How Are Humans Unique?

By MICHAEL TOMASELLO
Published: May 25, 2008

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Human beings do not like to think of themselves as animals. It is thus with decidedly mixed feelings that we regard the frequent reports that activities once thought to be uniquely human are also performed by other species: chimpanzees who make and use tools, parrots who use language, ants who teach. Is there anything left?

You might think that human beings at least enjoy the advantage of being more generally intelligent. To test this idea, my colleagues and I recently administered an array of cognitive tests — the equivalent of nonverbal I.Q. tests — to adult chimpanzees and orangutans (two of our closest primate relatives) and to 2-year-old human children. As it turned out, the children were not more skillful overall. They performed about the same as the apes on the tests that measured how well they understood the physical world of space, quantities and causality. The children performed better only on tests that measured social skills: social learning, communicating and reading the intentions of others.

But such social gifts make all the difference. Imagine a child born alone on a desert island and somehow magically kept alive. What would this child’s cognitive skills look like as an adult — with no one to teach her, no one to imitate, no pre-existing tools, no spoken or written language? She would certainly possess basic skills for dealing with the physical world, but they would not be particularly impressive. She would not invent for herself English, or Arabic numerals, or metal knives, or money. These are the products of collective cognition; they were created by human beings, in effect, putting their heads together.

When you look at apes and children in situations requiring them to put their heads together, a subtle but significant difference emerges. We have observed that children, but not chimpanzees, expect and even demand that others who have committed themselves to a joint activity stay involved and not shirk their duties. When children want to opt out of an activity, they recognize the existence of an obligation to help the group — they know that they must, in their own way, “take leave” to make amends. Humans structure their collaborative actions with joint goals and shared commitments.

Another subtle but crucial difference can be seen in communication. The great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans — communicate almost exclusively for the purpose of getting others to do what they want. Human infants, in addition, gesture and talk in order to share information with others — they want to be helpful. They also share their emotions and attitudes freely — as when an infant points to a passing bird for its mother and squeals with glee. This unprompted sharing of information and attitudes can be seen as a forerunner of adult gossip, which ensures that members of a group can pool their knowledge and know who is or is not behaving cooperatively. The free sharing of information also creates the possibility of pedagogy — in which adults impart information by telling and showing, and children trust and use this information with confidence. Our nearest primate relatives do not teach and learn in this manner.

Finally, human infants, but not chimpanzees, put their heads together in pretense. This seemingly useless play activity is in fact a first baby step toward the creation of distinctively human social institutions. In social institutions, participants typically endow someone or something with special powers and obligations; they create roles like president or teacher or wife. Presidents and teachers and wives operate with special powers and obligations because, and only because, we all believe and act as if they fill these roles and have these powers. Two young children pretending together that a stick is a horse have thus taken their first step on the road not just to Oz but also toward inhabiting human institutional reality.

Human beings have evolved to coordinate complex activities, to gossip and to playact together. It is because they are adapted for such cultural activities — and not because of their cleverness as individuals — that human beings are able to do so many exceptionally complex and impressive things.

Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels; they also put their heads together to do all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside “the group.” Recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to get people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.” The remarkable human capacity for cooperation thus seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the group. Such group-mindedness is a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today. The solution — more easily said than done — is to find new ways to define the group.

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Original link: [The New York Times]

An exhilarating read; wildly exploring the qualities which have made humanity prevailed over the rest of the inhabitants of the planet, a realist perspective of our lot’s place in the universe— and an amusing take on politics and warfare from a scientific perspective.🙂

The “they” and “us” politics are doing humanity too many disservice already. The concept of “our” race, culture, religion; the “east”, the “west”, and all of their wicked, divisive derivatives.

23 thoughts on “How Are Humans Unique?

  1. Not convinced of this article though. There are factors and data in needs of clearance. Surely it takes too much favor on the classic theory of tabula rasa, where children are born without unique temperament and qualities of their own. Heck, even animals doesn’t have absolute universal quality. Anyway, two-years old children are yet complete human, as their senses and cognitive skills still are growing. To compare them to full grown primates seems way off.

    [sarcasm]Realist perspective, yes, it’s 2008 and it’s cool to know how far those scientist could define human being.[/sarcasm] Nggak beda dari puluhan tahun lalu, kopral. ^^;

  2. Hmm…

    I’m interested more to the cultural achievements aspect — said above as wouldn’t emerge from a solitary human life. That’s quite interesting:

    She would not invent for herself English, or Arabic numerals, or metal knives, or money. These are the products of collective cognition; they were created by human beings, in effect, putting their heads together.

    I agree with the ‘money’ and ‘English’ part. However I tend to speculate — that a very genius Mowgli, with a very long time span, has potential to manage a little of it. Maybe after a few (or few-tenth) thousand years of life he’d be able to invent the wheel, bronze age, or even his own architecture? By trials-and-errors, and MacGyvering things he finds in the jungle — But then again, this is merely a speculation.🙂

    The “they” and “us” politics are doing humanity too many disservice already. The concept of “our” race, culture, religion; the “east”, the “west”, and all of their wicked, divisive derivatives.

    IMHO, humans are — deep inside — prone to be tribalists. Always. As reflected.:mrgreen:

    In stone age they wage tribal warfare. When they ran out of it, they simply invent new fields — religion clash, football fanaticism, xenophobia, politics, tawuran SMA, east vs. west dichotomy… the list would go on long.😉

  3. @ Raide

    Well, skepticism is always healthy.🙂

    BTW, I don’t see much injustice in comparing a human child with full-grown primates.😕

    @ sora9n

    I agree with the ‘money’ and ‘English’ part. However I tend to speculate — that a very genius Mowgli, with a very long time span, has potential to manage a little of it. Maybe after a few (or few-tenth) thousand years of life he’d be able to invent the wheel, bronze age, or even his own architecture? By trials-and-errors, and MacGyvering things he finds in the jungle — But then again, this is merely a speculation.

    I think the article, being an article about humans, tend to ignore the possibilities of such abnormal longevity.😕 After all, if one can live a few millenniums, you can’t really compare humans to the said creature.

    Then again, I do not know. Maybe he can, maybe he won’t. But if he were to live no longer than the normal lifespan, he certainly won’t be too civilized.😉

    In a way, I think this is still the best way to explain the rapid growth of human civilization in the last few thousands of years.😀

    IMHO, humans are — deep inside — prone to be tribalists. Always. As reflected.:mrgreen:

    In stone age they wage tribal warfare. When they ran out of it, they simply invent new fields — religion clash, football fanaticism, xenophobia, politics, tawuran SMA, east vs. west dichotomy… the list would go on long.😉

    So I take it that the tribalist instinct is essential to survival; an instinct that has grown obsolete for now.

    I can’t understand it, though. The west has their western supremacy. The east has their eastern supremacy. What will become of us?

  4. @ Kopral Geddoe

    I think the article, being an article about humans, tend to ignore the possibilities of such abnormal longevity.😕 After all, if one can live a few millenniums, you can’t really compare humans to the said creature.

    Then again, I do not know. Maybe he can, maybe he won’t. But if he were to live no longer than the normal lifespan, he certainly won’t be too civilized.😉

    That’s why I said it as mere speculation.😆

    In physics (and engineering field) we always think to simplify things while having other variables either perfected or nullified… hence the above idea.😉

    In a way, I think this is still the best way to explain the rapid growth of human civilization in the last few thousands of years.😀

    Realistically talking, indeed.😕 Communication makes group-collective thinking; group collective-thinking produces culture; culture refines mankind as it thrives. ^^

    So I take it that the tribalist instinct is essential to survival; an instinct that has grown obsolete for now.

    If you take that all humans are born equal, and universal human rights are quite valid — yes, IMO it’s obsolete.

    BTW, tangentially related: I remember my friend who says “My country has its right to fly high and prosper”. Matter is, I kept this unsaid: “no, not only our country. Everybody has that same right.”

    Be it Europe or Ethiopia.:mrgreen:

    I can’t understand it, though. The west has their western supremacy. The east has their eastern supremacy. What will become of us?

    Oh well, just like them both.😛

    Putting aside most Indonesian sentiment over Budaya Timur (eastern culture) over westernization. Be polite man with blue jeans, wear your Batik like Zidane did… or mix your Aerosmith playlist with some Glays and X-Japans… Either way is fine.😆

  5. Not convinced either. What’s wrong with the usual take on politics and warfare? What’s wrong with political sciences, history, cultural studies and other disciplines from the so-called “geisteswissenschaften”? The arguments are sadly reductionistic. How can we know about human minds by merely observing the way they live? How can we know the “intention” or the “minds” of the animals by experimenting? I know it sounds stupid, but can scientists interview animals? “Hey, monkey, which do you like the most, banana or apple?”

    I believe that science, despite its astonishing triumph in the past century, could never explain Shakespeare, Kafka, Kundera, Mozart, Satie, Poulenc, Gajah Mada, VOC, shamanism, Cinta Laura, etc. You said about, Bersainslah Secara Kaffah, I think it is as absurd as saying, Berislamlah Secara Kaffah. Life, I think, is just too complex, if not to sublime, for science to understand.

  6. What would this child’s cognitive skills look like as an adult — with no one to teach her, no one to imitate, no pre-existing tools, no spoken or written language? She would certainly possess basic skills for dealing with the physical world, but they would not be particularly impressive. She would not invent for herself English, or Arabic numerals, or metal knives, or money. These are the products of collective cognition; they were created by human beings, in effect, putting their heads together.

    Totally disagree to the premise.
    IMO (I have some articles from Scientific American magazines which support my idea… at least to show I’m not the only one who believe such idea),
    the human have power to create and understand symbol. If I remember correctly, they are the only species who create painting (and understand or interpreting them, not just painting), knot a rope, carve the stone.

    Using symbols, human can teach their kids what have they learn in their life time and then, their kids kan walk further than what their parents had tried.

    Thus.. the author’s premise can lead us to wrong direction.
    Indeed, the child would be unable to teach herself English or Arabic numerals. But, if there are two, three, four of them, and they can produce a children, perhaps 5 centuries later, there would be another civillization born among their descendant.

  7. @ sora9n

    I take it that we’ve got no disagreements then.🙂

    @ gentole

    I’ll not object to what you said. Note that I never proclaimed allegiance with the author’s opinion either. All I said is; this is one intriguing read.😕

    @ kunderemp

    No, your objection is pure misunderstanding.🙂

    Indeed, the child would be unable to teach herself English or Arabic numerals. But, if there are two, three, four of them, and they can produce a children, perhaps 5 centuries later, there would be another civillization born among their descendant.

    That’s the writing is all about! Humans triumph because of their social skills.😛 How? You just described it yourself.🙂

    So it’s not that we grow substantially smarter, but rather because we stand on top of our ancestors’ shoulders.

  8. @ Kunderemp

    The given condition in the essay is that the child being the sole survivor of mankind in that area. ^^

    Well, she may be able to invent symbols and such under some conditions (as I have indicated in #2)… who knows if she ends up building a car! But the premise is that she isn’t allowed to have family and reproduce: when she dies, the development ends.

    Now consider that she’s not that genius and not-so-healthy nearing immortal… an only 100-year life and standard intelligence will render such possibility unlikely.🙂

  9. @ sora9n

    Indeed. It’s one way to explain the supersonic speed of human civilization; it was a drag, until we learned to use symbols. Then by that time we’re not repeating the development each and every generation; since every new generation now inherit the achievements of their predecessor. It’s now a relay race.😀

    @ gentole

    It’s just an attempt to explain life from differing perspective.🙂

    But speaking of the reductionist worldview on life and living; lobotomy does creep me out. Are we computers after all?😀

  10. We have observed that children, but not chimpanzees,

    lol *RUN AWAY*

    Finally, human infants, but not chimpanzees,

    Why did he thought that most of the reader would still think that human are chimps? I think the writer is writing this for someone who believed that human is the next generation from apes?? OMGlol woo knew

    Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels;

  11. Hahaha. Well, it’s kind of hard to admit it, isn’t it?🙂
    It’s even more terryfing that they found a “chimp” started fishing with a homemade spear a couple of times ago.😀

  12. @DensS
    Hahaha…I didn’t notice, it is kinda funny.

    @Kopral

    Are we computers after all?

    If we are, I really don’t wanna think about it.😀 Well, it’s like God, Love, Meaning, Purpose, Hope, etc. I love my humanity and all its poetic, beyond-the-senses, qualities. Really, I don’t understand science and surely I can’t prove the existence of God, Love and my spirituality, i.e. my supposedly real existence beyond this ephemeral, psychical body. I just want to believe in those ideas. It’s stupid, for I have no evidence at all. But it’s okay. It’s a zero risk wager.😀

    It’s even more terryfing that they found a “chimp” started fishing with a homemade spear a couple of times ago.

    That’s creepy. But I don’t think that humans are better than animals. They may have consciousness and think just like us. I never have problems with fables.

  13. Indeed. A zero risk wager; a perfectly fine stance to take, I’d say. So long as it keeps itself inside the personal sphere.🙂

    That’s creepy. But I don’t think that humans are better than animals. They may have consciousness and think just like us. I never have problems with fables.

    I somehow believe that many people *do* think we’re better than animals. It’s like creationism; I have little problem with people that simply believe in it, like you said, but I am irritated whenever they dismiss evolutionary biology just because they find it ‘insulting’ to their superiority.🙂

    Surely that’s not the proper way to dismiss it.

    And now that you mentioned it;

    “Since when are we better than chickens? Name six ways we’re better than chickens! *waits* …see? Nobody can do it!”

    — George Carlin😀

  14. “Since when are we better than chickens? Name six ways we’re better than chickens! *waits* …see? Nobody can do it!”

    — George Carlin😀

    I only can Named one thing that we are better than them.

    WE ATE THEM !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111 LOL

  15. We ate them, therefore we’re better than them?😕
    Then I’d presume the greatest species of all would be maggots? We don’t eat maggots; maggots eat us.😀

  16. Hey, Geddoe, wait, we have versatile fingers, while chickens have virtually useless wings. With our fingers we could do anything; playing the piano, writing novels, building airplanes, making love, etc. In some ways, we are better than animals.😀

  17. @Kopral
    Hahaha…been thinking about those poor chickens, they have wings but they can’t fly. Penguins at least can swim. Ostrich can run. Chickens? Well, they are, at least, delicious.😀

    Maaf OOT.

    *ngabur*

  18. @ Kopral Geddoe | gentole

    Chickens? Well, they wake people up with their infamous “kukuruyuk”…😆

    [/OOT]

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