The Big Question

We’ve all got big questions. But while the questions themselves may be easy—Why am I here? Where’s the bathroom? Why is the dog doing that to the couch?—the answers can be hard. It can take more than one point of view to get to the bottom of a really tricky question. That’s why we’ve got a whole panel of experts, to help us answer…

The Big Question

This month’s Big Question: What is the “Human Spark”? What makes humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, so different from the other animals? Our tools? Our brains? Our bodies? Our culture?

What do the experts think? What do you think?

Michael Wilson, Primatologist

There is not just one human spark -- no single event that made us human. Nor are we in any way inevitable -- evolution is not a matter of marching relentlessly onward through time towards Us. Instead, we are one of many twigs on the vastly branching tree of life. And while the combination of traits that we embody is unusual, it's hard to find a human trait that is truly unique. We may be the Naked Ape, a close look reveals that our bodies are still rather hairy, and we are much less naked than, say, whales, or naked mole rats. We may be the Bipedal Ape, but for hundreds of millions of years the earth was ruled by an earlier group of mainly bipedal creatures -- the dinosaurs -- whose descendents, the birds, continue to walk, hop, and otherwise travel bipedally about the earth today. We may be the Brainy Ape, but elephants and various whales have bigger brains that we do. But there is one trait that really does seem to be unique: language. Apes have been trained to use some aspects of language, and bees have their dance language to tell their sisters where to find good flowers, but only humans have evolved full-blown symbolic communication.

Why did our particular twig on the great tree of life produce this unique and exotic flower of language? Nobody knows. But I suspect it is related to another human curiosity: cooking. As Richard Wrangham argues in his recent book, Catching Fire, we are the Cooking Ape, and many of our unusual traits relate to an evolutionary history of cooked foods. Softer, more easily digestible cooked foods led to smaller teeth, jaws and guts. Increased availability of nutrients from the same landscape yielded larger bodies and perhaps larger brains as well. What precisely led to the origin of language remains a mystery, but bigger brains seem a critical part of the ability to store, process, and communicate symbolic information. And so the spark that gave us fire, and thus cooking, may have provided the fuel to grow the big expensive brains needed for evolving language—and thus becoming fully human.

Gilliane Monnier, Paleolithic Archaeologist

What a thought-provoking question! As someone who has spent her entire career studying the stone tools made by our human ancestors, I would have to say that what makes humans so different from the other animals is our unsurpassed relationship with tools. Think about what you might have done today: brushed your teeth (with a grooming tool), eaten breakfast (with an eating tool), gone to work (with a transportation tool), communicated with people (with an array of tools from pencils to phones to computers), gone to the bathroom (if a toilet can be called a tool!) and so forth. In fact, when we look back in time to the earliest humans, they were making stone tools 2.6 million years ago! And once humans started making tools, they never stopped. Very early on and throughout the world, stone-tool making became a major part of humans’ cultural adaptation, that is, our adaptation to the environment through learned behavior. By the time of the pre-Neanderthals 250,000 years ago, many sites contain thousands of tools, and it is clear that those humans could not have functioned without them: tools had become an inevitable part of the daily life of our human ancestors, just as they are today.

Martha Tappen, Paleoanthropologist

Humans definitely are sparklers! Sometimes I am dazzled by how different we are from the other apes—but, then again, people are always revealing how similar we are to the other primates, too. When I see people vying for higher rank through posturing and display, I imagine them in my mind’s eye to be apes—I highly recommend this as a technique for getting through business meetings with one’s humor intact.

Since the split of the chimpanzee and human lineages, traits have accumulated independently in each lineage. The new fossil Ardipithecus finds highlight the question of how much chimpanzees have evolved over the last 6 million years or so, but I am still comfortable with the idea that humans have changed much more than the chimpanzees or gorillas have. And it is important to realize that we did not evolve our spark all at once—the ability to walk on two legs, larger brain size, increased technology, social interdependency and language did not evolve at single moment in our evolutionary history, and all of these aspects of our humanity changed through time.

Freed hands for carrying, tool use and language are at the top of my list of what creates the human spark. Because of these human traits, we are able to live nearly anywhere, and our population grows and grows. We occupy essentially the whole globe, even Antarctica! The other apes are very limited in where they can live; they need fresh vegetation, fruits and leaves to eat year round; they need trees for nests. In contrast, we humans are amazingly broad ecologically and we manage to eat almost anything and everything. It is easy to see that we accomplish our broad geographic range today through cooperation and trade, clothing, fire, domesticated plants and animals. So I find it illuminating to look at the first expansion of our habitat range to understand how and why we became what we have become. We first split from chimpanzees about 7 million years ago, and walking on two feet became an important part of our behavior by about 4-6 million years ago, but we still were confined to African habitats until 1.8 million years ago. Then, 1.8 million years ago, we begin to spread into Eurasia. To me, this human expansion signals evidence of the origins of the human spark. That’s why I research the earliest spread Out of Africa through excavations in the country of Georgia, looking for the earliest strictly human adaptations.

Kieran McNulty, Paleoanthropologist

Unlike most scientists and philosophers, paleoanthropologists are interested not only in what makes us uniquely human, but especially how our species acquired these distinctive characteristics. The line between ape and human is not some demarcation point or “missing link” between savage and sapient. It is instead a long and branching trail that stretches back into our ape heritage. At the head of this trail, our ancestors would have seemed no different from the ancestors of bonobos and chimpanzees. Yet, at which signpost along the way would you stop to say, here is where we achieved our humanity: the development of upright walking? Our loss of fur? Brain expansion? Complex tool use? As our ancestors carved out these ancestral paths, through woods and savanna and eventually across the globe, each step made possible those steps to follow; each step added a component to our humanness, and carried along the potential of new variations and adaptations.

In that sense, the human spark is that small kernel of vitality, struck from a blaze nearly four billion years old, that ignited a new and surprisingly potent fire, and spread into a diversity of ancestral species that eventually gave rise to modern humans. While the many ingredients for this fire—dexterous hands unnecessary for locomotion, access to high-quality foods, use and control of fire, development of language, cultural transmission, longevity, extended childhood—were each enough to maintain a modest flame, it was the combination of fuels that finally led to the explosive success of the human species. But as paleoanthropologists, we celebrate not only the burning brands that illuminate the differences from our cohabitants on this planet, but also the numerous tiny sparks that light the path toward our communion.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we are no different, or superior to other animals, and therefore, why do we consider the earth ours to "reign" over? perhaps it

posted on Wed, 08/04/2010 - 2:27pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we think we're more powerful and think we're biggger than most animals.

posted on Sat, 11/06/2010 - 2:32pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i think so to

posted on Thu, 03/17/2011 - 12:48pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we are more powerful, that's how God made us

posted on Wed, 07/06/2011 - 7:59pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I agree. God made us in his image to rule over the land. However that does not give us the right to abuse our power by destroying and exploiting the resources we are given. Instaed, we should try to preserve them for future generations.

posted on Sat, 07/09/2011 - 3:31pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

and if he dosnt exist?

posted on Wed, 12/28/2011 - 2:08pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we may be but more mentally powerful. not phyaically. also great power comes with great responsability, responsabilty which so far we have not been very responsible of.

posted on Wed, 04/11/2012 - 2:27pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

indeed we are not

posted on Sat, 11/26/2011 - 12:28pm
Sunny's picture
Sunny says:

well maybe but some people think we are smaller than alot of animals and that part is true but sadly only us very smart people think of that part. so other people that dont think of that part go back to school!

posted on Sat, 08/11/2012 - 5:20pm
4CrazyCats 's picture
4CrazyCats says:

I think that you are right. We do think that generally we r bigger then other animals but tecnically, it's probably because were not used to seeing other thing's / animals that would be and are bigger then us. Maybe if we were surronded,(living) around animals bigger then us, then maybe we would think that some thing normally small would make us big. It's just how our eyes trick us with stuff. Once I went up to my cabin and I was hanging around a dog for a really long time. When I came back to my house, all of my cats seemed freakishly smallish. It's all relative to our eyes and brain cells and nerves.

posted on Thu, 06/27/2013 - 2:31pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

perhaps we say that we are better than animals simply because they can't speak. i don't think that makes us better though. we have a pet rat and

posted on Mon, 03/28/2011 - 5:09pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

that is very true

posted on Fri, 05/20/2011 - 11:13am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

animals and us are no different.why do people think that way?they are meanies.

posted on Tue, 06/14/2011 - 4:11pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we are very different than animals. we have fingers, we can speak, and our brain can hold more.

posted on Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:01pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

a great proposition

posted on Sat, 11/26/2011 - 12:27pm
BAP's picture
BAP says:

God made us superior!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
He loves us too!

posted on Sat, 01/28/2012 - 3:15pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i know we are made of the same things

posted on Fri, 02/03/2012 - 12:57pm
Erik's picture
Erik says:

Humans are the only species that have the ability to completely control their environment.

posted on Sat, 04/26/2014 - 5:16pm
Jennakl's picture
Jennakl says:

We have evolved and are at the top of the food chain, so we have earned the right to reign over earth, however, we should continue to be good stuards to the earth and environment.

posted on Fri, 06/06/2014 - 1:03pm
Shana's picture
Shana says:

I remember learning in an anthropology class that humans have very few true instincts--that most of the things we call instincts aren't really instincts, they're learned behavior. For example, the maternal instinct--sure, there probably are some related instincts, like how mothers use singsong voices with their babies. But if women instinctively cared for their children, we wouldn't have so many cases of them being abandoned. Being a good mother is a learned trait.

This is fascinating to me because most animals have hard-wired or instinctual behaviors that suit them uniquely to their environments. Humans, on the other hand, have knowledge and the ability to communicate information, and they choose their actions based on the situation and what they know about it. To me, the freedom to choose my thoughts, food, government, friends, ethics...all those choices are my birthright. We have the freedom, and I really see it as a duty--if you have the power, use it responsibly--to decide carefully how we'll live together with/in this great big world.

So I would rephrase what Anonymous has said: Because we are different, we have to be careful how we reign over the earth. (I don't think we're superior, and we need other organisms and systems to survive.)

posted on Wed, 08/04/2010 - 3:17pm
Vincent's picture
Vincent says:

I think something that lead to humans becoming "dominant" is our cultural aspects. Most "animals" have one kind of group or live individually. Such as the fact that wolves live in packs, or dolphins in pods. Humans can live in one place, migrate, live in organized groups, live in chaotic groups, live as organized individuals, live as chaotic idividuals, and so on. I think that this choice in grouping and population is part of the "human spark"


posted on Fri, 11/26/2010 - 4:58pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i think it is that we can walk on our legs but some animals cant

posted on Sat, 01/22/2011 - 2:08pm
dinosaur12's picture
dinosaur12 says:

i think that we are like animals we both have alot of energy and we both have feeling but we show it differently they can't talk so they have a harder time showing what there feelings are

posted on Sun, 01/23/2011 - 5:17pm
TheVampirePrince's picture
TheVampirePrince says:

Animals can speak but we do not speak their language like they do not speak ours.

posted on Thu, 02/10/2011 - 8:42am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

w? because we can mabe live longer. and + they can not talk!!!!! hope this is right! and most of all they cant tell us what they want! and thene thats w we r all different and + we do not have fur we only have hair! :} p.s peace out homes!

posted on Mon, 02/14/2011 - 2:37pm
Anonymoushvnja's picture
Anonymoushvnja says:

why did the dinosaurs die? why arn't they still alive?

posted on Mon, 03/14/2011 - 12:58pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i dont know i was wondering the the same thing!!!!

posted on Mon, 05/09/2011 - 2:59pm
Sully's picture
Sully says:

That is a question all ask, but i believe that truly a meteor hit the earth and causes the land to seperate into continents.

posted on Sat, 02/07/2015 - 3:53pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I think that it is because of our brains.They are complex and we have great problem solving skills!

posted on Tue, 03/22/2011 - 1:18pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

computers can faster but we are smarter. we progam them to do it .

posted on Tue, 03/29/2011 - 2:11pm
Ianto Jones, Teaboy's picture
Ianto Jones, Teaboy says:

I think it's because of our creativity, and ability to create music, art, television and books.

posted on Tue, 03/29/2011 - 4:54pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I say that we are better than animals because animals don't think animals can speak or think...But they each have thier own talents and that makes them unique and special..Especially talented.

posted on Thu, 04/07/2011 - 4:18pm
ap's picture
ap says:

I think our ability to use our brain is what sets us apart.

posted on Sun, 05/22/2011 - 1:09pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

humans i guess are superior to animals, but in a way all living things are equal. it doesn't matter if you can talk or have thumbs! because god made all of us, and everything on the planet!

posted on Thu, 06/02/2011 - 3:37pm
BAP's picture
BAP says:

oh yeah!!

posted on Sat, 01/28/2012 - 3:16pm
Charzilla's picture
Charzilla says:

Well, the human is just a speck on a speck on a speck of a universe. Our spark is a thing. With all that space, we could always foucus on the bigger spak to- that of the universe.

posted on Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:30pm
Charzilla's picture
Charzilla says:

We all exist, so why do we consider our selves supirior to others? Rank only brings destuction.

posted on Wed, 07/06/2011 - 8:32pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Animals are as intelligent as us because they too learn knew skills. On the other hand they havent develope how to talk and communicate better.

posted on Mon, 07/25/2011 - 1:58pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we are exteremly smart creatures compared to others, for all we know other creatures may study their past and imagine their future.

posted on Wed, 08/24/2011 - 11:56am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

so i believe that many things set us apart from animals and many things tie us together.. well Eric and Ariana were here, k bye

posted on Fri, 09/02/2011 - 7:12pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Because God made us in his image. Simple as that. BAM.

posted on Sun, 09/04/2011 - 4:30pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Very closed minded don't you think?

posted on Sun, 04/01/2012 - 1:03pm
muggles's picture
muggles says:

humans can connect with each other in very different ways

posted on Sat, 09/24/2011 - 2:43pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

muggles says:

humans connect with each other in verry diffrent ways

posted on Wed, 10/19/2011 - 1:19pm
Jacelyn's picture
Jacelyn says:

In a way i hope dino's come back but i also hope that they will be controlled unlike in Jurastic Park. I love this exibit!!!

posted on Wed, 12/28/2011 - 6:11pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we are not different from other animals! we may be the only ones who have money but other animals have a home and food.some animals have even have more then some of us. no offence. but what is the big fuss about then?

posted on Sat, 04/21/2012 - 6:33pm
camgirl's picture
camgirl says:

Well humans have knowledge... but the question is not do we have superior knowledge bu t do we use this knowledge to help lesser beings, for the good

posted on Thu, 06/14/2012 - 4:46pm
Legendary2637's picture
Legendary2637 says:

Even though the world is big enough for every living organism, we should take better care of earth, rather than using the world as a giant trash can.

posted on Sat, 09/08/2012 - 5:52pm
Anon's picture
Anon says:

In my opinion no animal is supierior to any other, but some humans think that we/they are supierior to other animals.

posted on Sat, 12/29/2012 - 6:47pm
ella masso's picture
ella masso says:

i think that animals and people are no different

posted on Tue, 02/19/2013 - 11:49am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Humans are more powerful than most animals, but some are more powerful. Like animals than can kill us.

posted on Wed, 08/21/2013 - 1:12pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

The human spark is human's ability to problem solve and discover things bigger than ouselves. We have a spark that calls us to explore, learn, and grow as a population. Humans are superior to all other animal species because we have the abilillty to think, reason, and rationalize. We are not all equal - we are part of the animal kingdom - eat or be eaten....

posted on Sat, 03/15/2014 - 5:57pm
mckenna 108's picture
mckenna 108 says:

i think that humans are so different from animals because they mark their territory but we don't

posted on Wed, 04/09/2014 - 2:22pm
random person's picture
random person says:

i agree but humans and animals are alike in many ways there are so many ways we are alike to animals because we are the same

posted on Sun, 04/13/2014 - 3:25pm
Noela's picture
Noela says:

i dont think we can consider anyoone 'better', humans or animals because each species has its own special trait.
so instead of asking whaat makees humans more special we should be asking what about humans are special. because birds are special because some can fly while other humans cant. Birds exceed humans. all animals have their own speciality in one way or another and claiming humans are more "special" isnt adequate.

posted on Fri, 06/27/2014 - 5:47pm
desiree's picture
desiree says:

can other animals in this world do smarter stuff then us humans or smarter then even a scientist?

posted on Wed, 07/09/2014 - 2:44pm
lola's picture
lola says:

humans possess thumbs and as a result they are able to perform far more manoovers than other stonger and more adaptable genomes and species

posted on Tue, 07/29/2014 - 4:18pm
carolinezoliza_23's picture
carolinezoliza_23 says:

What makes us different is the fact that we have bigger brains therefore we can solve much bigger problems and create much bigger things, and when we do create bigger things we create bigger power, but while we think that we have more power and are more superior than animals we depend on them ethier way, we depend on them for food, money, and sometimes friendship.

posted on Fri, 08/01/2014 - 5:26pm
Caeli's picture
Caeli says:

I agree. We do have bigger brains than most animals.

posted on Wed, 02/04/2015 - 11:22am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we think we are more powerful than the others animals but we are not

posted on Sat, 02/21/2015 - 8:02pm
anna bella's picture
anna bella says:

the stronger the muscle, the better the life annd power. we people, are noot strong enough to pick up a t-rex

posted on Tue, 07/07/2015 - 1:57pm

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