What Makes Us Human?

Given the discussion last week about Adam, Noah, and the early hominids, I’d like to rerun this previous post from the book: Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience by Malcolm Jeeves.   It covered Chapters 9-12 in the book, the chapters being: Chapter 9: What Makes Us Human? The Development of Evolutionary Psychology, Chapter 10: Are Humans Different? What About Morality in Animals, Chapter 11: What is the Difference Between Altruism, Altruistic Love, and Agape?, and Chapter 12: Does Language Uniquely Define Us as Humans?

I’ve lumped chapters 9-12 together because, in them, Jeeves is exploring the question; what makes us unique from other animals?  I think that is a worthwhile question to discuss.

Jeeves begins by noting that the question has a long history of being raised.  He quotes from a review of Frans de Waal’s bookGood Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals” (and notes he is a leader in the field):

From the beginning philosophers have agonized over the question of what makes us humans.  Is the difference in kind or merely a difference in degree between ourselves and other animals?”

I think that puts the question in its basic essence: difference in kind or merely in degree?  Blaise Pascal wrote in 1659:

It is dangerous to show a man too clearly how much he resembles the beast, without at the same time showing him his greatness.  It is also dangerous to allow him too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness.  It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both.

The discussion among Imonk commenters last time pretty well concluded that the difference between humans and other animals isn’t the presence of some immaterial soul magically implanted by God.  In fact the demonstration from the Bible itself (as exegeted by professor of Old Testament at Asbury seminary, Lawson Stone) shows we are “souls” that is “living beings” as are at least the higher, more sentient animals.

The main issue in this chapter, for Malcolm’s student, is the evolutionary basis of evolutionary psychology.  If you believe that God’s mechanism of bringing humans into existence was a special, instantaneous, creation event, then you are going to view evolutionary psychology as presuppositional atheistic materialism.  If you believe that evolution was God’s mechanism for creation then “out of the dust of the ground” becomes the metaphor for God forming us through a process of development from non-living matter to living simple organisms to living complex organisms to living complex organisms that recognize and relate to him.

So what characteristics of the mind are uniquely human?  Jeeves cites research on “mind reading” or the ability of an animal to understand the mind of another animal.  Jeeves cites the work of Michael Tomasello who published a study in 2010 where he gave a comprehensive battery of cognitive tests to three groups: a large number of chimpanzees, a group of orangutans and a large group of two and half year old children.  The test battery apparently consisted of a whole lot of different nonverbal tasks designed to assess cognitive skills, involving physical and social problems.  Tomasello and his colleagues found that, as reported in the past, the children and the apes show similar skills when dealing with the physical world, but already by age 2 1/2 the children had more sophisticated cognitive skills than either of the ape species studied when it came to dealing with the social world.  “Distinct species-unique skills” of what the researchers called social cognition had emerged in the children by age two and a half.

The next chapter deals with the question of morality in animals.  Jeeves first discusses recent research that show the existence of “cultures” in animals.  He notes a study by Frans de Waal that showed tool use in a subset of chimpanzees that seemed to be passed on by culture and tradition, and another study from McMaster University in 2010 that showed similar social learning in mongooses, animals not normally regarded as close to us from an evolutionary point of view.

Jeeves then quotes Francisco Ayala, leading American evolutionary biologist, who believes the clue to understanding how humans differ from non-human primates is to be found in the difference between what Ayala and fellow evolutionary biologists call adaptations and exaptations.  Ayala (“The Difference of Being Human: Morality”, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 107, May 11, 2010: 9015-22) says:

Evolutionary biologists define exaptations as features of organisms that evolved because they served some function but are later co-opted to serve an additional or different function, which was not originally the target of natural selection.  The new function may replace the older function or co-exist together with it.  Feathers seem to have evolved first for conserving temperature, but were later co-opted in birds for flying… The issue at hand is whether moral behavior was directly promoted by natural selection or rather it is simply a consequence of our exalted intelligence, which was the target of natural selection (because it made possible the construction of better tools).  Art, literature, religion, and many human cultural activities might also be seen as exaptations that came about as consequences of the evolution of high intelligence…

The capacity for ethics is an outcome of gradual evolution, but it is an attribute that only exists when the underlying attributes (i.e. the intellectual capacities) reach an advance degree.  The necessary conditions for ethical behavior only come about after the crossing of an evolutionary threshold.  The approach is gradual, but the conditions only appear when the degree of intelligence is reached such that the formation of abstract concepts and the anticipation of the future are possible, even though we may not be able to determine when the threshold was crossed.

What Ayala is saying is what I was trying to get across with my analogy of water flow going from subcritical to supercritical.  Not everything in nature is a gradual continuum or spectrum.  Sometimes there are “nick points” when a certain threshold is reached and a jump is made to a wholly different level from what existed before.  After all, whoever went to Africa to study a group of nonhuman primates and found they had hospitals, libraries, technology parks, art galleries, churches, symphony orchestras and so on and so on?  It seems to me that it has become too easy to gloss over these enormous and fundamental differences, but the question is why, with such similar brains, are we so comprehensively different?

honey pot worker ants

In Chapter 11, Jeeves discusses altruistic behavior in humans and animals.  Evolutionary theory attempts to answer the question of self-sacrificial behavior by arguing that genes favoring altruism can spread in future generations if their costs to the altruist’s personal reproductive success is outweighed by the benefits in reproductive success of altruists’ relative carrying copies of the same genes – what is called “kin selection”.  Second, it proposes that genes favoring altruism could spread if the altruism is sufficiently reciprocated, what is called “reciprocal altruism”.  One of the most graphic examples of the first is honey-pot worker ants, who do nothing but hang from the ceiling of their ant colony, acting as receptacles or storage jars for honey, which some workers fill them with and which the colony draws on when needed.  At an individual level, that is self-sacrifice.  Examples of reciprocal altruism appear to be much rarer.  The classic example is vampire bats, who are in real danger of starving if they do not get their blood meal on a particular evening.  If this happens they are fed back in their colony by an unrelated nest mate, to whom they are likely to repay the favor on another night.

These two examples necessitate a warning: we must not assume that because two behaviors are similar, the mechanisms underlying them are necessary similar or identical.  Jeeves notes that leading evolutionary psychologist Frans de Waal has written helpfully about how to understand altruistic behaviors, as well as other kinds of behaviors, that traditionally have been regarded as showing evidence of some sort of moral sense in an individual or group.  In his book, Good Natured, de Waal warns against unthinking reductionism.  He cautions:

Even if animals other than ourselves act in ways tantamount to moral behavior, their behavior does not necessarily rest on deliberations of the kind we engage in.  It is hard to believe that animals weigh their own interests against the rights of others, that they develop a vision of the greater good of society, or that they feel lifelong guilt about something they should not have done.”  And he goes on, “To communicate intentions and feelings is one thing; to clarify what is right, and why, and what is wrong, and why, is quite something else.  Animals are no moral philosophers.”  Of the moral sense he later writes, “The fact that the human moral sense goes so far back in evolutionary history that other species show signs of it plants morality firmly near the center of our much-maligned nature.”

De Waal gives a good summary of the issue, I think, and it points again to the “nick point” nature of the evolutionary transition from non-human to human.

The waggle dance – the direction the bee moves in relation to the hive indicates direction; if it moves vertically the direction to the source is directly towards the Sun. The duration of the waggle part of the dance signifies the distance.

In the next Chapter 12: Does Language Uniquely Define Us As Humans, Jeeves take a similar tact in the discussion.  He notes the abundant research that shows all types of rudimentary language use in animals from the bee waggle dance to the learning of sign language in the great apes. But then he quotes from a 2006 report of a working group of the Academy of Medical Sciences in Britain, “The Use of Nonhuman Primates in research.”

The outstanding intelligence of humans appears to result from a combination and enhancement of properties found in non-human primates, such as theory of the mind, imitation, and language, rather than from unique properties.

So what about love, and in particular, agape love?  Jeeves notes:  Altruism is what we might call having regard for the actions or motivations of others.  Altruistic love normally adds an additional feature, a deep affirmative affect, to altruism.  And agape is altruistic love extended to all humanity.  But in addition to that, it has a very special use in the hands of the New Testament writers.  There agape is the Greek word used to describe a form of unlimited altruistic love seen supremely in the self-giving love of Christ on the cross (and in rough equivalents in Judaism, Buddhism and other great religious traditions).  Jeeves concludes:

My own view is that from a Christian perspective there are no grounds for believing that we are all created identical in terms of things like personality.  Indeed, the apostle Paul makes it clear that we are in fact all very different and we have many different gifts.  I was reminded recently when reading some of the things that the apostle Paul had to say to Christians at Corinth about the way that some of them were boasting about themselves and their behavior.  Paul said that by the standards of the world, the Corinthians may have had something of which to boast, but that Christians do not accept the standards of the world.  Christians acknowledge that in themselves they are nothing.  They owe everything to the grace of God and there is no place for boasting about one’s achievements.  As Christians we acknowledge that we are all different, and it is the grace of God that enable us, in the context of the individual differences, to show agape love as much as we are able.

27 thoughts on “What Makes Us Human?

  1. For a long time such tool-making was the non-Spiritual definition of human sentience.

    Then we found out other primates also not only use but create tools (in the example given, stripping twigs and leaves off the raw stick to “manufacture” the tool).

    At which point, one comment was “We either change the definition of human or invite the chimpanzees to send representatives to the UN.”


  2. And?

    This is one of the Verses beloved of YECs.
    Without any commentary, you’re just shooting off a Bible Bullet with no clue as to where you’re shooting from.


  3. Not much to add except that Frans de Waal is a very readable author. One of my favourites. Highly recommended.


  4. When Grog uttered that first adjective, and Urgh on the other side of the cave understood him, they were not following a tradition, they were doing something completely new. They took a leap away from the known routine of their linguistic existence to sail across the chasm you mentioned earlier. Think of those hominids in front of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey — they were at the threshold of the new, the novel.


  5. that we ask the question at all ‘makes us human’ . . . humankind are a ‘questing’ species, seeking answers, longing for where we know will be ‘home’ . . . . hopeful and trusting ‘even though Thou slayest me, yet will I trust in Thee’ (Job 13:15)

    we ‘become’ human by way of the journey

    (On the tall, slender, new masts) (Lord, that is my darling there on top)
    (I can still see my love) (Walking on deck under sail)
    (Blow softly, gently, oh North Wind)


  6. kindness . . . the people who comment here have an uncommon kindness and out of that, one feels blessed and strengthened



  7. “And I stood stunned as the scene, as it so closely resembled one that I had observed many times with my own children.
    And I said to myself, more as a statement than a question, “We aren’t that different, are we.””

    Michael Bell, if you can say this,
    then you are in truth a human person made in the image of God.


  8. The incredible thing is that Urgh on the other side of the cave understood him.

    He who denigrates “tradition” would do well not to investigate language too closely lest the seemingly solid surface under his comfortable bohunk dissolve into air, yea, vacuum, and he be hurtled headlong into the starry void.


  9. Sometime around 2,000,000 BC, Grog looks out the cave entrance in the midst of a relentless two-day long deluge, and exclaims in a loud, deperate voice, “Rain…….UHG!LY!”


  10. The genesis of drama in Ancient Greece.
    Oh, to have been in the audience the first time Aeschylus peeled the antagonist away from the chorus.
    But no human creator ever equaled the first hominid to use an adjective.

    That is when we soared across the chasm.


  11. Just wanted to tell Mike Geologist that I’m so grateful for his fine work and writing in bringing to our attention these interesting and relevant ideas from science. You do such a good job summarizing what’s in these works. It’s evident you expend the time and effort to make clear the essential points. Thank you again!



  12. One of my big “Aha!” moments was when I was visiting the Toronto Zoo, and I observed a mother Gorilla, sitting, leaning against a wall breastfeeding its baby and stroking the baby’s back while she was doing so.

    And I stood stunned as the scene, as it so closely resembled one that I had observed many times with my own children.

    And I said to myself, more as a statement than a question, “We aren’t that different, are we.”


  13. And the earliest human story-telling is about the realm of the sacred, what we would call religious. Animals, spirits, gods, holy places and objects, sacred activities — including things like hunting and gathering, since in early human experience there is no divorce between the sacred and the everyday, they are of a piece.


  14. This is what children do; that’s a big part of what’s so endearing about it. Mature adult thought and behavior is different.



  15. Yes, story telling is facilitated by language but goes beyond language. And I agree, for the most part, that it is a difference in kind not just in degree between human and animal communication. However one must wonder a bit when Koko the gorilla can learn sign language and then in turn use it to tell jokes or lie by blaming her cat for something she broke.


  16. I know exactly what makes us human but I’ve been sworn to secrecy.

    Seriously though when we’ve figured out what makes us human then tell me why my brother can sit down with a pencil and paper and free hand a photo realistic portrait in a few minutes while I can barely manage stick men. Same genes. (Of course I got the looks.)


  17. Language.

    Human language is not a difference in degree from other methods of animal communication. It is a difference in kind.

    Reductionism won’t work here.


  18. There is still a deep well of mystery concerning all things spirit, mind and soul. After thousands of years worth of philosophy, science and religion it is no less elusive. On another note, blessings again to you Christiane our friend.


  19. ” God’s creative work is usually characterized by an immensity of unhurried time and unlimited space”

    ‘I saw Eternity the other night,
    Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
    All calm, as it was bright;
    And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
    Driv’n by the spheres
    Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
    And all her train were hurl’d ‘
    – Henry Vaughan


  20. We tend to look at the dramatic stories in the Bible, and even the sacred literature of other religious traditions, and extrapolate from them that God does things suddenly most of the time; but the creation all around us tells us otherwise: the dramatic and sudden are exceptions, and that God’s creative work is usually characterized by an immensity of unhurried time and unlimited space. “Eternity is in Love with the Productions of Time” — William Blake.


  21. Yes, other animals change their environment. Beavers make dams and bees make hives and so on. But two things are different. First, these seem to be more instinctual than chosen behaviors.

    I’ve read that in some species, tool-making — for instance the use of sticks to get ants out of ant holes for food consumption (I can’t remember what species does this!) — is a skill taught by one generation to another, by one individual of the species to another, not instinctual.


  22. From the beginning philosophers have agonized over the question of what makes us humans. Is the difference in kind or merely a difference in degree between ourselves and other animals?

    Enough of a difference in degree may produce a difference in kind. And in the case of human uniqueness among the animals, that difference in degree of a great enough magnitude to produce a difference in kind may have happened across numerous characteristics. Perhaps characteristics developing in this way may even have fed into other characteristics, catalyzing a cascading group of similarly developing characteristic in the same way? In this way, numerous characteristics that have changed in a large enough degree to constitute changes in kind may constitute a package of developed changes that mark humanity as unique, rather than any one characteristic developed in this way.


  23. Mike, great post as usual.

    My own thoughts are that what makes us human is not any one ability, but rather that as humans we have a distinctive way of relating to humanity. To put it is briefly as possible: other animals take the world as it is, while humans, as best we can, form the world to purposes and ends.

    Yes, other animals change their environment. Beavers make dams and bees make hives and so on. But two things are different. First, these seem to be more instinctual than chosen behaviors. Second, they seem to be chosen towards meeting physical needs only.

    This is related to the fact that we alone can conceptualize a future. As Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology, notes in the NYT:

    “Some of our unconscious powers of prospection are shared by animals, but hardly any other creatures are capable of thinking more than a few minutes ahead. Squirrels bury nuts by instinct, not because they know winter is coming. Ants cooperate to build dwellings because they’re genetically programmed to do so, not because they’ve agreed on a blueprint.”

    To put it simply, other animals live a descriptive existence. We live a prescriptive one. We are able, because of our abstract reasoning, to understand counter-factuals. Thus we can picture in our minds a different reality than what we see with our eyes alone. We can make value judgements about whether that alternate reality is preferable, not simply in the sense of meeting our basic needs, but morally and aesthetically better. We can also, because of our power of prosepection, understand that that alternate reality is an actual possibility that we can work towards. And, because of our fully formed and abstract communication skills, we can explain and persuade others to work towards this same goal.

    Thus, humans exist in a different relation to reality than the other animals. To me, this is the essence of human uniqueness. This is at the heart of what it means to be those who image God. We are sub-creators.


  24. Genesis 2:7
    And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: