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From Vol. 4, Issue 8, August 2022

What makes us human?


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“We have been richly endowed with cognitive and social abilities, but it’s up to us to make the most of them.”

What makes humans different?

What makes humans different from other creatures? People have been asking this question for as long as we can remember. When we look around the world and notice that we do things very differently from other animals, it’s natural to wonder what sets us apart. But while the ancient Stoics subscribed to the widely-held view that humans are clearly distinct from and superior to other animals, we certainly aren’t bound by that view today.

appreciation of the cognitive gifts of many animals. We understand that animal intelligence is not so different from our own in many ways. And given our knowledge of human evolution, we realize that the line between human and non-human, or rational and nonrational, can get very blurry. Other animals think, communicate (some even speak), use tools, form pair bonds, raise their families, live in communities, and do almost everything we do (de Waal, F. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? W.W. Norton, New York 2016).

Not superior but different

Still, humans must be different in some ways from other creatures, and it’s philosophically interesting to investigate what those ways might be. We don’t have to think we’re superior to other animals in order to examine our differences. Our goal is simply to gain understanding and awareness.

That’s why the work of Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist who also studies great ape cognition, is so fascinating. In Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny, Tomasello explores the boundaries between human and ape intelligence. The good news for Stoics is that even though the ancients were completely wrong about our separateness from the animal kingdom, they got some important things right about what makes us human.

Consider, for instance, the Stoic theory of oikeiosis, which suggests that humans have a natural tendency toward rational and social development over the lifespan. In today’s terms, this developmental process is called ontogeny. Tomasello’s research has found that humans have a very unique ontogeny, centered around social understanding and communication, that sets us apart from great apes at a very early age.

In a study of two-and-a-half year-old human children and two kinds of apes (chimpanzees and orangutans), researchers found that “the children and apes had similar skills for dealing with the physical world,” but the children “already had more sophisticated cognitive skills for dealing with the social world than either ape species”. Even human infants have remarkable social skills (like attention sharing and emotional bonding) that enable them to interact with caregivers and prepare them for a very social future. And that’s just the beginning. From age two onward,

Children’s skills of social cognition continue to increase in a dramatic fashion whereas those of apes do not develop further at all. Children’s socialcognitive skills go from being roughly 65 percent higher than those of [apes] at age 2 to being 130 percent higher at age three, to being more than 200 percent higher at age four.

And, as Tomasello adds, “All other aspects of human cognitive and social development are built on this unique foundation, leading to unique outcomes”. These outcomes include linguistic communication, cooperative problem-solving, joint commitment, a sense of fairness and justice, and a conception of moral identity . In other words, the characteristics that make us most human, from our language to our sense of morality, derive from our hardwired sociability that starts taking shape at birth. We are programmed to interact at a high level of social sophistication, which has enabled our remarkable accomplishments as a species.

Our experiences and choices matter

However, as the ancient Stoics noted, not every person reaches the same level of personal and social development. Because so much of our learning is intertwined with our experiences and choices, those experiences and choices can make a big difference in outcomes. Tomasello explains this from a modern scientific perspective:

In complex human competencies, maturation never supplies anything like a finished product, as it can do (to a first approximation) in very basic behavioural skills such as breathing and swallowing. In all of the cases that concern us here, then, what matures is a capacity, a readiness to go forward under certain conditions. Actually going forward requires exercising that capacity and experiencing the results.

We can choose how we respond

This conclusion is already familiar to Stoics. We are all born with a capacity for intellectual and moral maturation (virtue), but whether we reach our potential depends on how we exercise that capacity. That’s the beauty – and the challenge – of our uniquely human intelligence: moral agency. In contrast to less cognitively sophisticated creatures, we have a choice in how we respond to our circumstances. We have been richly endowed with cognitive and social abilities, but it’s up to us to make the most of them.

Brittany Polat, author of Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged, holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics but currently researches and writes about Stoic psychology and philosophy. Brittany's latest project is Living in Agreement, where she applies her lifelong interest in human nature to the discourse and practice of inner excellence.