Human, Distinctively Human?

This is the first section of a two part blog post. The second piece will be posted next Friday.

Written by: Jordan Ehrlich

Human, Distinctively Human?

The theme is All Too Human. So what makes us human? How are we so different from other species on Earth? These are age old questions deep thinkers have been juggling for years. Our advanced vocabulary and incredible collection of information is remarkably unique. Outside this fact, it is difficult to articulate what makes us so existentially different from other animals. Why do we deserve such power over other living things?

So I’d like to propose something different.

Maybe the human being is not so distinct. Maybe we are just a part of one continuously amorphous species. Indiscrete.

To reach this conclusion, I’ve looked to what other TED speakers have been saying on the topic. Three particular speakers caught my attention as presenting the best analyses of our past, present, and future states as a species.

Let’s start with the past. Spencer Wells explains in his 2007 TED Talk, A Family Tree for Humanity, the methods and conclusions of anthropologists while studying our history. He tells that even though homo erectus evolved about 1 million years ago, it wasn’t until about 60,000 years ago that our cultural lives began to resemble what they are today. Wells acknowledges that we were “in a period of long cultural stasis from a million years ago until 60,000 years ago.” But then toward the end of that period, art and advanced tools rapidly became more highly crafted. Simply put, history shows that even once we genetically identified as humans, our definitive lifestyles remained always changing. Our lifestyles are indiscrete.

He goes on to explain that, before this, our direct ancestors shared tools similar to those used by our cousin species, the neanderthal, who lived at the same time. This is an intriguing point because it demonstrates our coexistence with remarkably similar, yet slightly different species throughout our evolutionary history.

We like to think of ourselves as much more sophisticated and advanced beings than any other on Earth. But are we now, too, coexisting with similarly advanced creatures?

Jane Goodall might say so. In her 2002 TED Talk titled What Separates Us From Chimpanzees?, Goodall discusses how chimpanzees have characteristics we used to believe were exclusively held by humans.

She mentions two chimpanzee’s in particular: Ai, a chimpanzee in captivity in Japan, and David Graybeard, a chimp she studied in the wild. She was impressed by Ai’s ability to operate certain computer programs at a faster rate than many humans and to display a wide range of emotions and communicative intelligence. However, more striking to Goodall was her observation of David Graybeard. She articulates that though we previously knew humans to be the only species who to use tools, this chimpanzee was seen using a long blade of grass to drive ants out of their nest for him to eat. This is evidence that our use of external devices isn’t as creative as our egos might boast. These points considered, we appear less of a superior species and more as a point on a spectrum depicting sophistication of living things.

Now, not only has our lifestyle historically been ever-changing and indiscrete, we’re finding that our defining characteristics at present are shared by other species. So why are we so special?

This analysis may have spawned more questions than answers. But that’s okay. Because maybe the answer is just that. Ambiguous. As our past and present existence might suggest, the homo sapien might just be a point on the spectrum of life’s sophistication. Not so easily distinguishable. Indiscrete.

Next week’s blog will use Amber Chase’s Talk, We Are All Cyborgs Now, to illustrate the, also ambiguous, future state of the human race. Stay tuned.