Distinguishing characteristics of humans, by Zake Stahl (Human)

This list is not really prioritized, could be organized many different ways, and most of the points interlink/overlap with other points in the list. Also it's a 'living document' - I change and update it when inspired. (Last update April 3, 2014.) Enjoy!

  1. Consciousness
    1. Pronounced Self-Awareness
    2. Questioning Existence and Purpose
    3. Introspective Mind
    4. Able to imagine and create previously non-existent things
    5. Emotions
    6. Relationships
    7. Ego - To the point where humans can act unjustifiably superior and can be so selfish as to be detrimental to their own existence.
    8. Not that other entities don't have some or all of the above characteristics, but there is a blend that is severely human.

  2. The brain - A no-brainer <hee hee>; Though obviously many animals have brains, human's are bigger. At least are bigger insofar as the normal mass and size of body to brain ratio; there are a bunch of other critters with ratios like our, rats for example.

  3. Knowledge, History, ORAL TRADITION, passing information down from one generation to the next, books, cave wall paintings, stone carvings, sculpture, artwork, family heirlooms, education systems (school, internships, apprentice-ships, systems of art craft philosophy). Jaron Lanier (ttbook transcript):"We can accumulate knowledge and wisdom across generations. And the cephalopods don't; each generation just emerges from the egg and has to learn all over again. If they had childhood they would definitely rule the planet."

  4. Speech - This one seems obvious, communication, history, culture, song. At a mystical levels: vibrations, mantras, Sanskrit, spiritual song, chanting, prayer, etc..

  5. The opposable thumb - Some other primates have this too, and they're basically on the same evolutionary branch. A big chunk of brain is all about the hands and thumb. Our hands are a huge part of learning about our environment and interacting with it and (kinesthetic) learning. (Knitting as antidepressant, hand craft as grounding, etc.)

  6. Sweat glands and pores on almost entire skin surface - This makes a huge difference in increased habitat acclimation, and thus diversity of habitat across the species now. (Ex: Humans can go to hot places and sweat, cold places and wear clothes, don't have to migrate, maybe aren't as easily killed off by habitat/climate change.)

  7. Sexuality:
    1. Female humans are not as driven by ovulation as are female animals who go into "heat," in other words, they can culturally/personally/socially choose their sexual behavior regardless of their cycles of menstruation.
    2. Hemochorial Placenta (pregnancy and menstruation distinctions). (This information is from this link which you probably can't get to.) There is a spectrum of control and nourishment between mother and embryo in animals. On the spectrum side opposite humans the embryo does not get direct access to blood, does not control the mother's biology at all, and the mother can (biologically at least, not really consciously) abort - due to a serious lack of resources threatening the mother's existence. In humans, the embryo implanting (and other stages) is more difficult, due to more biological tests for problems. However, unlike the 'lower' animals where the mother's body can reject the baby, in humans there are three players: Mom, Baby, and genes from Dad activated in the placenta! The infant, in utero, influences blood sugar and other chemical levels in the mother for the child's growth advantage, even when negative for the mother.
    3. No bone in the penis - Very convenient and allows for more diverse culture and behaviors. (Don't recall where I got this one.) The theory is that this adaptation allows for male humans somehow to multitask and trick females in ways non-humans can't; also just more flexible or something. The baculum is used for speed and quanity over quality.
    4. In many many species the male is more colorful and decorated, whereas in humans (not all, but enough to be noteworthy) the females seem to take this role. Note also however, that in humans and non-humans alike, the males fight for females, though this is hugely masked and muddied by culture. (I might be biased here.)

  8. Good at sprint and long range and variability (hunting) mobility. - (This one I'm sketchy on and need to find the source.) Something I heard out of the corner of my ear about humans being able to run longer / more varied as the heart rate / breath rate / locomotion stride are not anatomically locked in at some fixed ratios. Whereas in some quadrupeds, for example, there are fixed rations, so they are not as flexible as hunters or evading prey. Long range is basically walking. Persistence hunting is an evolutionary term related to the running/sprinting/walking characteristic

  9. Uniquely long adolescence: David Bainbridge postulates that human's prolonged adolescence is unique and a great evolutionary advantages; he wrote, "Teenagers: A Natural History." Somehow the angst and all is required to re-wire the human brain; started 800K years ago and that's when we became who we are now.

  10. Cooked food / Cooking food - Richard Wrangham, the author of "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human" puts forth the argument that cooked food packs more energy per volume of food and per amount of time taken in eating and preparing it, also it allows preservation and portability. He feels this is a critical node on our evolutionary branch and a huge distinguishing characteristics (smaller mouth, teeth, stomach, etc.). (Cooked food vs raw food movement debate - but really both are human, you can process fuel both ways, each with pros and cons; focus on health (go slow food!))

  11. Tool use; actually lots of animals do this. [links] Abstraction. Long term thinking. Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants" details how tools / technology are biological evolution continued in other forms.

  12. Domestication (clearly overlaping with fire, cooking, tools, and intellegence.) Other animals migrate (travel) with no luggage, and enjoy the cold weather without special clothes. Humans are pretty much so self-domesticated that we can't live without shelter and cooking and massive infrastructure for (critical) support. It's not just farming and dogs and horses that are domestication, Michael Pollan's Botany of desire beautifully shows the co-evolution and co-exploitation of humans with four select plant species. Arguably the changes labled negativly by some as feminization, is simply the (assumed) positive result of domestication.

  13. Compassionate, though sometimes to help this one along we need Culture and Religion.
Domain Eukarya
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Primate
Family Hominidae
Genus Homo
Species sapiens


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