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.