What Distinguishes Humans from Other Animals?

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Credit: Bowie15 | Dreamstime

There’s no certain answer to the question of what makes humans so unique, or whether we even are. The most important point of all arguments is whether our cognitive abilities vary from those of other animals “in some kind,” or to a certain degree. Should we say that we are in another class or just the smartest kid in our class?

Charles Darwin was one of the many supporters of the latter hypothesis. He considered humans similar to animals, that got out intelligence as a product of our higher evolution. However, Marc Hauser, director of the cognitive evolution lab at Harvard University, points out that “growing evidence shows, in contrast to Darwin’s theory of a progression of mind between humans and other animals, a significant gap that disconnects our intellect from the animal kingdom.”

Hauser and his teammates have pinpointed four abilities of the human intelligence that they think are essential for our “humaneness”. Mental traits and abilities that separate us from the rest of the creatures that live on this planet.

1. Generative computation

Humans can create virtually limitless variations of words and concepts. We can make that happen through two types of operations – recursive and combinatorial. The recursive operation gives us the option to apply an already learned rule to make new expressions. In combinatorial operations, we combine various learned elements to make a new concept.

2. Promiscuous combination of ideas

Hauser states that chaotic combination of ideas allows mixing knowledge from different areas of information like sexual life, art, everyday experiences, friendship and so on, which can lead to a vast amount of possibilities for generating new social relationships, technologies, and laws. We can even notice what’s been around us for our entire life.  ( Just like Newton did. )

3. Mental symbols

We use mental symbols to store sensory experiences. With them, we form our complicated systems of language and communication. The idea is that we can choose to represent them to others with the help of pictures or words, or we can keep them to ourselves.

4. Abstract thought

Abstract thought is the deep thought of things beyond what we can experience by sensory input.

“We can’t say that our mental abilities emerged fully developed out of nothing,” Hauser stated. “Scientists have discovered some of the components of human cognition in animals also. But these components make up only the cement base of the skyscraper that is the human mind. The evolutionary cause of our cognitive faculties thus remains rather cloudy. Still, clarity is rising from novel insights and experimental technologies, as the human race progresses in time.”

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