What makes us human?

By Anny Wang

There is something very intriguing about our being. We are present here and now, in a way other species are not. We, as a species, identify ourselves with a greater purpose. Humans are much more than wild beasts fighting for survival. We think of ourselves as superior, more sophisticated than others, and perhaps on a higher plane of consciousness than the other life forms that inhabit the same planet as us.

And looking at it, we are in a way distinct from others. Modern humans, in the mere 200,000 years we’ve been present as a species, have advanced extremely far. From clumsy stone tools to precise machines with intricate gears and parts, from blazing fire to contained electricity, from language to literature, from stories of the heavens to exploring the heavens, we have come extraordinarily far.

We can observe similar behaviors exhibited in other animals that are eerily close to our own. So, “where are the ant cathedrals constructed by ants to worship the ant gods? Where are the works of literature and art by great ants that are preserved and studied by other ants? Where is the ant culture developed over many generations?” my English teacher would ask. How come we are so different? How come other organisms have not come as far as we are? Are they lacking something? Or rather— what is it that we possess? Now, it’d be too ambitious to explore every single aspect of the fine and perhaps miniscule ways we have become divided from the other forms of life; I have a deadline, and I’m not well versed in the ways of the human mind, especially if you consider the fact that I am a 14 year old high-schooler. There are a million points and perspectives to be offered, but alas, I do not have a million hours to work with. But I do believe that I can offer insight from a scientific standpoint. I’d like to note that when I use the word human, I mean what makes people like you and me person-like. What is humanness is a topic for another time.

So, let us be concise and organized as a dialectic would. Let us explore different spheres of humanity, and contrast it with our own. The goal is not to seek one definitive answer, but to seek understanding of how we act or who we are, and why this equates to our self-diagnosed higher existence. With the manpower that I do have, I’d like to explore 5 basic fields (or criteria, if you will) of humanness, prescribed by the American philosopher Mary Anne Warren: consciousness, reasoning, self motivated activity, capacity to communicate, and self awareness (Now, this definition is by no means universally accepted, but we have to start somewhere. If you look closely at these criteria, you’ll find that young children are excluded from many of these categories).


Mary Anne’s first tenet of humanness is consciousness “and in particular the capacity to feel pain.” Consciousness here is described as the ability to understand the presence of objects and events internal and external to a being.

In regards to consciousness being an exclusively human trait, there are many easy counterexamples. Elephants have been found to protect, form coalitions, chase predators away from newborns, and comfort and babysit. Many of their actions suggest that they can feel empathy, described as “exceptionally high” by one study. There is even evidence that elephants use past experiences to, in a way, put themselves in others’ shoes.

But to take a deeper look, many animals have the ability to experience basic emotion due to natural selection. Those who have fear of a dangerous object and perform the avoidance would naturally become a useful trait. These “primary emotions” are the emotions that are innate and associated with the limbic system. Research also points to the fact that there is more than one system delegated with emotions. After the primary emotions, there are “secondary emotions” involved with more complex feelings, such as evaluation or reflection, and unlike primary emotions, are associated with the cerebral cortex. Then comes the question, to what extent can animals “feel” emotions? Studies on animal behavior and emotion can be criticized, as researchers are in a way “inferring” or “seeing” an animal’s behavior in a certain (humanized) way, and it really is almost impossible to know how they actually are “feeling” while displaying certain emotions.

Yet, when looking at how certain animals act, it is hard not to feel very human emotions coming from them. Jane Goodall’s famous observations on chimpanzees, she describes of a grieving chimpanzee:

“...Flint became increasingly lethargic, refused food and, with his immune system thus weakened, fell sick. The last time I saw him alive, he was hollow-eyed, gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died…the last short journey he made, pausing to rest every few feet, was to the very place where Flo's body had lain. There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little further, then curled up—and never moved again”

Although the relative topic of emotion is hard to study, given all the variables to be considered, there are many instances where animals seem to perform actions that seem to be very human. Studying through just observation and hard data cannot give a comprehensive understanding of how animals feel. While it is true that some believe that animals can feel the wide range of emotions humans can, it still needs to be further researched. For now this sphere of humanity is inconclusive.


Undoubtedly, as a whole we see ourselves as an intelligent species, and more often than not, the most intelligent species. This rank may be an egotistical award given to ourselves, and in comparison with life on Earth, it’s hard not to. After all, as a species, we’ve been able to do very much. As individuals, not so much. It’s hard to think, within 200,000 years of existing, 6,000 years of civilization, and 200 years of industrial revolutions, that we are now close to creating something that could surpass our own intelligence.

Indeed, it would be hard to say we are an idiotic species. But how much of our intelligence is rivaled by other species? Can animals beat us at our “own game”? Ayumu is the name of a chimpanzee who lives in Kyoto University, Japan. At their research institute, they found that Ayumu was able to memorize the position of nine numbers within 60 milliseconds. Against Ben Pridmore, the British memory champion, Ayumu won.