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Asked by Andrea Echeverria to LauraAnne, Katy, Helen on 17 Nov 2016.
Wow, this is quite a deep philosophical question. I’ll have a go and I’m sure some of the other scientists will be able to add in their perspectives too.
What makes humans different to our closest relatives – chimpanzees? I would say that the biggest different is in our brains. Humans have an incredible capacity for conscious thought. We don’t only exist in order to survive but we ask questions about the world around us, we learn, we solve problems by innovating, we tell stories and we dream. Although we perhaps don’t have the ability to communicate fully with chimps, so we can’t know exactly what goes on in their brains, we do know that humans have bigger brains that are more flexible and allow us to think and learn more quickly and in a more complex manner compared to our ape ancestors.
This outstanding ability of humans to innovate has led to the man-made society that we live in today, and humans have arguably had a much greater impact on the Earth over a much smaller period of time than any species before us. So, the question for the evolutionary biologists is – who or what will succeed us?
This is a huge question, and the answer is probably lots of different things. Our closest relations are the bonobos or chimpanzees; a study from a few years ago showed we share about 99% of our DNA with them, so we share a lot of similarities with them – but that 1% is different (and that 1% might be up to 35 million differences – some might have big effects, others won’t), so there is a certain amount of difference that comes from genetics.
A physical, mechanical difference is we always walk upright on two legs, which is unusual in the animal kingdom – even if some animals can walk on two legs, they typically use all four limbs to get around. How our brains work will be a huge difference, and one we don’t really understand yet. I think we share lots of things in common, but humans appear to be more advanced in their brain capacity and ability. Scientists have trained chimpanzees to communicate, but while humans are able to change word order to change meaning, animals can’t. Animals usually have a set of sounds they make to communicate, much smaller than the wide range of words humans have, and they don’t seem to be able to adapt the sounds to situations as well as humans can. Animals are capable of learning, same as humans, but humans can learn things for the sake of it, not to survive, and are able to appreciate and make things like art or music which is not something the animal kingdom can do. Humans can recognise when something could be done better, and can make a decision to go and change something for that reason. I think humans have an inbuilt sense of caring for one another which I don’t know if animals possess – while the protective maternal and herd instinct will be the same in both animals and humans, humans are able to care for others outside of their immediate circle.
This is an interesting read which gives lots of different examples of differences:
and of course another article which talks about the similarities:
This is a great question. Both Helen and Laura Anne have provided some great points already. Just to add one point that one of the key characteristics that makes us human appears to be that we can think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly. For instance, we are the only species with the foresight capable of deliberately plotting a path toward a long-term future.
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