Age of the Wise Men: What Distinguishes Homo Sapiens from the Other Great Apes?
Homo Sapiens represents the last of a long line of hominin races that once consisted of five different species spanning four continents. Today, we are the last humans, that is, the last of the genus Homo. Our closest living relatives are chimpanzees and gorillas. We, however, stand out in many ways from them. We have unparalleled capacities for abstract thought, language skills, and social cohesion. Over the decades, scientists have found that many of these human abilities are shared by other great apes, though to less impressive degrees. This leads to a question. What makes Homo Sapiens different from other ape species? Current research suggests that the difference between humans and other great apes is more one of degree than one of kind. Other animals, including great apes and dolphins, have capacities for abstract thought and language skills but these abilities are especially pronounced in Homo Sapiens. The areas in which we excel compared to other great apes include material culture production, social learning, altruism, and language skills.
The main variants of the Homo Sapiens ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Material Culture of Homo Sapiens
Archaeologists agree on very few things regarding humans, but one thing on which they do agree is that all humans possess culture, including material culture. Material culture consists of objects which were intelligently produced or altered by humans, or other sapient beings for some purpose.
The earliest evidence of human material culture is represented by stone tools made 2.5 million years ago by Homo Habilis , the first member of the genus Homo, the earliest human species. The first human species to embrace material culture as a primary way to adapt to its environment was Homo Ergaster which had a notably more complex array of stone tools than Homo Habilis , though the tools made by Homo Ergaster were still primitive compared to those developed later by Homo Sapiens .
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NYC Spitzer Hall of Human Origins - Homo Ergaster, dating back 2 million years. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Material culture made by Homo Sapiens is even more prolific and complex. Spear-throwers, needles, blades, paintings, bows, wheels, steam engines, cellphones, and rockets are all examples of material culture that have only been made by Homo Sapiens ( or modern humans). Modern humans have been able to use their versatile toolmaking abilities to adapt to almost every known climatic regime and environment from tropical rainforests, to tundra, to outer space.
Chimpanzees are also capable of making technology, but chimp technology appears to be limited to simple sticks and stones. There is evidence that chimpanzees occasionally sharpen sticks into spears, but these simple spears so far appear to represent the cutting edge of chimpanzee technological development. The story is the same for other great apes besides humans. Compared to Homo Sapiens and other human species, the archaeological record of great ape technology is almost blank.
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Use of sticks and stones is the height of chimpanzee technological advancement ( CC BY NC-ND 2.0 )
Learning for Learning’s Sake
Another trait that is distinctive in humans compared to great apes is the degree to which humans can learn through social behavior. Experiments have shown that both human infants and chimpanzees learn by imitation. An important difference between chimpanzees and Homo Sapiens , however, is that although chimpanzees will learn rewarded behavior, they tend to skip unrewarded behavior. In other words, chimpanzees will engage in behaviors that they know will help them to attain their goal, but if a behavior does not get them closer to their goal, they will quickly discard or skip the behavior.
Human infants, on the other hand, will not just imitate the rewarded behaviors but also unrewarded behaviors. It appears that, whereas chimpanzees will imitate behavior because the behavior is useful in getting a reward, humans will imitate behavior to learn how to behave like other humans. Human infants will also internalize learned behavior and have an emotional reaction when a task that they were taught to do is done differently or “the wrong way” by someone else.
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Other apes learn from imitation, but infant apes will only imitate rewarded behavior. Humans infants will imitate behavior with no reward. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )