What’s special about humans?

On earth, we know what’s special about humans (as in, unique to humans among all other living creatures).

  • Symbolic thinking
  • Ability to run long distances
  • …more…

But we have not met life that did not originate on earth. There might be life on Mars, but if it exists, it’s probably around the unicellular level (or equivalent) — not “intelligent life”. Humans are currently space-faring, if only marginally so — we have sent humans to outside of the earth’s atmosphere. Thus, we are a “space-faring race”. If life exists elsewhere in the universe, there might be more space-faring races. What would be unique to humans, among all these races?

We assume, perhaps incorrectly, that it would be impossible to develop technology to get to space without symbolic thinking. The ability to run long distances, though important in our evolutionary history, does not seem germane to what we think of as “human”. So if we ever meet the “United Planets” summit where intelligent races from throughout the universe meet, what qualities would distinguish us among them? What would be our overriding qualities?

I have no knowledge, obviously. But there are some guesses, and I would like to survey them.

  • The Niven “Known Space” theory: humans are kick-ass warriors. In known-space, this stems from humans having Pak protectors, the most ferocious warriors in the universe, in their DNA.
  • The Scalzi “Old Men’s War” theory: humans are assholes. Basically, all species hate humans because they do not play by the rules.
  • The Brin “Uplift” theory: humans are outsides. All other intelligent species exist in a hierarchy, but humans came along, turned the rules upside down, and insist of doing things their way.

What unifies all these theories, a grand-master science-fiction unification theories is “humans are individuals”. Here is a theory for why this is so popular: in recent times, we have seen the democratic countries with lots and lots of freedom of association manage to win, both in wars and economics, against “you must associate” countries. This seems like such a paradoxical result, that it must come from somewhere, and it suggest a view of humans as needing that freedom to associate to survive.

Note that both Brin’s and Niven’s universes posit something “unnatural” about the evolution of humanity, and so I will discount those theories as realistic, as entertaining as the fiction might be. In Scalzi’s universe, among other things, humans were (physically, at least) the suckiest warriors until they started genetically engineering soldiers.

I want to take an aside to cast serious doubt on one of the classical science-fiction tropes: the ant-like intelligent race. For the purposes of this doubt, I would like to consider that species like ants or bees should really be considered on the one-hive-one-organism as opposed to classical definitions of organisms. Now let us consider this: we know that the unicellular-to-multicellular path is “easy” to achieve: it has been done a number of times along evolutionary history. However, the unibody-to-multibody path has only been done 15 times, despite immense evolutionary advantage (most biomass on the planet belongs to such organisms). This suggests, to me, that the likelihood of doing this at any but the tiny-organism level is low, and so the hive-mind scenario seems unlikely to me.

So, what other evolutionary pathways to space-faring races would have been likely on earth?

Let’s start with out close relatives. Apes are arranged in strict dominance hierarchies, with the successful males getting more than their share of females, while humans are significantly more egalitarian. Is that connected to apes not being space-faring? I would have to come down on the side of “yes”. A significant part of ape dominance ritual is to begin by asserting dominance over females. This works, in general, because a single male is more powerful than a single females. However, a pre-req for space-faring is tool-using. Apes are tool using, of sorts, but humans are much more sophisticated. This stems from a better ability to aim. Apes cannot throw rocks with accuracy. Had they been able to do it, the females would be able to throw rocks to scare away the up-and-coming males. Rock-throwing is a much more effective way for a group to collaborate on defeating an individual than unarmed fighting. So — apes cannot go to space while remaining in dominance hierarchies.

In general, I think that this shows that a space-faring race is unlikely to be based pure on dominance hierarchies if its reproductive strategy is mammalian like (two sexes, one significantly and inherently more invested in the off-spring).

What about hemaphrodites? What would a hemaphrodite society look like? On earth, hemaphrodity is virtually unknown among land-based vertebrates. It seems like sexual specialization is amazingly successful, and so I would come down against hemaphrodity.

It is interesting that none of the Sci-Fi authors came down on the side of “humans are especially intelligent”. However, here I have to agree with them. Any space-faring race has to at least figure out Newtonian physics, and it took us long enough…

What about religion? Why do human beings have a tendency to believe in the supernatural? If a species has the “dominance hierarchy” phase of its evolution far enough in its past, or non-existent, would it still believe in a God that made the universe and all in it? This might well be one of the human characteristic, the belief in God, and the willingness to fight over his nature. I’m not aware of this being explored in science-fiction, with the mild exception of B5, where the humans were special not in having religion-qua-religion, but in their religious diversity.

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3 Responses to What’s special about humans?

  1. I know you’re not taking it too seriously, but I don’t think looking to science fiction is a good way to start thinking about this. Science fiction authors have a pressing motivation to make humanity unique somehow, because it makes for a better story this way (Tolkien mentions this in “On Fairy-Stories”). I’m pretty certain Brin is very deliberately doing this in the Uplift novels.

    That said, it’s an fascinating topic and I’d love it if somehow we could get some facts into the discussion 🙂

  2. TDDPirate says:

    As far as I know, the one attribute which makes humans different from all living beings on Earth is their ability to handle fire.
    Some animals speak, some animals use tools, some animals think logically. But only humans are known to be capable of controlling fire.

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