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.

This doesn’t mean that chimpanzees are inherently more intelligent than humans, since tests and measurements of intelligence are almost always universally flawed, as anyone who has taken a standardized test can attest to. Like emotion, intelligence is hard to quantify, which makes it difficult to study.

There are some telltale signs of intelligence that we can look to. Scientists often look at tool use to see how smart and aware an individual is. Using a tool demonstrates spatial awareness and physical reasoning, being the cognitive understanding of what's going on around us. But other than that, in some animals, it’s not simply understanding the environment around them. It's about planning ahead. In one instance:

“A particularly striking case is that of the chimpanzees of Goualougo, which use two different tools in sequence to fish for underground termites. First, they puncture the ground using a digging stick, and then use a flexible tool to fish. The robust digging stick is usually left at the site, and so it is the second tool of the sequence that the chimpanzees often arrive carrying with them.”

The trait of foresight is commonly associated with primates, but some crows have also displayed it. The intelligence we value so much (as to have meritocracies surrounding our daily lives) can often be challenged by the ability of animals.

Self-motivated Activity

Now, it can be argued that all our actions are determined by some kind of cause, such as genetic or environmental causes. But here, self motivated activity is an action directly dictated from a cause. One of the ways we see this present in the animal kingdom is cooperation. Often, cooperation is chosen and not forced upon. After all, cooperation is the choice to help another out or not. Additionally, cooperation can be hard to directly link to genetics, in which many factors can be at play. It can, in this way, be used to look at the choices one makes internally.

Humans are extremely interesting creatures to study about social interactions. Perhaps one of the ways humans are seen as more civilized than other species is in the way we interact with others. The majority of us are not the wild beasts that we consider other animals to be. Many people may view it that way because we are able to cooperate with one another. Cooperation has been observed all throughout nature, but the way we cooperate seems to be different. After all, the grand achievements we’ve been able to accomplish are not because of a single man. Every single thing we’ve built and every piece of technology is, as Newton says, created by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” It’d be impossible to do everything we’ve done today without some level of cooperation: take research for an example. Research isn’t one person doing everything. It’s multiple people building on others’ findings, which can occasionally lead to technology. Yes, some players may be bigger than others, but in the end it’s how we operate with each other that has allowed us to advance so far. Scientific papers, such as the ones I’m using right now to research about this very topic, are only written to communicate with others.

Much thought has been put into why cooperation is such an important trait so (even with contending arguments) it’s worthwhile to look into. Looking into investing behavior into one another, there are two types: interdependence/pseudo-reciprocity and reciprocal behavior. Interdependence occurs when one individual might need something that another individual provides, so in order to heighten their chances of survival, they might protect the other individual. Reciprocal behavior occurs (on a basic level) when two individuals take turns giving and receiving. This type of behavior is seen much more in humans, although some argue this might be due to the fact that their ways of observation are flawed.

Reciprocal behavior is usually separated into two categories, direct and indirect. Direct is when a “giving action” will be returned later. Indirect is when a “giving action” will benefit the individual, not by the reviver but another individual, in which it is more reputation based. There is evidence for ways animals control and enforce reciprocal behavior through shunning and punishment. Punishment is especially useful to humans. However, a balance must be struck, as punishment seems unfavorable to others. The article cited below goes into much more detail, and I highly suggest you check it out (second link in the citations).


Many animals have devised complex ways to speak, and albeit not as complex as ours, it still demonstrates their ability to comprehend one another. Since many cases of basic communication have been observed in many different animals, I’d like to look at a form of higher communication.

Surprisingly, Prairie Dogs have one of the most complex languages researched, even more so than dolphins or chimpanzees (however this may change in accordance with new research). They can use their language to describe predators of different kinds, including color and shape, and construct what could be considered a “sentence.” One researcher proposes that their jump-yips (known for being contagious with one another), once speculated to be an all-clear signal, can be a type of “safety drill.” The jump-yips, they speculate, are to have neighbors keep a watchful eye out, so the originator could possibly look for food while others look out for them.

However, Warren’s criteria define the capacity to communicate as where the communicator can provide messages of indefinite types. These indefinite types must have indefinite contents as well as potential topics, and it seems that Prairie Dogs do not yet meet that standard.


Well, it’s hard to tell. Animals can recognize themselves in a mirror, which tells us to some degree that they know that they are a being. What may separate humans from animals is introspection. Introspection is on a whole other level, since introspection not only requires self awareness, but awareness of that awareness. Introspection is the reflection of one’s own thoughts. After all, take a look at philosophy. Socrates and Plato, the fathers of Western thought, used introspection as a basis of their ideas. They thought about their thoughts. To challenge that would be a great deal.

Testing for introspection isn’t perfect either. A study done on rats, in which they were given a series of questions, wanted to see if rats were able to reflect on their own thoughts. If they could answer the questions, they were given a reward of food pellets, wrong answers gave no pellets, and refusing to answer questions was rewarded with 3 answers. They found that when rats had harder questions, they would choose to refuse the question rather than change the fact to receive no pellets.

Does this mean rats are capable of introspection? Not necessarily. Critics say that knowing that they don’t know something doesn’t mean they are self-aware. It could just be a simple reaction.


So, have we answered my English teacher’s long standing question? Of course not. Human nature is very complicated, and philosophers have been exploring this for a long time. On a dark note, there have been times science was used to reason for racial superiority. Clearly, this is a topic that should be treated carefully, and with more emerging science, we are getting closer to figuring out more and more intricate niches of human behavior. Science here can help us understand not only the world around us, but also the world within us.

Suggested Content

If you found these topics interesting, I highly recommend these:

The podcast that inspired this piece:



















Image Credit:


28 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All