Examining whether humans are unique, how to define humanity, and when humanity evolved.

Provincial

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This is a somewhat disappointing article. The author fails to define humanity or personhood, which means they can’t answer any of the questions posed. They also make statements which are just basically wrong - I know lots of people who hope to meet up with their pets when they get to heaven, and I know one or two who claim to be haunted by a deceased pet, so the statement that we don’t believe these things doesn’t stand up to the most basic scrutiny.

I find their quick review of mythology a bit suspect as well. I have never heard that we became human when Eve ate the apple and learned to distinguish between good and evil, I thought that they were expelled from Eden because they were in danger of becoming like God (or at least like the angels), and the gift of fire seems an intrinsically unlikely cause of humanisation; but perhaps cultural anthropologists (or whoever) see it differently and they at least have studied this stuff.

The evidence porridge presented does rather suggest that there isn’t a real physical difference between humans and animals, which leaves only the behavioural distinction - the fact that we have built complex societies which enable us to achieve more as a species than we ever could as individuals.

Is that enough to justify saying we are something other than animals?

Unlikely.
 

Venusian Broon

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The evidence porridge presented does rather suggest that there isn’t a real physical difference between humans and animals, which leaves only the behavioural distinction - the fact that we have built complex societies which enable us to achieve more as a species than we ever could as individuals.

Is that enough to justify saying we are something other than animals?

Unlikely.

Depends what you mean by 'achieve' in the above sentence. Ants, termites and bees to give some examples off the top of my head "achieve" more in social groups/species than they ever could in individuals. So it's not absent in the world with no humans.

If I were to tentatively put a unique difference between human animals and other animals, I might suggest "Information", or to be more specific, language, writing and all that follows from that. Knowledge, culture and data is passed on between generations in a way that other animals don't do.

However, I believe this to be a transient difference. Why couldn't another animal evolve similar methods and abilities? Plenty of other animals communicate with each other in various ways.
 

Dave

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I agree with Provincial (edit- and Venusian Broon - I cross posted.)
perhaps cultural anthropologists (or whoever) see it differently and they at least have studied this stuff.
I don't think even that is true either. Plenty of animals use tools, some very complex, and fire (though they don't start fires). The things that once would have been said to make us "human" have largely been shown not to be unusual. Some animals do communicate with languages, some do have complex social societies, some do make art, some are creative, many have self-awareness, even very simple animals. No other animal has all of those together, certainly. The article also talks about religion. While we don't discuss religion on the forum, I think it is safe to say that no one can say for definite that Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Homo erectus and Neanderthals didn't also have religions.

What we do have is a big brain, and one that allows us to think more deeply about abstract things, and to waste time reading articles like that one.
 

CupofJoe

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There is evidence that Neanderthals has burial practices. Individuals had been buried in specific ways with non-functional times. Which at least intimates a form of religion or at least a belief system. The dead mattered to them.
But this is the sort of thought exercise that made me stop reading Philosophy.
Some people will want to define humans as unique and at the top of the pyramid. Others will want humans to be not special at all.
As we appear to be the only species on the planet capable of destroying it for the rest of Life, I think Humans are special but not in a good way. More like the relative that you try to hide the alcohol from at family gatherings.
 

CupofJoe

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**puts on pedantic hat** I don't see this essay as philosophy at all, at best, it is pop anthropology.
As a lot of the article is about intangible concepts that are impossible to prove, I can see Philosophy wander all over it, stinking its oar in ;)
 

Wayne Mack

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This sounds like the difference between binary logic and fuzzy logic. In the latter, modifiers are used, so it is acceptable to say something like 'Humanity is pretty unique' and recognize there are both similarities and differences with other species.
 

Montero

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This is a somewhat disappointing article. The author fails to define humanity or personhood, which means they can’t answer any of the questions posed. They also make statements which are just basically wrong - I know lots of people who hope to meet up with their pets when they get to heaven, and I know one or two who claim to be haunted by a deceased pet, so the statement that we don’t believe these things doesn’t stand up to the most basic scrutiny.
Yes, that jarred for me too. If there is an afterlife, I don't see why animals can't be there too.

I found the article interesting in the points it raised, but I think all your criticisms are more than valid. More of a conversation starter than an answer provider, though the idea that if there was a spectrum of other hominids, making a more graduated link from us to animals, that we (or some of us) wouldn't then see a divide is new to me.

My view is the longer I live, the more similarities I see between animals and humans. I think most animals are less complex than most humans, but when you consider a range of species - sheep, cats, dogs, some birds - you can see a lot in common with all, plus differences - but when you have a spectrum of animals like that, you can find comparisons to different human behaviours. As in some people resonate more with dogs, some with cats, so what I am trying to say is humans are more complex and variable, but if you consider multiple types of animals, you can find matches for different parts of the complexities and variability seen in humans.
 

Provincial

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Yes, that jarred for me too. If there is an afterlife, I don't see why animals can't be there too.

I found the article interesting in the points it raised, but I think all your criticisms are more than valid. More of a conversation starter than an answer provider, though the idea that if there was a spectrum of other hominids, making a more graduated link from us to animals, that we (or some of us) wouldn't then see a divide is new to me.

My view is the longer I live, the more similarities I see between animals and humans. I think most animals are less complex than most humans, but when you consider a range of species - sheep, cats, dogs, some birds - you can see a lot in common with all, plus differences - but when you have a spectrum of animals like that, you can find comparisons to different human behaviours. As in some people resonate more with dogs, some with cats, so what I am trying to say is humans are more complex and variable, but if you consider multiple types of animals, you can find matches for different parts of the complexities and variability seen in humans.
I also found it interesting. The most fascinating bit was the suggestion that we began to evolve faster as we developed tools (and presumably tool-using behaviours) which allowed us to modify our environment!
 

Provincial

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I also found it interesting. The most fascinating bit was the suggestion that we began to evolve faster as we developed tools (and presumably tool-using behaviours) which allowed us to modify our environment!
I got called to dinner - my husband makes a pizza on Fridays - so I had to cut my comments short. The blog continues…

If it is true, then we created the selection pressures which speeded up our evolution. But was it the move to farming and settled villages which applied the selection pressure, or was it the social skills required to be successful in a society? Or both, perhaps? We need both schmoozers and uber-geeks to keep our societies functional, but I reckon they pull evolution in different directions.
 

Ursa major

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The bit I thought interesting -- more as a germ for a story than as science (to the extent of not bothering too much whether the "evidence" for it is there or not) -- was the suggestion that we were infantilised hominids (in the way that domestic cats and domestic dogs are infantilised versions of their wild forebears).

While we almost certainly have infantilised ourselves, there's the tiniest crack through which a suggestion that, perhaps, we might have been the "pets"** of other hominids might squeeze through and, if so, we eventually decided we didn't like our status and took action to rectify it. (Note that I write as someone who, from early on, has come to think that the hominids in the Culture are -- or very well could be -- the pets of the Minds.)


** - Other, less cosy, owner-owned relationships*** are available for consideration.

*** - I wasn't completely convinced by:
The DNA of Neanderthals, Denisovans and other hominins is found in us. We met them, and we had children together. That says a lot about how human they were.

It’s not impossible that Homo sapiens took Neanderthal women captive, or vice versa. But for Neanderthal genes to enter our populations, we had to not only mate but successfully raise children, who grew up to raise children of their own. That’s more likely to happen if these pairings resulted from voluntary intermarriage. Mixing of genes also required their hybrid descendants to become accepted into their groups – to be treated as fully human.
We have (quite recent) examples of the offspring of slaves or concubines becoming the heirs, sometimes the principal heirs, of their mother's owners.
 

RJM Corbet

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Humans are able to contemplate their own mortality -- to think about their own future death, and the implications. I wonder if any animals do?
 

Montero

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@Ursa major - yes, I liked the idea of infantalised hominids. I could certainly point to some people's behaviours that would support the idea of infantilised adults, but then makes me wonder what "true" adult behaviour should be - as in how not-infantilised hominids would behave.

@RJM Corbet Hhhm, that's an interesting thought. Animals certainly recognise the deaths of other animals. Are you thinking of an abstract contemplation of "one day I will die" or the direct and immediate, "if I fall off this cliff face/let that leopard catch me I will die"?

My other comment is that while humans can think of death in the abstract - as in one day I will die, a proportion of them (some starring on You Tube) seem to make little connection between doing crazy dangerous things and death.
 

RJM Corbet

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Are you thinking of an abstract contemplation of "one day I will die"
Yes, this one
a proportion of them (some starring on You Tube) seem to make little connection between doing crazy dangerous things and death.
There again, few animals would take totally gratuitous risks? I suppose there may be some mating advantage in appearing courageous enough to risk life just for fun. But even fighting is not something most animals do without good reason, because of the danger of injury
 

Montero

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Yes, this one

There again, few animals would take totally gratuitous risks? I suppose there may be some mating advantage in appearing courageous enough to risk life just for fun. But even fighting is not something most animals do without good reason, because of the danger of injury

So is your conclusion that animals have more sense than humans.....?
 

RJM Corbet

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So is your conclusion that animals have more sense than humans.....?
That one deserves some thought, lol

EDIT: Could it be that unlike animals, human beings are consciously able to act contrary to their instinct on occasion -- a quantum shift from purely animal sense?
 
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Montero

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I am not sure where I'd put the dividing line for instinctive and conscious behaviour. There are a lot of learnt behaviours, that become reflexive, it wouldn't be quite accurate to call it instinctive although you could - martial arts springs to mind - where you practice and practice and get it in muscle memory, so if someone grabs you from behind, you have a sequence of ingrained moves that this will trigger, before you have time to think about it.

I know that animals have the capacity to learn new behaviours - dog training for example, all the commands cats hand out - and say for dogs, the command "sit" will get a response from obedient dogs - though I do remember seeing one dog doing a low, hovering crouch, because he really, really didn't want to get his nether regions on the icy pavement. So he was consciously acting against the command...... :)

Having been around sheep, and their new born lambs, there is instinctive behaviour - the new born lamb will do his or her best to stand up and find the udder - often making little sucking movements with their lips and they find the udder because it is warmer, not having wool over it. Or on occasion one will get it a bit wrong and suck on a bit of wool. Human babies have the same kind of instinct to seek out the nipple. But after that, from what I can see, a lot of lamb behaviour is learned from their mother. Their instinct is to cling close to mother, and then they copy what mother does - so that is a learned behaviour. Within a week or so of birth, lambs start getting to know other lambs, and also start defying their mothers. Leave the barn and walk out into the rain? Nope, I'm going to sit here in the warm and dry and let you get wet while you graze. So sheep make a lot of conscious decisions.

I think one example of animals acting against instinctive behaviour, is if you do something that hurts or annoys, and they lash out or bite - but they see it is you and while it is their instinct to hit back at another being who hurt them, they suppress that instinctive reprisal and don't actually make contact. (Humans can do the same - though tends to be less scratching and biting....)
 

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