What Makes Us Unique? / by Anne Kreamer

Gary Marcus, research psychologist at The University of New York and author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician And The Science Of Learning, writes for Nautilus on what makes humans unique.

"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.

This year President Obama pledged $100 million to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, and the European Commission committed one billion euros ($1.29 billion) to the Human Brain Project. The ambitious projects aim to map the circuitry and functions of the brain, and may help us better understand what makes us human. But so far science has found only the tiniest clues.

As someone who has studied language, cognitive neuroscience, and human evolution, I say that with a tinge of chagrin; my professional career has been about trying to understand the origins and development of the human mind. My colleagues and I are all still struggling to find the answers. Why has pinpointing the origins of human uniqueness proven so difficult?

In the old days, the main hypotheses were behavioral. “Humans are the only animals to use tools.” “Humans are the only animals to have culture.” “Humans are the only animals to teach their young.” But over time most of those guesses have turned out (to read more.....)