Strange Tongue

Starting from language you can get to anywhere.

The Real Human-Nonhuman Difference

It's not language, tools, morality: it's being able to do an infinity of things.

Last time I started to look at the seemingly huge gap between the minds of humans and those of other animals, and how it was fashionable in some circles to deny its existence. Nobody squawked about that—much to my surprise—so I’m going to assume it’s a real phenomenon from here on out. If people want to fight about it, fine. We can always do that later.

But why is there a gap? On most accounts of evolution, there shouldn’t be. Our DNA is 99 percent—or 98 or 97, depending on who you read—the same as that of chimps and bonobos. Physically we’re just as similar as the DNA would lead you to expect, a similarity so clear it was spotted long before Darwin or DNA were ever heard of. It’s just our behavior that’s different.

This upset Darwin. According to him, there shouldn’t be any gaps of this kind anywhere in nature. The Descent of Man is full of anecdotes showing all the clever things animals can do, so he suggested that maybe, after all, there is no gap. And as the evidence for evolution piled up, it became more and more part of the Gospel According to Darwin that there couldn’t be a gap. We were just supercharged apes, end of story.

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So tell me an ape, or any animal, that can do even one of these things: skateboard, knit, cook, draw representationally, make toys, play an instrument, use a knife and fork, use a tape-measure, wash dishes, buy, sell, seal an envelope, make phone calls, play basketball, decorate a Christmas tree, teach a dance, shave, polish glasses, dust, hang clothes out to dry, hammer in nails. None of these require high intelligence. Most people can do more than half of them. Some people can probably do all of them. Possibly some animals could be trained to do some of them. But no animal of any kind, no matter how much training you gave it, could have made the things necessary for doing them—pencils, razors, forks, nails, and all the rest. In fact, they couldn’t even have thought of making them.

Humans do different things. Animals don’t. Pick any individual animal at random and ask what it’s doing right now. You couldn’t know, but without knowing you could give a laundry list of all the possible things it could be doing. Resting. Sleeping. Looking for food. Eating. Looking for a mate. Having sex. Fighting. Playing. That near enough exhausts things. And this isn’t merely true for one or two species. It’s true for every species.

Now pick any individual human at random and ask what he or she is doing right now. Could be anything. Could be composing a concerto. Could be distilling bathtub gin. Could be surveying property. Could be binding up a sprained ankle. The possibilities are endless. The difference between the number of different things people can do and the number of different things animals can do must be orders of magnitude in double figures. If it can be calculated at all. Because every day someone will come up with the Next New Thing.

Not only are we different from other animals. All other animals are the same in this. They’re limitlessly diverse in appearance and might seem to be equally diverse in their habits. Some walk, some fly, some swim, some crawl; some hunt, some are hunted, some scavenge, some graze or browse. Some are social, some solitary. Some seek a mate with elaborate courtship dances, for others it’s just chase and rape. But these are mere variations on the same old limited repertoire of resting, sleeping, looking for food etc. etc. Whether crawling or flying, they’re engaged in one or other of that shortlist of possible activities. And all members of the same species will engage in them in the same way. If you’re a member of a species that does courtship dances, then you will do a courtship dance before you mate whether you like it or not. But try to count the ways humans can court.

So it’s like there are just two levels: us and the rest. On Level One everyone is restricted to the same very short list of things they can do. On Level Two everyone can do literally anything they can think of (note: that “think of” is a clue). That’s the real difference between us and them, and it’s huge. How could there be a difference so vast and so complete?

You might think there would have to be something highly unusual, highly complex, or both—something that would take years of neurobiological research to unravel. You would be wrong. Here’s another clue: the very fact that the difference is absolute, that there is no Level One and a Half, nowhere a species that’s somewhere between those who can do only a few limited things and those who can do almost anything. That should tell you something.

If you want the answer, you’ll have to wait another month or else read my new book, More than Nature Needs. I can tell you now the really surprising thing. The answer is very simple, and in a way Darwin was right, after all.

 

Derek Bickerton is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii; his most recent book is More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution.

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