Many of the things which we may think are activities only humans participate in are not ours alone. War, animal husbandry, and agriculture are all activities that many species of ants have as staples of their societies. No, the things that are most uniquely human are not strictly for survival in the ways that food production and defense of the colony are. There are many traits our species have that only we do, and they are largely a result of our ability to think differently than other creatures.
Our brains are designed to solve puzzles, connect patterns, and manage incredible details that for many organisms would seem completely without value. But that is not so. It is in using these unique abilities that we have become the species we are today. We have overcome trials that have left other apex species in the fossil record, and with luck and tenacity, we will continue to do so.
The first uniquely human behavior I want to address is the use of plants. That may seem a strange thing to bring up first. But this is more than simple agricultural usage. I’m talking about discovering the properties of plants and using them to our benefit. While ants have been seen growing fungi to provide crops to their colonies, and many species of mammals have been recorded consuming medicinal plants to deal with different ailments, only humans have discovered the means to identify those effects, and to harvest the ingredients needed to create more powerful tonics.
Our endeavor to understand plants has yielded the medical technology that we use today. Using this science has eradicated many harmful diseases, and others are now so uncommon that few people alive today have ever known anyone to be afflicted with them.
Plant usage extends beyond the medical and the food crop variety in human history. Poisons have been derived to aid in hunting and pest control. Plants have also been used to create a variety of tools used by both modern and ancient peoples. Ropes woven from plant fibers, resins harvested from conifer trees.
Even fire, considered mankind’s most important discovery, is bolstered by our usage of plants. Our kindling is properly dried grasses, and wood is the fuel. Certain woods such as hickory release flavorful smoke, that can be used to cure meat, increasing its self life significantly. And through the combination of fire and plants, humanity learned to extract plant oils, and create tinctures to cure ailments or reduce pain. This deep understanding, and resource management of plants is a uniquely human behavior.
For an action to be uniquely human, in my opinion, it must fit a level of scrutiny. Birds and many mammal species construct homes of wood or grass. Many creatures show signs of familial attachments, even social structures not too unlike our own. To be uniquely human, it must be more.
Language doesn’t even qualify. Whales show signs of using unique sounds and calls to signify names, places, even times. Chickens and geese will make noises to alert each other of approaching danger, predators, or food. Bees use a form of sign language via dance to indicate distance, position, and type of flowers to harvest for their pollen. There is one aspect of language that is uniquely human however: Writing.
The written word is among humanities greatest achievements. By recording knowledge, we are able to pass on what we have learned to future generations. This transmission of knowledge allows our species to continue in progress that would otherwise be impossible. Sometimes it can be generations before what was recorded before becomes usable, but by keeping these forms of records, our species can overcome the entropy of time that keeps many other creatures firmly held in their stasis of habitual living.
The first instances of recorded language date back to approximately five thousand years ago. This is not to say we as a species didn’t have great achievements before this advent. Human history begins long before that, with the first indications of civilization beginning roughly twelve thousand years ago. Even more than this, there is anthropological evidence to show that humans have advanced language and social structures as far back as sixty thousand years ago. Advancement in our species is multiplicative. Each one we make builds on the next ones, increasing the rate of development at every step.
Written language has shown significant improvement over time. Earliest records are difficult to understand, perhaps because we do not understand the context, perhaps because they were so rudimentary that they no longer show much relevance to us. Whatever the case, we have continued to improve our use of the written word as time has progressed. Interestingly, while written language is largely attributed to being first developed by the Sumerians, it appears to have developed independently among many different people around similar time frames in human history. It’s no wonder why the use of written language took such hold on our early species. It enabled people to learn new things without having to experience them first hand. It allows for greater specialization for our species. Writing may seem commonplace to us. We used it every day. But it is this commonality of the written word that solidifies it as one of the most uniquely human things you can do.
Along with this desire to record our experiences is the record keeping of our history. Where other creatures may find the bones of their forbears a warning to stay away, humans actively search these ruins for clues of where we came from. This curiosity is a unique feature of the human race. Now, do not confuse my words. This is not to say curiosity itself is unique to our species. Many creatures show curiosity. But the curiosity toward where we came from, what was once normal for our ever changing species, that curiosity is very human. It is hard to say whether this would occur in other species if they left behind the sorts of remains that we do; cities, monoliths, foundations. But so far, where other mammals have left foot paths through generations of use, there has been no sign of the deer or elk who walk them showing any more interest in them than simply to use them.
Even our own fellows may show such behavior. How often do we consider how the computer came to be? Yet many of us use them daily. So perhaps curiosity is more of a behavior engaged in infrequently, whenever the moment is right. Either way, it is because of the written word that whenever a human decides to chronical how something came to be, any of us can go to it and read it, discovering more about our heritage and place in this world.
Not everything that is unique to the human race is a positive. Alteration of our natural environments may be the first thing that comes to mind with this statement. However, this is not a uniquely human behavior. Granted, no species has had the same effect that humanity has had, with our production of plastics, abundant waste, and other ecological terrors, but it is the habit of almost all organic life to fill its niche as much as possible with its own, and to alter the environment to suit its needs along the way. Viruses and bacteria will do this so effectively that it kills their hosts with their waste products and chemical alterations. Some species will even fill their environment so much that they cause famine, leaving them with massive die offs and even extinction events. This is the balance of nature in action. No, what I am speaking of is cruelty.
Cruelty is callous indifference to or enjoyment of causing pain and suffering. You may think that other creatures also engage in this behavior; cats will play with mice before they eat them. But this is not the same. Applying the label of here simply anthropomorphizes the creatures. Humans have shown through their history that they will do much worse, for much less.
A perfect example is found in 19th century France, where a young woman, Blanche Monnier went missing for 25 years. After an anonymous letter came to local authorities, they searched the house of Monnier’s mother, to find that Blanche had been held captive there for that entire time. Her mother had imprisoned her over an argument they had had regarding Blanche’s desire to marry. Blanche was severely malnourished, and had not seen another person other than her abusers for 25 years. Blanche lived another twelve years after gaining her freedom, but the depravity of her mother remains a stark reminder that human beings, regardless of expectations or familial bonds, cruelty can come from any person, anywhere.
There are countless tales of killings, brutality, and horrifying acts by our species. However, another behavior quite unique to our own species is kindness. Again, this isn’t to say animals cannot show kindness. Whether they can or not is a subject for another debate. What I am referring to is how humanity has shown an incredible capacity to do good for their own species. There are anthropological records of human bones that have been broken, then reset, and allowed to heal fully. This is not an easy process. For most creatures, a broken bone is a death sentence. Whether their fellow creatures want to save them or not makes no difference, they lack the resources of intellect, dexterity, or understanding to help their fellows survive without putting themselves at risk. Wherever their is human cruelty, there is also human kindness that rises up to stop it. Our moral sense of duty, of right and wrong, and our capacity for empathy, allow us to see where there is hurt, and desire to correct it. To end suffering and bring safety and peace to our family, children, friends, and neighbors.
Overcoming hate allows us to achieve greater good for our entire species. There is nothing that humans cannot do so long as we work together. We’ve achieved space flight. We’ve cured previously incurable diseases. Extended the lifetime of our race by decades. Reduced child mortality the world over. But there is still so much to do. I encourage you to take time to find how you can help contribute to the end of cruelty. There is much every person can do in this effort to make a better future for our species.