shares most that with us. Though that makes us different than other species, how does it make us better?


  1. Because we can climb a high mountain a stick a flag on it. No dolphin's going to do that.

    1. We can not swim across the Pacific Ocean. No human is going to do that.

  2. Like a slave trader complaining about how his job doesn't give him any free time; a human is anyone whose professed beliefs are opposed to their every action in a hilariously grim and ironic way.

  3. "...a human is anyone whose professed beliefs are opposed to their every action in a hilariously grim and ironic way."

    And I thought I was cynical! LOL

  4. But to answer the question poised in the title of this piece, I think it is our ability to destroy.

    Truly unmatched by anything in the "animal" kingdom.

  5. In my opinion, what makes us special isn't any of the attributes listed above.

    I believe the particular quality that makes humans different than all the other animals is our ability to store and retrieve long term knowledge. We are constantly refining this ability, but historically it has been transferred via writing, video recording, sound recording, etc.

    This ability gives newly arrived humans the ability to 'stand on the shoulders of giants' and quickly have access to knowledge that took previous humans hundreds (or even thousands) of years to obtain. It is so important to modern society that many humans spend in excess of 25% of their natural lives retrieving and analyzing previously stored information as their primary function (Education).

    Of course, apes can be trained to fly a spaceship- many animals have proven a capability to absorb human disseminated education- but do any of them as a species actively and of their own volition store knowledge for the use of future generations? This is what sets us apart, and without it, we quickly are reduced to weak hairless apes. Knowledge is power; this is a large part of the reason reading/books have been denied to oppressed groups over the centuries. How are you going argue what you did isn't heresy if the bible is in Latin and you can't read it? Guess you'll just have to take my word!

  6. I totally agree...the written word. Nothing else permits such technological advancement and the subsequent ability to manipulate the environment.

  7. My tongue was in my cheek last time. I'd say that the thing which makes humans special is the degree to which we've taken analogy as an engine of cognition (borrowing from Doug Hofstadter), and the library of cognitive analogy we've been able to preserve (and extend), as Justin noted above.

  8. To quickly respond to Anonymous:
    But some humans cannot write, and lack the facilities to learn. Does that mean they are not human because like cats, horses and amoeba, they will never write?

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  10. What makes us human, makes us human as a species.
    Just like with animals, certain animals have the ability to learn better than than rest of their species, but as a species, they don't curate and retrieve information and knowledge as extensively as we do. Therefore, humans who do not have the ability to do things that the rest of the species can are still human because they still belong to the human species.

  11. I would say its our ability to question and exceed our programming. Animals all do what it is in their nature to do; nothing more, nothing less. Humans, on the other hand, regularly ask why our nature is the way it is, debate components of human nature, and search for the best way to rise above and exceed our nature.

    That said, with great power comes great responsibility. Human "superiority" as it were should never be used as an excuse for cruelty toward other life forms.

  12. I'd say that humans have an immortal soul and animals don't.
    Atheists of course won't accept this as an answer, and some "animal lovers" (I love animals, by the way) will hate me but this is what I believe.

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