What Made Us Human?

Articles

There can be little doubt that human beings are different from other animals. What other terrestrial creature notices its differences and seeks to understand itself to the extent that we do? But what makes us—and made us—unique?

Evolution demonstrates that we are biologically related to apes and other animals. And yet, how did our distinctive self-awareness, technological capabilities, and adaptability emerge? Our species accounts for about eight times as much as all other terrestrial wild vertebrates combined. Scientists who study these questions also note that our reliance on culture and cooperation is “a spectacular evolutionary anomaly.”

“The question of the causes of this uniqueness is one of the most philosophically and scientifically profound and compelling issues in current scientific research,” says William Kimbel, director of Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins (IHO). A new $4.9 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation is enabling a multifaceted, transdisciplinary research project that will help chart the processes that led us to becoming human.

Current investigations suggest that a number of key traits played crucial roles in our development. These include large brains, long life spans, complex communication skills, and the wide benefits of social learning. Compare those traits with chimpanzees, who can learn vocabulary of a few hundred terms, but never acquire the rules of grammar. The prosocial behavior of chimps is also strictly limited; they resist sharing food even with offspring, for example.

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For scientists, these observations prompt fundamental investigations into the behavioral, cognitive, and emotional differences that make humans unique. They raise basic questions around why and when such traits evolved in humans, and why not in other animals? That, in turn, prompts more specific inquiries about humans, from the advantage of standing on two legs to the nature of language. “It seems highly likely that the way in which human beings can utilize and share information will be key to any understanding,” Kimbel explains. “We do so with very high degrees of trust and also with an extraordinary capacity to symbolize and, therefore, develop and adapt what we know.” There is also the willingness of humans to exchange goods and insights with non-kin. “It is remarkable. We have somehow solved the problem of cooperating with extensive circles of individuals and evolved to have powerful senses of morality, fairness, justice, indignation, and guilt,” Kimbel continues.

The grant is the largest of its type for human origins research. “By supporting 11 linked projects, we will be able to integrate the findings from studies ranging from the first use of tools by early humans to the emergence of large-scale cooperation in modern societies,” Kimbel says. The grant will also support the development of the IHO’s award-winning website, BecomingHuman.org, an outreach effort led by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson who discovered the female hominid fossil known as “Lucy” 40 years ago. The website is a valuable resource for teaching and learning about human origins at pupils in primary and secondary schools. A series of research workshops and a public symposium are also planned. “We look forward to significant outcomes that can be shared with our peers, with society and with those who will be tomorrow’s discoverers,” affirms Arizona State University president, Michael M. Crow.

  • paulvonhartmann

    Any investigation into human social evolution, mental and physical development, must certainly include Homo sapiens’ ancient and deep physiological connection to the Cannabis plant. To overlook this obvious catalyst for intellectual innovation and essential sustenance would be fundamentally confounding to an holistic view.

  • Dovidw

    Based on the insight of Jiddu Krishnarmurti “Those who are sane in an insane society are by definition, themselves insane” and on from ” A.D Laing “Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” So for the purposes of my comment, I declare myself insane.Having discovered in 2006 a documentary site called 9/11Truth, I have accumulated a significant library of documentaries which all indicate with very convincing evidence that the total breakdown of the global society renders World War 3 not so much inevitable but that it has already started! To me it is entirely evident from my own research uncovering a multitude of independent documentary sources and most convincingly from revealed and hidden Biblical sources. In fact the ancient texts describe in detail how the end of days will look, and it”s just like this! So when I’m confronted by passionate pleas for funding for highly dubious activities “like finding what made us become human” I shudder to think what humanity is it that allows wars, poverty and mass human starvation? I’ve got a better question as in how did we start off as human and end up like this? And the answer, not mine I might add is summed up thus “When you deny man his spirituality, you deny him his humanity and render him a biped beast!”

  • http://www.drkevinlkeough.com/ Dr. Kevin L Keough

    Hello People, Permit me to post a poem or lyrics to a song that comes to mind as I read this page. Wow, didn’t expect to find references to pot. And R.D. Laing was my primary mentor until his death in 1989. I am very grateful for Sir John Templeton who I had the good fortune to speak to via telephone in the ’90’s. How did we get an award for being alive ?

    Nothing can take us far enough
    Emotion… far enough together
    As the light shines so bright
    Bright enough to let us in

    Nothing can bridge our souls.
    Devotion… fast enough together
    As the power proves you right
    Right enough to let you begin

    So many displaced among the future dreamers
    Realised their doubles
    Took a new step
    A question of origin

    Only in the recent past
    Seekers for to realise
    Skyward shone
    Like beacons
    A question of origin

    Ten thousand millions free
    To the westward light
    The dreamers represent
    This arc of peace

    As the poets entranced
    The anchor redeemed
    Secrets of science
    The history of the future
    Was surely made

    Just what keeps us so alive?
    Just what makes us realise?
    Our home
    Is our world, our life
    Home is our world

    Nothing can take us far enough
    Emotion… far enough together
    As the light shines so bright
    Bright enough to let us in

    Nothing can bridge our souls
    Devotion… fast enough together
    As the power proves you right
    Right enough to let you begin
    (Yeah!)

    Speak so fast to the prophets
    Of the living
    Looking for the signs
    Spanning out the centuries
    Search for truth

    Ancient ones… they watch
    And listen
    Carry our wishes…
    Took upon themselves to guide us
    Through the endless skies

    Just what keeps us so alive?
    Just what makes us realise?
    Our home
    Is our world, our life
    Our hope is our world, our life

    I have seen the passion
    That’s in the hope that everyone
    Will find their way into
    The secret of
    The home of your heart

    Living within the vision
    Within the power, beyond belief
    We see that hate destroys the soul
    Of anyone who tries to teach it

    I have seen the dream
    That’s in your heart
    That’s in your eyes
    To bring you closer to the one

    It’s what keeps us so alive
    It’s what makes us realise
    Our home is our world, our life
    Just what keeps us so alive?
    Just what makes us realise?
    Our home
    Is our world, our life
    Home is our world, our life

    Send, ascending to the secrets
    All is pure and clear to resolve
    Nothing can change us now
    Send, ascending to the future
    Nothing can ever change us now
    We follow the sun!
    We follow the sun!
    We follow the sun…

    Truth is a simple place
    Here for us all to see
    Reach as it comes to you
    As it comes to me
    As I will always need you inside my heart…

    Peace is a word we teach
    A place for us all to reach
    Sing as it sings to you
    As it sings to me
    As I will always need you inside my heart…

  • paulvonhartmann

    “Arrant nonsense” — really? Yet you concur…

    No, I didn’t mean “psychological connection.” There’s much more to mankind’s relationship with Cannabis (FYI, genus names are always properly capitalized, i.e. ‘Homo sapiens’) than just smoking it. The endocannabinoid system isn’t a pointless accident. Beyond the human-cannabinoid connection, essential nutrition in Cannabis seed determines optimal physical and mental development, beginning from the moment of conception. Cannabis is the best available source of EFAs, essential amino acids, proteins (edestin & albumin). Cannabis existed on Earth long before man. It was one of the first plants intentionally cultivated by our species, predating sedentism.