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What makes humans unique among animals

2 23 31

I’ve written quite a lot of these words in an Italian café near where I live. It’s early on a Friday evening right now, and it’s buzzing. I’m the slightly odd man sitting alone with his fourth coffee and a heap of books. It strikes me that restaurants are wonderful places for observing the full package of human evolution. There’s a school nearby and there are teachers and pupils in here. It’s very family friendly, and there’s a baby being cooed at by someone I guess is a grandparent, but might be unrelated. People fork farmed food cooked by fire into their incredibly complex mouths using forged metal tools. A couple on a date may well have more fun to come later tonight. The manager oversees the chefs in the kitchen, who interact with the waiting staff, who interact with the customers. And everyone is talking.

Next time you are in a café, take a moment to watch what is really happening. Every transaction is an exchange of information. All those dynamics are the outcome of a biological and cultural evolution unique to this ape. We exhibit sexual preferences and activities that are diverse and by choice, yet comparable to behav­iors seen in other animals. We have separated sex from reproduc­tion with a boundary that is rarely breached. We’ve taken technology to levels of sophistication indistinguishable from magic.

Our brains have grown and funded these abilities and behaviors that sometimes differ by degree, sometimes by kind, even if they may look much the same. Our minds have expanded beyond our brains, at least metaphorically, because humans are a social crea­ture that transmits ideas through time as well as space, and very few animals do that as effectively. Where we stand apart most sig­nificantly is in cultural accumulation and transmission. Many ani­mals learn. Only humans teach.

There is cultural transmission of ideas in a few other species: tool use in females of a pod of tech-savvy dolphins in Australia; maybe the knowledge of who is scary and who is not to a Caledonian crow. These are few and far between, and we will discover more examples in time. Humans do it all the time and have done for millions of years. Due to the nature of my work, I stand in front of thousands of people every year and tell them stuff that I have learned. I am related to almost none of them. We accumulate knowledge, and pass it on. That is what this book is, what all books are.

Here is a........

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