TED Conversations

Sid Tafler

This conversation is closed.

Which attribute most makes humans different than all other life forms on earth?

Humans are the dominant species on earth. Or to put it more humbly, perhaps we are the species that has more impact on the planet, good and bad, than any other.
So which single attribute had made us more fundamentally different from all others over the last few hundred thousand years?
Is it our ability to make and control fire? Our legendary opposable thumbs? Our ability to communicate? Our social connections with other humans, or our spiritual explorations? Or some other factor?
Perhaps in your response you will demonstrate the attribute you chose by example.

Share:
  • thumb
    Apr 10 2012: Your question is the answer to your question.

    Humans spend time in introspection, in questioning, in debates, in contemplation of the motives of their actions. Animals do not question why they do what they do, they simply act, react, or do not act, depending on immediate responses to any given situation.

    Years ago, i read some poem that goes something like:
    Animals sing. So do we, but we make it into music.
    Animals breed. So do we, but we also make it into love..
    Animals kill. So do we, but we try to feel remorse.

    I've probably butchered the poem, but you get the genral point.
    • W T 100+

      • 0
      Apr 10 2012: Hey Verble, Nicely said.

      The fact that we can ask this question and then have everyone voice their opinions
      makes us humans.......we develop a desire to communicate very, very early.........as this video
      well demonstrates ;D

      http://youtu.be/_JmA2ClUvUY

      Nice poem BTW
  • thumb
    Apr 9 2012: Hello Sid, thanks for your question.

    I would answer that the attribute that makes humans different (not one I can be very proud of, i must admit) is the naive misconception that this planet belongs to us, and not the other way around.

    No other species behave as if they considered this planet their belonging. "pinnacle of evolution", "stewards of planet earth" etc, are all constructs to morally justify and make "heroic" the greed and drive to conquer everything around ourselves. I fail to see the heroic side in that.

    cheers

    Andres
  • thumb
    Apr 9 2012: I did a thorough search of the internet for a site similar to TED run by non-humans to learn about how we differ. I found nothing. Any ideas?
    • thumb
      Apr 10 2012: these non humans must lack our imagination.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 10 2012: Hi Chris, I really don't know. I could only guess.

          Dogs like play and are social. Maybe it is lonely or just playing.

          The bone thing seems more instinctual.

          It would be really interesting to understand how they perceive and what goes on in their mind/brain. I have read studies that indicate dogs have a much greater sense of smell than we have relative to other senses. Whereas we are highly visual.

          I guess they dream as well. Ever seen them sleep jiggling/running. Dog dreams.

          Maybe non humans don't have Internet access
      • thumb
        Apr 10 2012: Or, maybe they don't know about Evolution?
  • thumb
    Apr 7 2012: Spirituality.
  • thumb
    Apr 6 2012: "Compassion" is perhaps the most unique attribute that makes humans differ from all other life forms on the planet.
    The ability to recognize the suffering of others and to take action to help them, to feel the unity and brotherhood. to know that there are things valuable than food and shelter.
    • W T 100+

      • 0
      Apr 13 2012: I find also that compassion is a very unique attribute of human beings.

      Others which run along the same train of thought are:

      - integrity
      - commitment
      - generosity
      - peacefulness
      - humor
      - respect
      - empathy
      -fairness
      - patience

      Some however, continue to consider themselves as animals.....and act in kind....it is a personal choice.
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Apr 11 2012: I agree humans have unprecedented choice and potential out of all living creatures on the planet and most the extinct ones. I'm not sure about Neanderthals. Perhaps they had similar capacity and potential.

      I disagree if you think believing in kinship or descent with other animals means we give up on the beauty and responsibility of being human. I feel blessed, lucky, awed by having been born and living this life.

      Perhaps atheists like me see our base instinctual nature more clearly or more widely than theists would admit or acknowledge. This does not diminish us. If we don't have an immortal spirit, we still have the same depth of experience and capabilities and responsibilities and choices.

      I agree we have more intellectual or consciousness potential. What you see as spiritual I see as a natural process of transcendent experience etc. We don't need a spirit to have the experiences we do. However, I admit I don't know if there is the classical type spiritual realm you suggest.

      These days I'm not as straight forward materialistic as in the past. Modern science is showing amazing things. We know there is an invisible world and forces unseen. Gravity, non visible electromagnetic etc. Every bit of matter exerts gravitational force on every other bit over cosmic distances. There may be forces and stuff beyond what we currently know of. Dark matter and energy for example are recent concepts. I just doubt that these connections are as described in the traditional religious sense just as they are likely beyond high school science.

      I agree there may be more than the brain as a processor and storage device. The more I understand about the human mind the more gaps I see. Again, I don't have a deep understanding of your perspective of energy flows, but wonder what evidence or sources you have for these conclusions. I suspect revelation to some ancient peoples, perhaps passed on verbally or in scripture.
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Apr 11 2012: Reason and science do explain religion as a human construct and most likely a product of our minds. Beyond that claims of gods, visions, voices from heaven, revelation etc we can not prove or disprove. But we know different revelations conflict with each other. There may or may not be gods and eternal spirits.

      My point regarding the Catholic and also the Anglican church, natural opponents to the theory of evolution is that they have looked at the evidence and accepted much of the theory. They try not to talk about it, because it turns the traditional beliefs of the last 2000 years upside down, but they have had to make an accommodation with it. I'll give them credit for that much.

      Again, I'm not sure if you are a theist but it seems very human to have a special group of people holding the key to the secrets of the universe. Sort of makes you special if you know something others don't. Humans love patterns and codes. Perhaps the old books were written with patterns and codes in mind, but guess you'd have to look at the original language.

      One progenator means one ancestor or common decent via DNA to me. I think it is not doing your cause much good if you think the use of religious type metaphors by Darwin is a deliberate or miraculous link to the Vedas etc etc.

      What I notice is we can link lots of things that do not really have a mystical connection. That there are many similarities between different religious belief systems, some due to the evolution of religion and ideas and cultural mixing, some due to the similarity of human experience, and possibly due to some supernatural cause.

      There is evidence for the evolution of man. There are also no modern human fossils with dinosaurs.

      Interesting discussion. Good to look at a less typical view. I guess those tending to atheism are also not monolithic in their views.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 15 2012: Fair enough Chris.

          I am aware of a bit of Darwin's history.

          I don't exactly what is going on in anyone's mind. Agree we need to be careful about interpreting peoples words. I'm an atheist I an use cultural Christian metaphors too.

          I note people argue whether Einstein or Darwin were theists in the traditional sense.

          I note some Theists can and do accept Darwinian evolution.

          I'm aware he didn't know the details of DNA when he put his theory forward. I should not have mention DNA for clarity. Still from everything I recall related to Darwinian evolution there is a generally held view that every life form with DNA evolved from the same evolutionary ancestral life form - including plant and animals. Most don't believe in multiple independent development of DNA replication. My interpretation, and it may be wrong is that is what Darwin was talking about that.

          I probably have a better chance the more culturally aligned and closer to the same time/year. The further back or further away we go from our own culture the more challenging it is to interpret meaning and intent and understand the context and world view paradigms.

          I would suggest co-incidence and perhaps some shared religious memes/terminology. But there could be a deeper connection.
  • Apr 7 2012: Seems we have a developed level of Consciousness: A sense of wide view and a keen capacity for abstraction, nevertheless We still believe the earth belongs to us.
  • thumb
    Apr 6 2012: Easy. We are made in the likeness of our creator.We are immortal.

    :-)
  • thumb
    Apr 6 2012: Having a moral compass for most humans is the thing that separates us from the animals
    • thumb
      Apr 6 2012: most social animals have a sense of morality, of justice.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 7 2012: Nah, you're wrong. Morality is very common. Check it out.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 9 2012: Dogs, wolves, mercats, apes, have group social dynamics similar to humans.
          Human morality is an extension of the this.
          Much more complex and nuanced, now more than ever given complex societies rules and laws. Apes miss their dead, get depressed, show empathy, hunt together, have authority structures.

          Go back 10,000 or 50,000 years, or even to the hunter gatherer cultures, the laws and morality were simpler to maintain peace.

          Is it the same as animals no. But neither is our tool use, our language ability. While we share a lot with animals - our instincts are still strong with have more complex social dynamics and greater ability to think ahead. Just as a dog has more emotions and cognative ability than a fish

          Our ancestors have been living in groups longer than homo sapiens existed. Much of our drive to conform, to accept heirachies, to be tribal, is to promote social harmony and reflected in our modern morality.
      • thumb
        Apr 20 2012: Do they also have a guilt complex alongside with their sense of morality. Are they aware that they will someday die .?
        • thumb
          Apr 20 2012: Guilt complexe yes.
          Are they aware that they'll someday die, I don't think so... And I don't think it's relevant.
          I was taught that consciousness came from the knowledge of one's own mortality, like you. And like you, I was taught that morality was derived from this consciousness.

          But this can't be, when you think about how all of it had to evolve. It's perfect for a creationist model, however.

          When you study other apes, it becomes obvious how little human consciousness has to do with how we behave in our societies. Read Frans De Waal, Desmond Morris and Robert M. Sapolsky for wonderful information about primates.
      • thumb
        Apr 20 2012: Hey Gerald........Aren't you making assumptions about what I was taught ? Don't do that.
        I'll read your suggested authors and get back to you. (:>)
        For the record I am not a creationist.
      • thumb
        Apr 28 2012: HI i think that animal justice is punitive. I cannot see a rehabilitative bone in the bofy
    • thumb
      Apr 9 2012: Other animals have their own rules for managing group dynamics.
      Ours are just more complex reflecting our more complex brain and society.
      Our complex morality evolved with us as we evolved.
      8 million years ago it would have been similar to other primates.
      200 million years ago it would have been similar to the early mammals.
      500 million years ago maybe similar to the early vertibrates
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 9 2012: No deal.

          We are animals, primates to be more precise and we have human morality.

          Other animals do not have human morality. They don't have religions or television, but they do have acceptable and non acceptable group behaviour norms.
        • thumb
          Apr 10 2012: adriaan you dont think humans are mammals?
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 9 2012: I love the fact that humans think they're not driven by their instincts. I guess it's just one of their instincts to think that way...
          Why the heck do you think humans pray over their prey? You think it's because we feel sorry for the animal? Or is it that we have superstitions that associate thankfullness to the rebirth of our food? Anyway. About morality...

          It's obvious to anyone with Discovery Channel that baboons, for instance, have very strict codes of conduct that come with a sharp consciousness of what is right and what is wrong. I don't know how human morality would look any different from baboon morality, except for the fact that we rationalise about it.
          We also rationalise about our sexual attraction to opposite sex. Nonetheless, people have sex all the time.
          Our sense of right and wrong has been claimed by religions, or by philosophies. But the truth is that every human is born with this social animal software that you call morality.
          Some societies may bend it around, to serve parochial purposes, but the basis is biological. That we dislike confrontation is inborn. That we dislike dishonnesty is inborn. That we enjoy the social rewards that go with being a nice guy is inborn...

          What about morals could possibly be the result of conscience?
          You're thinking upside down. How about love? Does love come from conscience? How about feeling hungry?

          Really pathetic that this is even an argument.

          Some people still believe that humans are not animals, I guess. There is a lot going on in that 2% of genetic info that differenciates us from other apes : supernatural genes?
        • thumb
          Apr 9 2012: You couldn't even bring yourself to say "other" animals

          So you don't believe humans are vertebrates?
          Or mammals?
          Or primates?
          Or animals?

          Its bizarre if you can not admit humans are animals.

          Have you never noticed the similarities between humans and other animals?
          Just look at your pet dog - similar eyes, hearing, teeth, 4 limbs, reproduction, breast feeding, bones, muscles, immune system, nervous system, organs, oxygen breathing, C, H, O based lifeform. Are we dogs - no. Are dogs Chimpanzees - no. Are we mammals - yes.

          The root cause of what makes us different from other animals is our amazing brain.
          This is responsible for our self awareness, tool use, language, concept of time, complex culture and technology, and our morality.

          You probably don't agree with evolution. Even the Catholic church accepts evolution.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 9 2012: Hi Chris,

          We'll have to disagree if you don't see homo sapiens as a subset of animals.
          Although you mention we have some degree of animalistic nature.
          We are animals with amazing brains that evolved over millions of years.

          I agree that we have a far greater ability for reason, but still have instincts. We are not slaves to instinct, but perhaps you underestimate or are unaware of the extent and power of these instincts. Our instincts drive us to pleasure and avoiding pain.
          Over eating is an instinctual drive. Eating less and more healthy and getting out to exercise is an act of reason.

          The drive to have children, to protect your offspring is instinct. On top of that we have hopes that our children will prosper and lead good lives.

          I'm an extremely "spiritual" person, who no longer confuses our amazing consciousness for an imaginary spirit. That accepts we are a very special animal. That cares about humans and the rest of nature.

          You are exaggerating the comment that relates to instinct - we have instinct and reason.

          I'm just saying we are animals. We evolved. We didn't always have the sophisticated morality we have now. I mean we didn't even have the ability for language to decribe our morals, but our anscestors have worked in groups from before we mastered fire, could speak, make tools etc.

          I'm saying our morality is simply a progression our the group dynamics we see in other animals. Our tool use is a progression of what we see in other animals, or our hominid ancestors.

          Our minds is what makes us special. Until these evolved we didn't even have the capacity to entertain the kind of spiritual concept to which you allude. These minds have helped us understand the universe, our place in it, and ourselves via science and reason. Some still choose to accept pre scientific views. Yet you imply we are the less spiritually developed.

          I can understand the ancients believing as you do. Perhaps you might reflect on where the ignorance or delusion lies.
        • thumb
          Apr 10 2012: what if I told you thinking and spirituality were instincts?
          It's very old fashioned to believe that instincts only have to do with sex and food.

          I love my kids out of instinct. But that's because I don't have a soul. Arrest my case.
    • W T 100+

      • 0
      Apr 11 2012: James, did you see todays TED talk.......what are the chances they picked it because of this topic of conversation, and your comment?????
  • Apr 30 2012: Trash.
  • Apr 21 2012: Our brain is more evolved than the brains of the rest of lifeforms on earth. But i have found out that intelligence has certain unwanted byproducts. We are smart enough to build a world of our own, but at the same time to destroy it. We are among the few species that devastates their sorroundings...
  • thumb
    Apr 11 2012: Sid,
    Your question leads me back to what came first, the chicken or the egg? Is our ability to make and control fire what makes us different, or is that which makes us different is what led us to make and control fire?

    I believe that all of your examples are byproducts of what makes us different. I believe that our advanced capacity for thought is what led to all of these things coming into being, for thought precedes all action. We can think deeply, we can reason, we can imagine on a scale that dwarfs that of animals. We can take ideas and translate them into working products. We can build upon existing ideas to advance them to extraordinary results. Animals can do all of these things on a much smaller scale, but we triumph in our ability to create far beyond any other species because of our ability to think things out and foresee the results. We see possibilities before they come into fruition and we can predict the results of those possibilities because of our ability to think.

    People with deformed hands are still able to do things that animals cannot because they can adapt by using their brains. People who are deaf can still communicate in other ways that dwarf that of animals. Everything that I have seen posted on here thus far all appear to be a byproduct of advanced thought capacity.
  • Apr 11 2012: Curiosity. They discovered foreign lands, they wanted to know the laws of the physical world, they wanted to know the Universe beyond their own planet, and beyond that still. Its a boon and a curse, this curiosity.
  • thumb
    Apr 11 2012: Seems like a very relevant talk has come up: Moral behavior in animals by Frans de Waal.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals.html
  • thumb
    Apr 11 2012: I am no mind reader but I train horses and dogs and work with teenagers. I guess the questions comes down to what is the meaning of the word Moral. Is there a standard outside of human behavior? Are we really just highly evolved animals as some believe? Is there really a right and wrong in every, some, or no circumstances? Is just thinking about the subject enough to say we have a moral compass and because we think about it are we different from animals? Why they chose the topic is beyond my ability to know but I would hope the topic causes us to ask ourselves questions about moral behavior, what is it to be moral, and is one person's moral another persons mere behavioral reaction? Wish I had an answer to all of that but as a Celtic Christian monk I struggle with those questions all day long. Thanks for you and for your thoughts may you be blessed in the road of your life ahead
    Brother James
  • thumb
    Apr 10 2012: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/danny_hillis_back_to_the_future_of_1994.html

    After watching this talk, I learned that it all started from our ability to communicate differently than any other species in a very unique way at the very beginning of us...
  • thumb
    Apr 10 2012: To TED Conversations

    You remove my comment because in your standards my words seems to to you not respectfull... I dissent, and if I want to express my point of view i have the right to do it. So if your standars are different from mine,....¡¡¡¡ vive la difference. ¡¡¡¡¡

    The freedom for expression is not one of your virtues. Its a pity.....
  • thumb
    Apr 10 2012: There seems to be an on-going debate on whether animals have creativity, morality, or other seemingly human attributes.
    I think there is an extraordinary sense of imagination and morality in humans that are not readily recognized, if ever, in animals. I remember watching a TED talk on the intelligence of crows and thinking how smart they were, but relatively speaking, those habitual actions would be nothing worthy of praise if performed by humans.
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Apr 11 2012: Thanks for expanding Chris. This helps understanding although I’m not clear on a few points. I’ll try and respond in a more considered way than when limited by 2000 characters.

      If my understanding is correct you do accept we are animals in the physical sense but separate from other animals most importantly due to having an immortal spirit. I understand your point that biological classification ignore this critical difference.

      I presume you don’t think animals have an immortal spirit. I‘m curious how do you come to these conclusions? How do you know we have an immortal spirit?


      I’m not sure if you believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, or whether human spirits are created or always existed. I’m not sure if you are a theist. Obviously not the typical mainstream theist if you are one. Similar views perhaps to Bridget Trenton.

      You obviously don't believe or understand in evolution in the same way I do. We can disagree here. Perhaps you might acknowledge that evolution in a physical sense could explain the tree of life including humans even if you hold a contrary view.

      However, in other ways we are not so far apart. My view is similar in that modern humans are as far removed from other animals as mammals are from fish in terms of consciousness etc. I really don't know if we have an immortal spirit. I doubt we need one to be as we are, but I can not rule it out.

      In fact I've had some unusual experiences that make me think that the simplistic materialistic view is not the full picture. But to a large extent I think our consciousness resides or is created in the brain. Even with MRI's showing brain activity while praying, or brain damage or dementia changing people, I understand this could fit with your view.

      I agree in that our mind type experience appears to be far far richer than other animals. In fact we are the most advanced mind/consciousness verified in the universe so far.
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          Apr 14 2012: A great modern astronomer whom i dub a Galileo was not very long ago discredited for standing behind his findings though his conclusions might be off or might be bang on,who knows, his observational data cannot be denied
        • thumb
          Apr 15 2012: Chris,

          The more view points the better in principle in my view.
          I find your view coherent although we differ in some fundamental perspectives.

          No issue disagreeing passionately, while respecting the individual although not all ideas/views/beliefs are equal in my view, and yet our beliefs are often connected to our ego.
          Still the less taboo the better although TED don't tolerate preaching or evangelistic or overly controverisal material that may cause offence.. I guess there is a grey zone between expressing ideas and more dangerous territory.

          If a bit of censorship/moderation is required to keep the discussion going then so be it.

          Personally I have to be careful making comments f when in a hurry or forgetting I'm not talking to myself.
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Apr 11 2012: Thank you for clarifying and acknowledging the physical, biological, similarities with non humans. I also acknowledge you see humans as in a separate kingdom from other animals.

      I agree that we are different, in part due to the obvious differences in awareness, intelligence, language, tool use, culture. I also expect we are the only living creature on the planet that believes in a spiritual world, an afterlife, etc. I guess I just see stronger ties to other animals, and believe we evolved from a common ancestor as the great apes, then mammals, then vertibrates etc. Probably all DNA based life has a common ancestor in my view, unless DNA developed independently a few times.

      You seem to accept evolution for other living creatures, but not humans - I'm not completely sure. Perhaps you infer some purpose or guiding hand to this evolution. I admit I don't know. It is possible. There probably doesn't need to be although others might disagree on that point.

      I would point out that while mutations are random, natural selection is not a completely random and pointless process. It is a process by which the fittest survive to mate and pass on their genes. Our ancestors were the survivors.

      I agree being human is more than the obvious, although you seem to ignore the obvious links to other animals. I see a progression to a step change in consciousness, self awareness, a mind capable of great thinks, numinous experiences, while not completely detached from instinct. Its a strange you accept we have instincts and biology like other animals but don't see the possibly of some relationship or progression, or kinship.

      I would add that this kinship does not make us base creatures with no concept of ethical behaviour or improving the human condition. Rather it frees us from ancient mindsets, tribalistic, violent, sexist values. But it helps keep you a bit humble if you don't think the universe revolves around us. In my mind it also supports a view on animal rights.
  • thumb
    Apr 10 2012: our brains
  • thumb
    Apr 9 2012: Our cognitive ability, sense of self, language, ability to plan, to innovate, to pass on knowledge.
    Basically our brain - followed by our physiology - hands, walking upright.
  • Apr 7 2012: That sounds plausible, Sid.

    Now, I might retort that what you should be mentioning is not our making of fire but whatever it is that we possess --as a human quality, not as a physical possession--and even possessed back then that allowed us to make fire. Such a retort might go on to say that surely it's that intellectual/cognitive capacity that distinguishes us from the other creatures who do not use fire as we do.

    However, I'm not sure how sound such a retort is. Why? Perhaps creatures such as the great apes are very close to being able to use fire as we do. And perhaps that step, as you say, is important to further Promethean evolution. In that case, we would simply be the first to get there.
  • thumb
    Apr 6 2012: Sid, I believe that all of the examples you gave are contributors. We have the capicity to learn and grow, to adjust our environment. To communicate written and orally are fantastic tools. We have needs and we address those needs as Maslow told us. In many ways we are both different and the same as other forms of life in the animal kingdom. I would hope that our ability to learn, grow, and adapt are factors that will see us through the tough time to come. All the best. Bob.