The Mystery of Human Uniqueness

If you dropped a dozen human toddlers on a beautiful Polynesian island with shelter and enough to eat, but no computers, no cell phones, and no metal tools, would they grow up to be like humans we recognize or like other primates? Would they invent language? Without the magic sauce of culture and technology, would humans be that different from chimpanzees?

Nobody knows. (Ethics bars the toddler test.) Since the early 1970s, scientists across the biological sciences keep stumbling on the same hint over and over again: we’re different but not nearly as different as we thought. Neuroscientists, geneticists, and anthropologists have all given the question of human uniqueness a go, seeking special brain regions, unique genes, and human-specific behaviors, and, instead, finding more evidence for common threads across species.

In the old days, the main hypotheses were behavioral. “Humans

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus9 min readPsychology
Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live: Without inner narratives we would be lost in a chaotic world.
We are all storytellers; we make sense out of the world by telling stories. And science is a great source of stories. Not so, you might argue. Science is an objective collection and interpretation of data. I completely agree. At the level of the stud
Nautilus9 min readRelationships & Parenting
Families of Choice Are Remaking America: Through their networks of friends, singles are strengthening society’s social bonds.
When Dan Scheffey turned 50, he threw himself a party. About 100 people packed into his Manhattan apartment, which occupies the third floor of a brick townhouse in the island’s vibrant East Village. His parents, siblings, and an in-law were there, an
Nautilus6 min read
The Big Bang Is Hard Science. It Is Also a Creation Story.: Even with its explanatory power, Big Bang theory takes its place in a long line of myths.
In some ways, the history of science is the history of a philosophical resistance to mythical explanations of reality. In the ancient world, when we asked “Where did the world come from?” we were told creation myths. In the modern world, we are inste