Scientific Testimonies to Human Uniqueness
Are humans really all that different from other species? Yes! Here's how ...
Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund recently reported on the results of a massive survey of Americans’ views on science. She found that Americans’ approach to science is shaped by two fundamental questions:
- What does science mean for the existence and activity of God?
- What does science mean for the sacredness of humanity?
I tried to give a way of thinking about #1 in my post a couple weeks ago, Does God Guide Evolution? Here, I’ll address #2.
Behind the question is a very real worry that accepting evolution (and specifically, common ancestry) undermines our ability to say humans are somehow different or unique with respect to the rest of the created order. Darwin himself, in his The Descent of Man, gave voice to this view that humans differ only in degree—not in kind—from the rest of life. He said,
There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense … Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, &c., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.1
That is an all-too-common view on what evolution means for our identity as humans: we’re nothing but animals that have learned a few new tricks. But that view is woefully out of date and needs to stop being perpetuated.
Today there is impressive evidence from a range of scientific disciplines that points to the uniqueness of humans. The tricky part is that many of our unique attributes and abilities have precursors that are detectable to varying degrees in other species. That means there very well may be a natural story to be told about how we have developed these attributes and abilities (in the same way there are natural stories about how the earth formed and babies develop). The important point, though, is that how we came to be does not determine the kind of thing we are.
In the last couple of years, I’ve surveyed a good amount of the recent literature related to human nature. Below is a selection of quotations from this literature, attesting to various facets of human uniqueness, from scholars across many disciplines. None of these scholars have religious motivations for their conclusions (so far as I know), but rather are presenting the results of empirical research. If you know of other similar quotations, please put them in the comments.
On Cooperation and Sociality
From behavioral economists Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher in a paper in the journal Nature:
Human societies represent a huge anomaly in the animal world. They are based on a detailed division of labour and cooperation between genetically unrelated individuals in large groups. This is obviously true for modern societies with their large organizations and nation states, but it also holds for hunter-gatherers, who typically have dense networks of exchange relations and practise sophisticated forms of food-sharing, cooperative hunting, and collective warfare. In contrast, most animal species exhibit little division of labour and cooperation is limited to small groups. Even in other primate societies, cooperation is orders of magnitude less developed than it is among humans, despite our close, common ancestry.2
On Moral Responsibility
From psychologist C. Daniel Batson in the introduction to his book What’s Wrong with Morality?:
Morality is often celebrated as the bright star that shines at the pinnacle of human evolution. Indeed, at the pinnacle of all evolution. It’s what separates us from the rest. We’re the species that curbs selfish impulses, cooperates with one another, builds cities and civilizations. The ones created in the image of God.3
From psychologist Thomas Suddendorf in The Gap:
Chimpanzees do not show any overt signs of guilt and shame, such as facial blushing that would signal that they had violated their own conscience. There is also little evidence to suggest that animals police others’ conformity to norms (if indeed they have them) and punish transgressions… There are few signs that any bystanders (those not directly affected) reward and punish obligatory and forbidden acts. Nor do I know of any evidence that animals like Washoe, after rescuing the young chimpanzee, reap status and respect from group members acknowledging their bravery… As we saw, in humans third-party reinforcement and promotion of moral norms are critical. Given the limits of communication and intentional teaching in the animal kingdom, it is difficult to see how animals could pontificate and moralize. It remains possible that chimpanzees and other social animals have precursors of social norms, but there is little reason to believe that they have anything like human moral codes.4
From evolutionary biologist Kevin Laland in his book Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony:
A long list of strong claims of human uniqueness—humans are the only species to use tools, to teach, to imitate, to use signals to communicate meanings, to possess memories of past events and anticipate the future—have been eroded by science as careful research into animal cognition has revealed unanticipated richness and complexity in the animal kingdom. Yet the distinctiveness of human mental ability relative to that of other animals remains striking, and the research field of cooperative cognition has matured to the point where we can now be confident that this gap is unlikely to be eroded away completely. A hundred years of intensive research has established beyond reasonable doubt what most human beings have intuited all along; the gap is real. In a number of key dimensions, particularly the social realm, human cognition vastly outstrips that of even the cleverest nonhuman primates.5
From paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall in his book Becoming Human:
What truly makes us different from other living creatures is exactly what we feel makes us different: our unique cognitive capacities. Quite (and deceptively) simply, we are more intelligent than other species are. And not simply more intelligent—numerous species are more intelligent than others—but differently intelligent, in a manner that allows us not only to view ourselves, but also to manipulate the environment around us, in a qualitatively unique way.6
From philosopher Mary Midgley in her book The Ethical Primate:
What about other animals? We know little of their inner lives and ought not to dogmatize about it, but, crudely speaking, though they do struggle to harmonize conflicting motives, they plainly do not have anything like our power of dealing with it by standing back from their various motives, by taking the point of view of the whole, and trying to make some kind of balanced decision. They have other distinctive powers, but not this one. That difference is indeed sufficiently striking to make human life radically different and to furnish us with such unique dignity as we actually have.7
From neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book The Symbolic Species:
Though we share the same earth with millions of kinds of living creatures, we also live in a world that no other species has access to. We inhabit a world full of abstractions, impossibilities, and paradoxes. We alone brood about what didn’t happen, and spend a large part of each day musing about the way things could have been if events had transpired differently. And we alone ponder what it will be like not to be . . . The doorway into this virtual world was opened to us alone by the evolution of language, because language is not merely a mode of communication, it is also the outward expression of an unusual mode of thought—symbolic representation. Without symbolization the entire virtual world that I have described is out of reach: inconceivable.8
From psychologist Michael Tomasello in his book Origins of Human Communication:
Amazing though this process is from the point of view of animal communication in general, it still differs from human communication in some fundamental ways… When one human points for another, the recipient implicitly asks herself why—why does he think that looking in that direction will be useful or interesting for me? This is based on the assumption that he is indeed pointing for her benefit . . . In contrast, great apes cannot and do not assume that the other is pointing for their benefit, and so they do not ask themselves, “why does he think this is relevant for me?” They want to know what he wants for himself (since when they point it is always for themselves), not how he thinks their looking in this direction will be relevant for them—and so they simply do not see another’s pointing gesture as relevant to their own goal . . . The general point is that when communication becomes governed by more cooperative motives—not just individual intentionality, but shared intentionality—a whole new inferential process ensues.9
From neuroscientist Raymond Tallis in his book Aping Mankind:
Humans woke up from being organisms to being something quite different: embodied subjects, self-aware and other-aware in a manner and to a degree not approached by other animals. Out of this a new kind of realm was gradually formed. This, the human world, is materially rooted in the natural world but is quite different from it. It is populated by individuals who are not just organisms, as is evident in that they inhabit an acknowledged, shared public sphere, structured and underpinned by an infinity of abstractions, generalizations, customs, practices, norms, laws, institutions, facts, and artefacts unknown to even the most “social” of animals. It is in this common space that, as selves that actively and knowingly lead lives in conjunction with other selves, our human destinies are played out.10
From philosopher Daniel Dennett in his book Breaking the Spell:
Our ability to devote our lives to something we deem more important than our own personal welfare—or our own biological imperative to have offspring—is one of the things that set us aside from the rest of the animal world. A mother bear will bravely defend a food patch, and ferociously protect her cub, or even her empty den, but probably more people have died in the valiant attempt to protect sacred places and texts than in the attempt to protect food stores or their own children and homes. Like other animals, we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal, but we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives. This fact does make us different, but it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science. How did just one species, Homo sapiens, come to have these extraordinary perspectives on their own lives?11
From anthropologist Jonathan Marks in his book Tales of the Ex-Apes:
Humans are universally interested in who they are and where they come from. Sharks, elephants, bats, chimpanzees, and other species are not. Or if they are, it is only in ways that inaccessible and unfathomable to us, and always will be. This fact immediately establishes the case for human exceptionalism. We are different from other species in that we do attempt to situatie ourselves in a social and historical universe, and thereby make sense of our existence. We are sense-making creatures—that is one of the functions of our most prominent organ, the brain—and we create that sense in many different ways, culturally.12
 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter III (“Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals”), in The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (New York: The Modern Library, 1936) p. 494-495.
 Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher, “The nature of human altruism” Nature 425, 785-791 (23 October 2003), p. 785.
 C. Daniel Batson, What’s Wrong with Morality? A Social-Psychological Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 1.
 Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (Basic Books, 2013), p. 208-209.
 Kevin N. Laland, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 14.
 Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness (Harcourt, 1998), p. 32.
 Mary Midgley, The Ethical Primate: Humans, Freedom, and Morality (Routledge, 1994), p. 24.
 Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain (W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), p. 21-22.
 Michael Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication (MIT Press, 2010), p. 52-53.
 Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind (Routledge, 2014) p. 11.
 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena (Penguin, 2006), p. 4.
 Jonathan Marks, Tales of the Ex-Apes: How We Think About Human Evolution (University of California Press, 2015), p. ix.