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What Makes Us Human?

The Reasons Why We are So Different

By Charles Pasternak, editor
22-minute read
Audio available
What Makes Us Human? by Charles Pasternak, editor

In What Makes Us Human (2007), a group of experts shares ideas on this centuries-long question. These blinks plumb the depths of the mystery of our species, to discover why humans alone cook food to eat, think creatively and understand cause and effect.

  • Scientists, philosophers and theologists
  • People who want to explore questions about human life

Biochemist and author Charles Pasternak previously taught at Oxford University, where he founded the Oxford International Biomedical Center. His grandfather is Leonid Pasternak, the post-impressionist painter, and his uncle is Boris Pasternak, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and author of Doctor Zhivago.

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What Makes Us Human?

By Charles Pasternak, editor
  • Read in 22 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 14 key ideas
What Makes Us Human? by Charles Pasternak, editor
Synopsis

In What Makes Us Human (2007), a group of experts shares ideas on this centuries-long question. These blinks plumb the depths of the mystery of our species, to discover why humans alone cook food to eat, think creatively and understand cause and effect.

Key idea 1 of 14

Genetics might explain the root of our unique cognitive abilities, but there’s more to the story.

There are plenty of ways in which humans differ from other living creatures. After all, we cook our food, use language and even contemplate the meaning of life, while other animals do not.

But all these differences share a common thread: they all have to do with our superior cognitive ability. So, where does our greater capacity for cognition come from?

Geneticist Walter Bodmer says that it boils down to the specific genetic sequences that humans have. He believes that genetic differences distinguish Homo sapiens from other species, namely chimpanzees, who are our closest evolutionary ancestor and from whom we evolved.

Human and chimpanzee DNA is very similar, possibly sharing up to 99 percent of our genetic material. That one percent translates to a 250-gene difference between people and monkeys.

It’s possible that from those genes, humans gained the ability to think.

The problem is, it’s difficult to determine exactly which genetic sequences account for this cognitive difference. Yet biostatician K.S. Pollard in 2006 showed that science is close to figuring this out.

The work of Pollard and her colleagues led to the identification of 49 areas of mammalian DNA that had remained largely unchanged over millions of years – that is, until Homo sapiens split from chimpanzees. At this point, these DNA areas in humans evolved at a rapid pace.

It stands to reason that these areas could be the genetic key to our unique cognitive abilities.

So while a human’s capacity for cognition is likely a result of genetics, we can’t assume that genes alone are responsible. Our cognitive prowess has many by-products, such as musical and mathematical abilities, which can’t be explained genetically, because they aren’t a direct result of natural selection, the prime engine of evolution.

Culture can shape cognitive characteristics, too. For instance, a baby born to an isolated tribe in the Amazonian jungle would think and act like a Westerner, if raised in a typical British home.

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