The Quest for Human Uniqueness

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image: Ken Lee

Language and the ability to use tools are often held up as evidence of the uniqueness of humans. But even though these distinct traits seemingly set us far apart from other animals, scientists have yet to find evidence that we are as different as we have always thought. In fact, neuroscientists, geneticists and anthropologists have examined our genes, brains and behaviors in detail, only to find more evidence that we share many common threads with other species.

The very fact that we can think about the question of our uniqueness indicates that humans are somehow different from other animals. But why has it been so difficult to pinpoint the origins of this uniqueness, one that lies at the heart of our identity?

One problem that prevents us from clearly identifying our distinctiveness is the structure of the brain itself. Even though the organization of the human brain is highly complex, the basic organization is something that we share with other mammals. And even when you look at human brain tissue under a microscope, it looks very similar to the tissue of non-human primates, such as chimpanzees and orangutans.

If you dig a little deeper, looking at the genetic information that makes us what we are, the similarities between humans and chimpanzees largely remain. Nearly every human gene has an equivalent in the chimpanzee’s genetic information. Chimpanzees even share genes that have been linked to human language. To this day, scientists still don’t know which genes are essential for giving rise to our human distinctiveness.

So how did we become so different, while remaining so mysteriously similar? The answer to this is might be evolution. Through this generations-long process, organisms give rise to other organisms not by starting from scratch, but by adding to and modifying the structures and mechanisms that are already there. The human brain isn’t a fresh start as much as it is a primate brain, tweaked.

In spite of all our similarities to other organisms, one trait will always set humans apart—our never-ending quest to find what makes us unique.  But whatever makes us “human,” our bodies and minds will always remain part of an ancient plan that has been running along for millions of years, long before humans even started pondering why they are different. Perhaps Einstein has already formulated the answer to this question better then any other scientist today:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

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