What makes Humans Unique?



Unique vs. Superior

Well, sure, we are unique, if by “unique” you mean that which puts any living thing in its own place on the shrub of life !  But then every creature is unique !  But that is rarely what the question implies, instead, the inquirer is asking “How are human’s uniquely superior to animals”?   This attempt to define humans as the paragon of animals is instinctive.  Try referring to people as animals and a child will be surprised.   But still, as natural as this tendency is, isn’t this question embarrassingly anthropocentric ?

Perhaps bats can echo locate better than any flying animal, but does that make them superior or just unique.  Dogs’ sense of smell makes humans look olfactory blind.  Bonobos’ social arrangements make humans look barbaric.  The variety of environments bacteria can thrive in makes humans look pathetically weak.

Human Exceptionalism

Matt Ridley’s book, “The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture”, starts with a chapter on this subject “The Paragon of Animals”.    The Exceptionalism argument has a long history — and the exceptionalist’s best arguments are continually refuted by scientists who discover facts.

The Myth

“Humans are uniquely …”

The Truth

Science’s Counter Evidence

Political animals
— Aristotle
Apes are political
— Goodall
Reasoning animals
— Descartes
Apes reason
— Goodall
Capable of conscious choice
— Marx
Apes capable of conscious choice
— Goodall
Capable of subjectivity
— Malik
Baboons do abstract reasoning
— Goodall
Capable of moral reasoning
— Darwin !
Darwin later in life,
countered his own argument !
Wage war
Gombe forest chimps wage war
Cultural animals Showed whales, dolphins and chimps have culture and passed on teachings.
— Desmond Morris (1967, “The Naked Ape”)
Capable of Language
Monkeys have vocabulary for referring to different predators and birds.  Parrots and apes can learn quite large lexicons.
Capable of Theory of Mind
Chimps regularly engage in deception

The reflex to establish that “one’s tribe is the best of all tribes” pollutes the human history, politics and religion.

Even scientists buy into this enticing reflex.  Evolutionists even were deceived by the myth when they first layed out the “Tree of Life”.  The “Tree” analogy implied linearity, purpose and pinnacles, thus many biologists (seeing through the myth) now prefer “shrub” to avoid thus false connotations.  Here is another picture of a taxonomy of life that shows it less like a “Shrub” but they still call it a “Tree” (being a tradition and all).  Check out this cool interactive site.



Filed under Critical Thinking, Evolution, Philosophy & Religion, Science

31 responses to “What makes Humans Unique?

  1. I’m forced to disagree with your approach, my good friend. We are unique. We are unique because we have a spirit and a soul. The Human Spirit connects us to every being on the planet and gives us the gifts of empathy and compassion and faith in God and in each other. There’s an intrinsic connection between human beings that defines us and is itself indefinable. But we are definetly unique.

  2. So, here we have to decide how to decide which is correct. Megan claims a spirit AND a soul makes us unique. So I guess no animal has these by her view. What evidence do we have? Somehow she thinks we are all connected. What evidence do we have? Other primates have empathy, do they just lack a soul or maybe just lack a spirit. We have no evidence to support this, I am afraid. I understand your desire to feel unique, but that is not enough.

  3. bataille9

    In this interview, Dennett references the general idea that we’re reading about in Minsky, but he seems to go one further:

    “Yeah we have souls – but they’re made of neurons. […] The individual neurons don’t know, they don’t care, they’re just doing their jobs. The amazing thing is that if you put enough together in the right sorts of teams you have, basically, a soul.” Clear enough. But then he goes on. “And because we can look into the future, because imagine the world in a better way, we can hold each other responsible for that in a way no other species can.”

    I just wonder what you think about this. It seems that human beings are unique among the species in ways that are pretty obvious. Do the non-existence of the immaterial soul and human uniqueness have to be mutually exclusive?

    And also, re. your comment to Megan: “I understand your desire to feel unique, but that is not enough.” Why isn’t enough to claim uniqueness based on the fact that we identify ourselves as human and feel a sort of uniqueness in this? Human beings are unique by the very differentiation of them as a species to begin with – so obviously when one claims that they are “not unique”, it must be meant in some deeper sense – more than just a place on the tree of life, as you say. So what is the refined definition of “unique”? That human beings may be trivially unique, but they do not stand out among all the other species? Actually, it rather seems like they do in some pretty startling ways. Dennett seems to think so anyway – hardly a crude ghost in the machine advocate.

    In any case, why would such an anthropocentric disposition be embarrassing? That we invent things like immortal souls and believe that we stand out among the species as “special” seems to be a survival mechanism and a product of human self-consciousness to begin with, and so feeling embarrassed over this would be akin to a tiger feeling embarrassed over being able to clear an entire field in 30 seconds to slaughter a zebra. I’m guessing he isn’t.

    But there seems to be a deeper point in all of this. Some young children will see their parents as indestructible, almost God-like beings. Its pretty easy to see why this is: children need to be comforted and feel the presence of their care-givers as something permanent. It seems to be missing the point to judge these beliefs as “right” or “wrong”, or to reproach someone holding a belief that fulfills a natural need. Clearly human beings need something: if its a choice between humanism or evangelical tent revivals… : )

  4. @ Bat — thanks. Your question inspired me to expand my post. Please read above. I think Dennett has made the same mistake if he is trying to imply human superiority. For if humans are so good at holding each other responsible, why are we so violent? Indeed it seems that many other mammals hold each other responsible in much more secure reflexive ways.

    Concerning my use of the word “embarrassing”, it was meant as rhetorical, of course. People’s striving to maintain exceptionalism is embarrassing because of it’s blind tenacity — we are capable of more. Sure, it is natural, but don’t fall for the naturalist fallacy where we say “it is natural, so we can’t judge it.”

    I disagree when you say humans “need” either humanism or religion — both are myths. With effort, we can mature to accept reality as it is. Perhaps that is too Zen for some. Smile !

  5. Sunshine

    Humans are superior… at destroying planets. It’s taken us only 4 million years of evolution to do this, really most of Earth’s destruction has been done in the past few centuries. Tons of other species came before us and none have come close to destroying an entire planet.

    Anyway, each and every human has descended from countless other species, so we are not unique. Unless you are to say that every other organism on the planet is unique. Maybe clinging on to this whole unique thing is what our problem is, I mean really. If we weren’t constantly going around trying to prove ourselves to, well ourselves, then maybe we could spend a little more time actually striving to be part of a functional ecosystem, rather than trying to create a new one which revolves around us.

    Oh and by the way, tigers don’t hunt zebras.

  6. At the end of the Permian Period, 251 million years ago, up to 95% of marine species and 85% of land species were killed by mass poison. The killer was bacteria. Due to volcanic eruptions and massive warming the oceans stopped churning and these bacteria thrived killing off almost the whole planet with their waste produce — hydrogen sulfide.

    So humans are as unique in the eco-destructo skills as you may think.
    But I agree with the gist of what you are saying ! Smile.

  7. mac


    No other animal has pockets.

    except marsupials….Dammit!

  8. Cracking up laughing !!! Thanx

  9. Renee

    Oh Dear…I’m so confused I thought I was dust, but after doing research I realized dust does more good for our environment than man…damn wrong again.

    Dust transported in Red Rains

  10. @ Renee — but remember, though that dust may help Holm Oaks, it probably is bad for some other organism. But I imagine your dust will be good for everyone !

  11. Sunshine

    are we sure about the bacteria at the end of the permian?
    I thought there was debate about whether or not it could have been gamma ray bursts, either way we evolved from bacteria, so in a sense we are bacteria right?

  12. Actually, not sure at all. I remember reading many years ago how organisms had wiped out other organism in mass. So I searched for a while and found a few articles on the issue to remind myself which organism caused this. Could very well be wrong. But, as you could imagine, there is certainly no theoretical obstacle for other organisms being equal in ability to destroy other life. Thanx for the doubt !

  13. i have to disagree. Humans are unique and more than that, each human is a one-of-a-kind.

    your anti-arguments are all backed only by Goodall, not very objective. See what SHE says now…

    what separates us from apes?

    and if you do a bit more research, i think you may just convince yourself that this is a non-argument. Humans are UNIQUE … now whether we ourselves recognize it, or whether most of us just try very hard to FIT IN… that’s a different debate.

  14. Goodall’s video was good.
    She agrees with me, actually.
    She gives a long list of many things once thought traditionally to only be human prerogative including, a sense of humor, emotions, personality, altruism, cooperating and others.

    She does say that humans have a very sophisticated language that makes us different from Chimpanzee — she puts this in here speech while she is trying to motivate the audience to support her foundation, “Roots and Shoots”. She is trying to get humans to feel good about themselves so that they will contribute. Nothing works better than telling someone they are special.

    Of course humans are different than other animals, all animals are different from each other , duh.
    But Goodall, agreeing with me says it well, when she says there isn’t a sharp line that separates humans from other animals. There is only a very fuzzy line.

  15. hi sabio…
    we must be watching a different video. the message i got from goodall was –

    all animals are like us physically and psychologically smart, they even make tools, many similarities BUT (and this is a big BUT)

    they cannot project the future (which is imagination) and cannot theorize (science) which only HUMANS can.

    and goodall say that therefore WE humans have a heavy responsibility to take care of the earth because NO ONE but us can see that it is going to be destroyed.

    In short, even our closest cousins – the gorilla – cannot predict global warming. they can’t put two and two together and see THREE. we can….

    and that’s why Gorilla’s don’t start worshipping a God. we did.

    the proof of this is the fact that they didn’t start a LANGUAGE. a language requires cognitive skills – you know the color RED for example. but no ape will be able to see “RED.”

    All this is what the Bible already said 2000 years ago. In book of genesis, God told Adam he will be in charge of the cursed earth. isn’t that amazing?

    read genesis.

  16. At Dromoman, that was funny.
    You are right, only humans have imagination — they believe in Unicorns, talking donkeys, talking bushes, giants, bread falling from the sky and much more.
    Wait, my little dog backs at certain clouds, maybe they can see imaginary things too !
    Glad my dog can’t read Genesis, can’t imagine what sort of religion would be set up !

  17. Sabio,

    If you truly believe that you are not in fact superior to a bacteria, I’m sure you will provide your shrink with ample job security for the rest of his or her days. Since you honestly hold this conviction, I’m sure you’re not the slightest bit insulted.

    Despite your mockery of dromoman, he does have a point – which you conceded. Imagination sets humanity apart from the brutes. For example, you imagine that you and every other human are in no way superior to a microbe, you imagine that you are correct in this flight of fancy and you imagine that if it were true that anything you communicated would be of intrinsic value.

    You also imagine that the communications of brutes and the mimicry and stilted memory of human language constitutes an actual achievement of language.

    You further imagine that you’ve eliminated the morality factor simply because Darwin changed his mind. Do you imagine premeditated murder when the fox stalks the henhouse? Should we prosecute Old Red-tail for breaking and entering? Genocide? Unlikely, since we all know – when we’re not being pompous misotheists at any rate – that animals have no conscience, no morality. By definition, they’re amoral, and thus incapable of either morality or immorality.

    Yet I imagine you’re not really listening to me here. You’re probably doing something far better, like planning a visit to that lovely Parthenon the elephants have built. Or that museum showcasing the paintings of the monkey masters. Likely located in a sprawling ultra-modern metropolis built by the learned and enlightened armadillos.

    -Sirius Knott

  18. @ Sirius
    It is late at night, so I shant engage in sophomoric banter, if you don’t mind, but get right to the point.

    My point is that all animals have unique qualities that set them apart from others. To imagine ourselves superior by a given trait, just reveals our own preference for that trait.

    Morality is a social contract — it changes through the ages. Most want a society where most of our desires can be freely pursued, of course.

    Sorry, got to go sleep, just like my dog has to.
    You reply was cute, thanks.

  19. @Sabio

    Re: “To imagine ourselves superior by a given trait just reveals our preference for that trait.”

    Hubris. The beasts haven’t the ability to imagine themselves superior or inferior. Imagination has caused us to aspire to heights of art, civilization, scientific achievement and language that the brutes aren’t capable of. The fact that all creatures are unique does not prevent one from being superior to the other. [You’re clearly not a supporter of that whole survival of the fittest mantra] Nor does it mean that the whole bit is relative. That’s a non sequitur. We prefer these traits because they’re infinitely better than the state of the brutes’ existence much less their potential. To deny that is to slap reason and sentience in the face.

    And morality isn’t a social contract. You’ve got the cart before the horse, or you’ve conflated the two entirely. Law and ethics are social contracts based on morality aka conscience.

    I’m glad you appreciated my reply. Your reply wasn’t nearly as inspired. Or perhaps I should say it was lacking in imagination. But then, you did say you’re tired. I’m smiling. ;]

    Regards to you and your little dog,
    Sirius Knott

  20. Sirius, oh great twinkling star,

    Humans torture and kill each other over silly beliefs — all part of their wonderful imaginations.
    They create violent art and ingenious ways to destroy each other — all part of their wonderful imaginations.

    If peaceful co-existence is the measure of superiority, then Bonobo Chimps have us beat. If freedom and dazzling daily scenery and lack of predators is a measure of superiority, then Eagles win. In flexibility in multiple environments and survivability determine superiority, then bacteria win. Sure, if imagination is your measure of superiority, humans win. But that choice is arbitrary. It is thou, oh holy Knott, whose misogynist habit seems to be slapping poor miss Reason bloody. (I had to engage in the banter you seem to relish to show I too could enter your peculiar Christian culture.)

  21. Sabio,

    Your prose is getting lazy. I love the way you paint a window black and then claim it provides no light. perhaps you should simply examine something as it exists. But to take your objections at face value: so what if man in his admitted depravity has misused his wonderful imagination and made it it, at times, a terrible thing. That wonderful imagination is still heads and shoulders above the brutes.

    Now try to stretch your imagination a little. Broaden your horizons. take your blinders off and see the world for what it is, not what your ideology demands it be. [Sublime psychosis, sabio!]

    Even misotheists like Dawkins get this, so you can’t be seriously of a mind that man is not superior to the beasts. How does Dawkins acknowledge the superiority of humanity: transcendence. We daily transcend the limitations of ecology and biology. While the brutes are forced to color inside the lines, slaves to their stomaches and their ecological niches, we go where we please. We’re not bound by the limits of flight-or-flight nature. No wonder that nature itself recognizes man’s otherness.

    If peaceful co-existence is a measure of superiority, then bonobos have had their equals in human history for all you paint it in blood. Your failure to acknowledge the brighter side of humanity is not at all novel amongst those who hate God. If you hate God, how can you not hate His image-bearer? To hate God is to hate oneself. You insult a good many human cultures who managed to co-exist peacefully for hundreds of years simply to spite humanity as a whole. And bonobo “society” is not without violence. The alleged peacefulness of the bonobo has been overrated to promote sexual deviancy as somehow beneficial.

    The eagle has no true freedom. It is bound by its morphology. Humanity can not only ascend to the skies [oh, these toolbearers are soooo much more than a chimp with a sodding rock], dive into the depths of the ocean and rocket beyond the earth itself. We can create virtual cyberspace, speed across vast distances and communicate across the world by tapping our fingers. But the eagle’s freedom is unparalleled? And the bacteria’s flexibility in multiple environments and survivability is also unparalleled? You live in a fantasy world, sabio.

    I’ll skip the dazzling scenery bit. If you think about it, there is unparalleled scenery that humans have captured and share with one another that no eagle could fathom. Even better, we can create scenery that doesn’t even exist: alien worlds, the recreated past, alternate realities, homes and buildings yet to be built. You sure the eagle has that one?

    And lack of predators? I don’t recall being on the menu lately, sabio.

    If imagination is my measure of superiority, you’re gonna have to step it up a little. You’re so hard at trying to force your point that you can’t see it’s a square peg for a round hole. Your bias doesn’t fit the facts.

    As for your charge that: “It is thou, oh holy Knott, whose misogynist habit seems to be slapping poor miss Reason bloody.”

    Your poor attempt at [Christian?] banter assures me that you are so unfamiliar with Mr. Reason that you don’t even know his gender.

    I should not mislead you. I have no peculiar Christian culture [unless we speak in generalities: ie.- fundamental biblical creationist christian]. I assure you I’m like nothing you’ve encountered before, but no one ever heeds that warning so why should you, eh?

    I’ll leave you with a final thought:

    “Imagination is better than knowledge.” – Einstein

    -Sirius Knott

    PS. Ad hominem is the atheist’s most played hand. That said, I’ve been called a good many things and, here again, your attempts at plays on my name betrays an almost systemic lack of imagination. You can offer nothing more sophisticated than a play on Sirius as a star? Oh holy Knott was better, conjuring up a dim association with a familiar carol, but altogether unseasonable.

  22. @ Knott — congratulations, I am determined you are a waste of time to dialogue with.

  23. @Sabio:

    If you say so.


    and I’m still smiling. ;]

  24. shaz

    this dialogue rocks

  25. Pizza Wolf

    @ Sabio…dont let your beliefs get in the way of your science.

    “At Dromoman, that was funny.
    You are right, only humans have imagination — they believe in Unicorns, talking donkeys, talking bushes, giants, bread falling from the sky and much more.”
    this really is besides the point. and more importantly, your opinion and interpretation of the situation.

    “Wait, my little dog backs at certain clouds, maybe they can see imaginary things too !
    Glad my dog can’t read Genesis, can’t imagine what sort of religion would be set up !”

    easy there fido. we already know you’ve got a bone to pick with religion. though personally i’d like a religion a dog set up…it would probably have alot to do with loyalty and love and balance…but thats my opinion and completely off topic.

    @Dromoman…same thing…dont let your beliefs get in the way of your facts.

    “hi sabio…
    we must be watching a different video. the message i got from goodall was –

    all animals are like us physically and psychologically smart, they even make tools, many similarities BUT (and this is a big BUT)

    they cannot project the future (which is imagination) and cannot theorize (science) which only HUMANS can.”

    ya know what…interpretation…two people can see the same thing and reach two opposite conclusions. and with your opinions differing as much as they do, i would expect you to reach different conclusions.

    @both yall…interpretation. anything is justifiable…just because something can be justified in a mind doesnt make it correct.

    on to the subject yes all animals are unique.

    my big question is: what makes us unique?
    i guess the answer would be in the scale of our thinking, the scope of our communication.

    we are obviously different to as a whole come up with the vast buildings and cities and cars and internet and spaceflight. but that doesnt really say how we are different…those are just the effects of our difference.

    in basic how are we different from animals…we’re not…we are animals. soul? i believe animals have souls (defining soul as unique personality…who you are). part of that kingdom…ect.
    so how are we able to come up with say…a car, fire, blacksmithing, controlled breeding, and Amway? what allows us to do this. creativity? I might put forward that is the combination of non-unique factors that create a unique package.

    what gives us as humans such great potential…i think it is our ability to work with each other. to unify ourselves in belief and in work…obviously not as a collective but as smallish groups…and then taking the smallish groups and creating larger groups.

    organization maybe? would that be what sets us apart.

    please dont comment on my reprimand of your expression and clashing beliefs…i’m more interested in what yall think of my combination of non-uniquities..

    and pardon my ramblings…i’m living on an average of 4 hours of sleep per night for the past 6 days or so.

    yall dont have to even respond…just throwing ideas out there.

  26. milo

    rofl, Sabio

    [censored for obsenity and violating comment policy]

  27. Earnest

    @ Sabio: wow this stream deteriorated in a hurry!

    I think the original position still stands, that it is very difficult to find truly crucial differences that have stood the test of rigorous scrutiny. The manic comments that spiraled more and more toward the end of the stream only lend support to the argument that truly very little has changed among branches of homonids, and perhaps much further back than that.

    Maybe I won’t be starting a blog! If I did I might have this sort of garbage thrown at me instead of just at you!

  28. Pingback: OK – Time To Get Serious About Assumption « Babaloo Bonzai's Zen Soup

  29. @Sabio:
    I admire how you answer questions which would make me lashing out in slanderous speech and arrogant righteousness. Very well handled. 🙂

  30. @ geromesoriano,
    Sorry, Idid not understand that. Was it sarcasm?

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