What Makes Us All Uniquely Human?

In preparing to write this post, I realized that the question “what do all humans share that animals do not?” is more complex than it appears on the surface.  The most obvious answer—we all have two eyes, two legs, and a thinking brain—is, of course, inaccurate. Plenty of us are born without one or more of these things, and even more of us acquire physical and mental differences over the course of our lives. A one-legged blind man is just as human as a two-legged sighted man!

National Geographic says that bipedalism, tool making, and language set us apart from animals. Yet we know of many animals, particularly dolphins and whales, that use complex language. And many animals, from chimps to crows, use tools to achieve their goals. Chimps, penguins, and ostriches are among the many bipedal land animals—which means even our upright stature is far from unique.

Some writers have suggested that it is our capacity for love that makes us human. Yet virtually all mammals—and many other species besides—seem to care for, nurture, and even sacrifice for others. This seems to be a reasonable description of what it means to love. What’s more, there are human beings–often described as sociopaths or narcissists–who lack the ability to empathize, and, thus, the desire to care for others’ welfare above their own. These people are no less human than their warm and caring brethren.

Many human beings are artists, but many proudly announce that they “haven’t a creative bone in their bodies.” Many are spiritual, but just as many reject the existence of anything they can’t perceive with their senses.  We are thinking animals, but humans are human even with severe cognitive challenges or dementia. In other words, we don’t all share artist talents, spiritual interests, or even the ability to think coherently.

What, then, do we share that other animals do not?

Virtually every book and website I’ve explored lists qualities that are shared by many humans—but not by all.

The lack of an opposable thumb would not make an individual any less human.

We lack fur, but so do many mammals.

Some of us are uniquely able and willing to imagine the future and plan accordingly. But many of us either can’t or don’t.

Self-awareness may be a uniquely human quality, but it’s not share by infants or by adults with certain disabilities.

Social engagement is part of being human for most—but not all—people, and it’s hardly unique to our species.

Yes, we can identify humanness by examining DNA, body structure, and physical features that make us a single species. But when we compare and contrast our human uniquenesses we find nothing else that make us all the same. In fact, it may be our very differences from one another—and our similarities to other species—that make us fully human.

Do you agree that there are no distinguishing characteristics—outside of our DNA—that all humans share but other animals do not?  Share your thoughts on the forum!

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