If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about why people are the way that we are. To many of us, this question matters quite a bit.
Sure, by definition, each species is unique. This said, Homo sapiens take uniqueness to a whole other level. As renowned evolutionary scholar Paul Bingham puts it: “Chimpanzees can take a stick, shove it into a hole in a log, take it out, and obtain hundreds of insects for a meal. Humans put a man on the moon.”
Glenn Geher Ph.D. is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York (link is external) at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn is founding director of the campus’ Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Think about that.
As an interdisciplinary evolutionary scholar, I have been fortunate to learn about some truly provocative ideas regarding “the human uniqueness problem” — or, more simply, why humans are the way we are. Here are five thought-provoking accounts of our origins from some of the top minds in the interdisciplinary field of evolutionary studies.
1. We are the linguistic ape. (Pinker, 1994)
While many of our advanced cognitive capacities may be byproducts of having very large brains, according to Steven Pinker, language is, in fact, a perfect example of a biological adaptation. Language corresponds to clearly specified regions of the brain, and language has clear functions that bear on survival and reproduction in our species.
What is unique about humans? We communicate linguistically.
2. We are the elite throwing ape. (Bingham & Souza, 2009)
Until ancestral hominids mastered the ability to accurately throw rocks at one another, no single species had ever had the capacity to exert large physical costs to conspecifics (members of the same species) from a distance. No other species of primate has the skeletal or muscular infrastructure needed for effective throwing. The ability to essentially kill from a distance is a unique feature of humans. And across human evolutionary history, our ancestors honed this capacity — leading to spears, cannons, guns, torpedoes, etc.
What is unique about humans? We can throw accurately and quickly over a long distance.
3. We are the extremely creative ape. (Miller, 2000)
Human creativity is off the charts. Humans create symphonies, write complex dramas, choreograph intricate dances, and more. According to Geoffrey Miller (2000), the primary thing that sets us apart is the fact that our minds were selected by nature to conspicuously display markers of creativity. As evidence of this, Miller points out that markers of creativity are highly attractive in the mating domain — and anything that is attractive in the mating domain will certainly pass the test of selection from an evolutionary standpoint.
What is unique about humans? Our creativity is without limits.
4. We are the reciprocating ape. (Trivers, 1971)
In a highly renowned explanation of apparently altruistic behavior, biologist Robert Trivers argued that humans perfectly fit the criteria for the evolution of reciprocal altruism, which exists when individuals within a species help others with unstated expectations of being paid back. Trivers argues that reciprocal altruism can only evolve in species that (a) live long lives; (b) have conspecifics that can recognize each other; and (c) have members that live in stable groups. Under such conditions, reciprocal altruism will pay selfish dividends. A quick look at humans shows that we fit these criteria well. Nearly our entire psychology has some bearing on the fact of reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism leads us to feel guiltwhen we do not return favors. It leads us to count acts of helpfulness of others in our group in a meticulous fashion. And it leads us to create norms in our groups such that helpful acts are expected to be returned.
What is unique about humans? Reciprocal altruism permeates our psychology on a daily basis.
5. We are the non-kin-based in-group ape. (Wilson, 2007)
It is pretty rare to find cooperation among non-kin in any species. But in humans, we see it all the time. In fact, according to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, the key to understanding human uniqueness is the fact that we form groups based on criteria that cut across kin lines. We feel connected to others from our home state. We play on recreational softball teams with a bunch of non-kin — in a coordinated fashion. Some of us go to church on Sundays and form deep connections with others in the congregation — regardless of shared kinship. When humans, in Wilson’s words, made this “great evolutionary leap,” we were on the fast track to awesomeness. Working with a large group of others, in a coordinated fashion, we can build cities, create universities, sail across the world, and more.
What is unique about humans? We form strong groups comprised of non-kin — all of whom work together in a coordinated fashion.
If you read my work, then you know that I am helplessly devoted to evolution and its power to advance our understanding of the world and our place in it. The work described herein shows just how out-of-the-box evolutionary explanations of humanity can be. At this same time, this work underscores the power of evolutionary ideas in helping elucidate the nature of humankind. Want to know what a human is? You better not disregard evolution.