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What Distinguishes Humans

  1. May 8, 2003 #1
    First, let me clear up that I am not making a case for human uniqueness. It is really more an effort to understand the effects that seperates sentient beings from the rest of Nature.

    I'm going to list a few things that I've thought of, that distinguish humanity (the only sentient animals I know of) from the rest of Nature, I welcome any argument or correction on any of the points that I make. Also feel free to bring up any other characteristics that you think of.

    1) Purpose: This is a concept entirely alien to the rest of Nature. Yes, other animals work hard towards self-preservation, and the like, but they cannot contemplate their purpose - thus they never create a purpose for themselves at all, and if they don't create a purpose for themselves, who's going to create one for them? For a discussion that directly pertains to Purpose, see: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?s=&postid=24183#post24183

    2) Technology: I know there will probably be some argument on this point, but the simple point of the matter is that some of the most advanced "technology" to be found in Nature (outside of human technology) is an ape using a stick as a spoon. There is not even a hint of mastery over other natural forces. This is a result of...

    3) Philosophy: By "philosophy", I mean to denote the endeavor to gain knowledge/wisdom/understanding, or to discover "truth".

    4) Betterment: This one, I believe, is (even if indirectly) responsible for the distinction between "artificial" and natural. As was brought out in the thread, "Not Artificial", something that is man-made is commonly considered "unnatural", because it didn't come about by chance. You see, in Nature (outside of the Human realm), animals don't (consciously) strive for their own betterment - or for the betterment of their species - because they cannot even contemplate the state that they are currently in. Humans (as sentient beings) stand in stark contrast in this area, and that is what is really responsible for the previous two points.

    Again, any correction/expounding/arguments/discussion about the points (above) is welcome, as is the introduction of new points that don't fit into the categories above.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 8, 2003 #2
    Perhaps I should clarify why this isn't contradictory, eh? A case for human uniqueness is usually an anthro-egotistical attempt at seperating humans from the rest of Nature. That is not what I want to do. I am actually attempting quite the opposite, and trying to explain why such a misconception would arrise.
  4. May 8, 2003 #3
    Humans are an incredibly agile bipedal species that can eat just about anything and possess a unique hunting style. We can run after and kill fleeing prey by throwing a rock or swinging a stick. No other animal on the planet has the unparalleled vision (one third of your brain) and physiological agility to accomplish this task. Humans are also the unchallanged pack hunting species par excellence with no known competitors and an amazing ability to collectively alter their environment radically.

    Otherwise, we are just hairy walking sponges prone to parasites.
  5. May 8, 2003 #4
    Not true! There is no other animal with any of the abilities that I mentioned above.
  6. May 8, 2003 #5
    All those abilities are just extensions of innate pack hunting abilities. The pack needs to be creative and co-ordinated in an organized fashion. In general, hunters and especially pack hunters must be more intelligent, creative, and communicative than their prey. You can argue otherwise, declare animals incapable of purpose, philosophy, and betterment but it just ain't so dude.

    Chimps will sneak up behind the alpha male and bash his brains in with a club. Sometimes three to five chimps will raid a neighboring chimp troop in the dark of night and, again, bash their brains in with clubs. If such acts involving low tech weapons aren't deliberate, premeditated, and purposeful I don't know the meaning of the word.

    As for play and philosophy, all preditors play a tremendous amount in comparison to their prey. It is not only how they perfect their hunting skills, but in the case of chimps how they sometimes discover new technologies and food sources.

    In conclusion, your ideas are just speciesist garbage. Notably, the same kind of garbage the Nazi party used to put out about Blacks, Jews, and other races they held in low regard.
  7. May 8, 2003 #6
    The Part playes by labour in the transition from Ape to Men


    Labor is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. It is this--along with nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labor created man himself.

    Many hundreds of thousands of years ago, during an epoch, not yet definitely determinable, of that period of the earth's history which geologists call the Tertiary period, most likely toward the end of it, a specially highly developed race of anthropoid apes lived somewhere in the tropical zone--probably on a great continent that has now sunk to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Darwin has given us an approximate description of these ancestors of ours. They were completely covered with hair, they had beards and pointed ears, and they lived in bands in the trees.

    Presumably as an immediate consequence of their mode of life, which in climbing assigns different functions to the hands than to the feet, these apes when walking on level ground began to disaccustom themselves to the aid of their hands and to adopt a more and more erect gait. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man.

    All extant anthropoid apes can stand erect and move about on their two feet alone, but only in case of urgent need and in a very clumsy way. Their natural gait is in a half-erect posture and includes the use of the hands. The majority rest the knuckles of the fist on the ground and, with legs drawn up, swing the body through their long arms, much as a cripple moves with the aid of crutches. In general, we can today still observe among apes all the transition stages from walking on all fours to walking on two legs. But for none of them has the latter method become more than a makeshift.

    For erect gait among our hairy ancestors to have become first the rule and in time a necessity presupposes that in the meantime diverse other functions increasingly devolved upon the hands. Even among the apes there already prevails a certain division in the employment of the hands and feet. As already mentioned, in climbing the hands are used differently from the feet. The former serve primarily for the collection and grasping of food, as already occurs in the use of the forepaws among lower mammals. Many monkeys use their hands to build nests for themselves in the trees or even, like the chimpanzee, to construct roofs between the branches for protection against the weather. With their hands they seize hold of clubs to defend themselves against enemies, or bombard the latter with fruit and stones. In captivity, they carry out with their hands a number of simple operations copied from human beings.

    But it is just here that one sees how great is the distance between the undeveloped hand of even the most anthropoid of apes and the human hand that has been highly perfected by the labor of hundreds of thousands of years. The number and general arrangement of the bones and muscles are the same in both; but the hand of the lowest savage can perform hundreds of operations that no monkey's hand can imitate. No simian hand has ever fashioned even the crudest of stone knives.

    At first, therefore, the operations for which our ancestors gradually learned to adapt their hands during the many thousands of years of transition from ape to man could have been only very simple. The lowest savages, even those in whom a regression to a more animal-like condition with a simultaneous physical degeneration can be assumed to have occurred, are nevertheless far superior to these transitional beings. Before the first flint was fashioned into a knife by human hands, a period of time may have elapsed in comparison with which the historical period known to us appears insignificant. But the decisive step was taken: the hand had become free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity and skill, and the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation.

    Thus the hand is not only the organ of labor, it is also the product of labor. Only by labor, by adaptation to ever new operations, by inheritance of the thus acquired special development of muscles, ligaments and, over longer periods of time, bones as well, and by the ever-renewed employment of this inherited finesse in new, more and more complicated operations, has the human hand attained the high degree of perfection that has enabled it to conjure into being the paintings of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini.

    But the hand did not exist by itself. It was only one member of an entire, highly complex organism. And what benefited the hand benefited also the whole body it served.
  8. May 8, 2003 #7
    Well, you aren't making a case for human uniqueness...you're just assuming it (The unique characteristic being sentience). Sure humans are unique...but so are bears, lemurs, and sea lions. But sentience is not a single distinguishing characteristic in any of these, including humans.

    I'd like to know how you know this. Have you ever been inside another animal's mind? Did you have a telepathic encounter? Also, I'm rather sure that there are lots of humans who take little or no time to ponder purpose. They shouldn't have to either.

    There are more examples of technology in other species, such as the chimp creating roofs. Of course, any other species will not have particle accelerators. We are the most intelligent, and that is our most distinguishing characteristic.

    Higher intelligence, again.

    Are you saying that other animals don't care for their own welfare? Rubbish. Are you saying that other species don't try to improve their conditions? Rubbish. Just look at the chimp/roof example. Do other animals worry about the welfare and/or "advancement" of their entire species? Welfare--I don't know. "Advancement"--Probably not, given their limited intelligence. Once again, our greater sense of "betterment" is due to our higher intelligence. Of course, not everyone human spends much or even any time worrying about this. Some are too busy trying to survive, and some pursue only selfish goals. It's not a transcendant human characteristic. People all too often to to characterize human existence into some kind of formula, even though we are all individuals. It's pointless, IMO.

    I think that Wu Li had some very good replies.

    I'm not trying to be a jerk here, just to the point. :smile:
  9. May 10, 2003 #8
    You mean that act couldn't be an act of insanity? IOW, it doesn't take a lot of brains to attack another animal.

    And yet, a chimp doesn't discover new technology by pondering about existence (or anything else, for that matter). I know that there are quite a few species of semi-sentient beings, I'm just trying to understand where the (seemingly) huge gap, between semi-sentience and, sentience comes in.
  10. May 10, 2003 #9
    Re: Re: What Distinguishes Humans

    So, there are other animals that are sentient?

    I'm saying that sentient beings have the ability to ponder such things.

    No, I don't know (for sure) whether other animals think about such things, but if they do, they don't use any of it. An ape (which is a semi-sentient creature, right?) appears ("appears" being the key-word) to be an entirely re-active animal. I've never heard of an ape (or any other semi-sentient animal, for that matter) making a pro-active decision. This means that it doesn't appear that they are making use of any of their "ponderings", if they even ponder anything in the first place.

    Please, set me straight. I know there are probably lots of flaws in my reasoning, at least I hope so. I don't want to be right about this, because the point of the thread is to determine why people see humans as unique. I've posted some of the commonly discussed reasons in the hope that I would get constructive criticism.

    Ok, so it is your opinion that being intelligent is our most distinguishing characteristic? But other animals are "more intelligent" when compared to a more simple creature. Humans would just be a "step up" on a characteristic that all animals posses. What I'm talking about is the qualities that people commonly bring up, that don't appear to exist (at all) in any non-sentient species.

    So your explanation for this (apparently misconceived) distinction is just that we are more intelligent? That was what I thought in the first place, but I keep getting arguments for the qualities mentioned above, from people who want to give humans a special place in the Animal Kingdom (or, worse, deny that we are animals at all).

    Please keep in mind what I said in the first post:

    I probably should have added "...in the minds of so many humans".

    No, no, other animals do try to imporve their conditions. That's the point, they weren't pro-active so they are always reacting to some new threat/circumstance.

    So do I, but I think they may have been (partially) based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of this thread. I will repeat the purpose of the thread: To determine what it is that seperates sentient beings from the rest of Nature, in the minds of sentient beings.

    Never thought of you as a jerk. You are entitled to your opinion, and entitled to post it freely.
  11. May 10, 2003 #10
    Paradox ... Nature vs the Divine

    If in fact there were a paradox to all things, then that places mankind between the paradox of nature (form) versus the Divine (essence). Similarly, between that which is finite and that which is infinite. In which case it does belie the fact that mankind is endowed with a sense of purpose.
  12. May 10, 2003 #11
    Mentat, did you study biology? It is full of facts relating humans with other primates. 98% identical genetic makeup, same anatomy and physiology, similar social behavior, etc. Some apes even can learn thousand words of sign language and quite communicate with humans using them.

    So, it is obvious that we ARE animals. Evolution, dude. We are just million years advanced apes. Facts. What to discuss here?

    This thread is plain waste of time.
  13. May 10, 2003 #12
    Only if you miss the point. Let me make this clear: I know that we are just slightly higher animals. There is no doubt in my mind of this fact. I am merely trying to discern the reason why so many people believe there is such a grand distinction. I am presenting the points that they usually present in such debates, and am asking that you show me their flaws.
  14. May 10, 2003 #13
    Grand distinction? What is unusual in fact that slightly advanced creature can quickly wipe out less advanced ones in competition (many species took over during evolution, and were later taken over by others), and even can globally change an enviroment (say, like plants changed Earth atmosphere completely)?

    What is unusual in fact that more complex brain uses more complex technology? What is unusual in fact that preserving and sharing accumulated knowledge (in form of schools/books/media, etc) facilitates progress of technology?
  15. May 10, 2003 #14
    Good enough point. However, an anthro-egotist would probably say something like "the gap between human technology and the rest of the animal kingdom is so much larger than the gap between any other two animals, so humans must be special". What would you say to this kind of response?
  16. May 10, 2003 #15
    Nothing special. Exponential amplification/acceleration (which is just a consequence of using ALL (or of most) of what is achieved to make more) - produces dramatically increasing with time gaps.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 10, 2003
  17. May 10, 2003 #16
    Then please tell us, Alexander, what is worthy of discussion in a philosphy forum? I've never seen you contribute an issue. All you do is demean the opinions of others and claim there is no issue. So exactly why are you here in a philosophy forum? Are you trying to learn anything? Or are you getting some sort of personal high on bringing others down?

    I say if the thread is a waste of time then go away. No comments are needed.
  18. May 10, 2003 #17
    And when's the last time you've spoken directly with a monkey or a chimpanzee?

    Are you implying you have nothing better to do?
  19. May 10, 2003 #18


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Greetings Mentat !
    Put one of those on the forest since he
    was a baby and his parents too and see
    how much technology he'll have...:wink:

    I fully agree with wuli and Alexander here.
    The reason there is such a distinction is
    because we have accumulated great amounts
    of knowledge and we are really great in number.
    There are many things that helped us do
    this - language, our bodies good adaptability
    for maneuvering and making small objects (tools),
    our pack mentality and more. These things
    helped us develop and in turn we better
    developed these things and that as they say
    is history.

    (You have to hand it to me - at least I was
    more polite then those two... )

    Live long and prosper.
  20. May 10, 2003 #19
    Re: Re: Re: What Distinguishes Humans

    Yes. "Sentient" can mean "responsive to or conscious of sense impressions", basically meaning that to be sentient is to have feelings, or "aware", which is very vague, or "finely sensitive in perception or feeling". At least, according to webster.com, that's how it is.

    I think that all these defintions, except possibly the last one, apply to just about all animals more complex than bugs, and quite possibly most bugs, as well. I think that a lizard is rather aware of the fact that he exists. The existence of brains in animals and their reactions are quite indicative of responsivenes to sense impressions.

    Depending on how you look at it, I think that any action can be classified as proactive or reactive. Let's say that someone hits you, and you then focus your attention on that person and attack or try to evade him. You might say that this is in reaction to being hit, OR you might say that you are proactively trying to not be hit again. Let's say that medieval lord builds a castle to protect his settlement. This is proactive, right? Well, one could say that it is a reaction to knowledge of previous attacks on other settlements.

    The building of a roof by a chimps can be considered proactive, as he is not being rained on and then running away to shelter, but creating shelter before the rain comes.

    So this is an exploration into why people think they way they do...a psychology thread? If so, I could give a good amount of reasons about why I think that people think the way they do about this.
  21. May 10, 2003 #20
    My contribution is very important: I try to always remind that before discussing anything make sure to clearly define the object of discussion. I see so many threads wasting time just because two (or more) persons mean different animal by the same word. As well as tons of time wasted because people discuss undefinable (thus, inexisting) objects - like god(s) or souls.

    So, wanna productive discussion - make sure to be clear in WHAT exactly you discuss. Otherwise there is no OBJECT (or subject) of discussion yet.

    I would say, this is most important and constructive contribution to ANY discussion, not only to philosophical one.

    Why should I go away? I RATIONALYSE and CONCRETISE the discussion.

    I think you should go away ASAP not to fog issues futher.

    Save our time, OK?
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