Genes and Manners Are What Makes Us Human
It is difficult to explain what makes us human through a single concept, although many people have attempted to approach the answer from a specific field of focus, whether from a biological or behavioral point of view. While many of these answers seem reasonable, they often lack explanations connecting them in historical context and often clash with other theories in a cyclic “the chicken or the egg first” fashion. Such is the case with paleoanthropologist Richard G. Klein and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, who attempt to pin the answer on a few certain attributes that set humans apart from other hominids and eventually from all other animals. Both men offer separate explanations backed up by archaeological and genetic evidence, but viewing both accounts together in a cause-and-effect pattern is what fills in the flaws of each theory and comprehensively defines the roots of human evolution and differentiation.
In the article “Out of Africa and the Evolution of Human Behavior”, Klein argues that what makes us human is our artistic, linguistic, and symbolic capabilities, all of which he claims to distinguish us as “cognitively superior” to other animals. He traces our divergence from other hominids to a “fortuitous mutation that promoted the fully modern brain” about 50,000 years ago and stabilized “morphological and behavioral changes” in the human lineage. Klein proposes that after this point in human evolution, “behavioral change accelerated rapidly” and led to the development of a thriving culture consisting of communicable arts such as complex speech, painting, and music. Using evidence from ancient weapons, cave paintings, jewelry, and other artifacts found across archaeological sites in Africa, Klein claims that a surge in communication and interaction between individuals in a society paved the way for this “creative explosion of social arts that bound people together” in a sense of community and came to distinguish us as humans. As Klein suggests, similar jewelry and textiles found in both nearby and faraway sites
serve as evidence of cultural exchange and enlarged networking among groups of humans. He also notes that the distribution of similarly crafted tools spread much farther than those of the not-too-distant Neanderthals, and that this expansion must have required systematic interaction among groups that encouraged ideas and innovation to spread throughout the human race.
Ehrlich, on the other hand, argues in his book Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect that although genetics and culture have “shaped the attributes and behaviors shared by all human beings,” our particular consciousness and constant reflection of our actions are what make us distinctively and uniquely human. He notes biological differences in human brains that, through evolution, have “enabled us to solve problems of relationships and causation that are difficult or impossible for other animals to solve” because the human brain has a much broader ability to interpret sensory data. Ehrlich claims that the key to human nature is an “intense consciousness” that prompts us to evaluate past experiences and present circumstances in a continuous cycle of self-reassessment not only for survival, but also for individuality. He also cites the distinction between perception and sensation as a key difference between humans and other animals; whereas other animals only perceive feelings as objective “bits of news without emotional content,” humans can take emotions into account with what they perceive and therefore “feel and think consciously.”
Although Klein and Ehrlich attempt to explain human differentiation from different approaches and fields of study, some aspects of their arguments overlap at times, particularly in terms of culture, art, and technology. Ehrlich mentions how “biological differences” in the human brain enabled deeper problem solving, and Klein similarly asserts that a genetic mutation brought about superior cognitive skills. Klein’s “Big Bang theory of human culture” points to communicative arts becoming an increasingly integral part of human society, while Ehrlich’s
explanation of “intense consciousness” refers to our heightened sensitivity to sensory data that
led to us preserve past memories through these same arts. According to Ehrlich, humans are able to use these preserved arts to “situate ourselves in present and future contexts” and therefore create new technology, tying back to Klein’s belief that art was the proxy for the complex languages needed to share and depict these new innovations. Also, Klein’s description of internal and external differentiation within and among cultures is based on Ehrlich’s consciousness theory that self-evaluation and reassessment evoke a sense of individuality and community. Together, both arguments lay the foundation that culture, art, and technology were the core characteristics that set us apart from other hominids, yet both men still disagree on the relative causes of these characteristics.
Klein’s belief of a single mutation that gave humans “cognitive superiority” over other species is viewed with skepticism by Ehrlich, who claims that “people don’t have enough genes to program all the behaviors” they exhibit and therefore are not “slaves to [their] genes.” Klein considers more of the anthropologic and biological modernity of mankind from preserved artifacts or records, whereas Ehrlich considers more of cognitive and behavioral modernity that can only be studied indirectly in context of proxies such as art and culture. In other words, Klein believes that we are human because we are genetically meant to be cognitively capable, whereas Ehrlich believes that we are human because we choose to look back at our past to make choices for our future.
In my opinion, humans are characterized not by a single set of traits, but rather by a series of attributes including both genetics and cognitive sensitivity that work in tandem and depend upon one another they would otherwise be individually impractical and useless. Although brain tissue cannot be directly preserved, cranium impressions in archaeological fossils confirm
that brain size and complexity have increased throughout the human lineage. Recent studies also show that certain brain structures in current day humans are responsible for complex cognitive abilities such as language and art. Such evidence makes it highly plausible that genetic
mutations may have gradually enabled us for more profound thoughts, but like an empty room in a newly enlarged house, expanded capacity and ability does not naturally translate to profundity unless triggered by a need for it—in this case, a change in behavior.
All animals more or less have some sort of consciousness and sense of self-most
animals whether wild or tamed can learn from past experience through positive or negative feedback and act correspondingly in the future. But not all animals have the same ability of interaction and cooperation, and hence most animals resolve conflicts physically by either subduing or killing one another. Species in the human lineage may have also started out the same way, but humans were able to develop alternate ways of resolving conflicts through concepts such as language because we had an evolved capacity of cognition and therefore the ability to settle discord without dealing with life and death. This would be possible only though if humans could understand each other’s thoughts in a “shared vocabulary” of intersubjectivity and act accordingly. This may have likely explained why Homo sapiens could not get along well with Neanderthals, who lacked the complex brains that enabled a deeper level of thinking, or why Neanderthals eventually disappeared because of their inability to resolve problems on a cognitive level as humans did. This improved interaction between human and society developed into a communal sense of belonging and self-expression, which in turn brought art into human life. Along with intersubjectivity and theory of mind, as well as a sense of individuality from self-reflection, there became innovation for technology, and the self-fortifying cycle continued to shape the human lineage into what we know of it today.
Since it is an attribute of the human mind to relate to things by analogic representation in
our own minds only, perhaps other animals may also have traits that are considered exclusive to humans. In consideration of the term “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” it is possible that other animals simply communicate and express their culture in art in a way that we cannot understand, at least not in our context. Nevertheless, as far as humans go, both Klein and Ehrlich’s theories show that a reciprocal combination of both genetic factors and behavioral characteristics is what makes us human, and that without one another, our evolution would have
taken us no closer to what we are today than the Neanderthals were to America.
Algaze, Guillermo. “Culture, Art, and Technology: Origins.” UCSD. Lecture.
Ehrlich, Paul R. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin,
Ch. 1, 6. Print.
Klein, Richard G. “Out of Africa and the Evolution of Human Behavior.” Evolutionary
Anthropology 2008: 267-81. Web.