The concept that man is starkly, qualitatively different from all other species is purely based on ignorance. The more people have actually looked for “solely human” features in other species, the more of these qualities have been found. For a while, there was a rather amusing tendency to keep redefining “purely human” qualities; as each “unique” quality was identified in other animals, people frantically declared that that didn’t count, the real human feature was something different.
The ability to use a proper fish fork to the right of the soup spoon! No animal can do that! But within the past 10 years, or even longer, that’s pretty much been abandoned, at least in science, and it’s pretty much accepted that all these so-called unique qualities are present in other species; we are just part of a continuum of qualities, not unique at all.
We’re only superior in the metrics that define humans. Do you photosynthesise? No? That’s because humans found a niche in abstract information processing, allowing us to do (all the stuff humans are known for) in order to survive and reproduce. Other species do so in other ways.
The one way where we are unique among animals is in our language ability and the underlying neurological symbolic or language representational system that permitted the development of language.
The language facility is merely the outward expression that humans have of a unique way of perceiving and organizing information about the world (including other humans) and how it operates. This is the language representational system that each human uses to create a miniature language representation of how the world works and that includes a language representation of ourselves in that world. This has resulted in a new uniquely human form of consciousness: our language consciousness.
The reason that this has only developed in maybe the last 50,000 to 200,000 years is because the language representation of the world is inherited outside the genes – we are basically infected with the language representation of the world and with language by our parents as we learn language.
This is very similar to the way that computer viruses spread among computer systems. The fact that this language representation is inherited from the previous generation and that it is also significantly enhanced in each generation is why an almost step function in human language capabilities took place relatively recently. This step function in language representation allowed complex tools, agriculture, complex culture and science to flourish – and that is the way that we are unique.
First, you’re much weaker than a chimp and much slower than a cheetah. You can’t fly, can’t burrow, don’t climb well, can barely swim, aren’t very good at cooperation, and can’t really tolerate weather. Your claws and teeth are pathetic, your fur coat is very patchy, and your tail would make a peacock feel very sorry for you. At best, you can say we are better in a very few, very specific ways.
Second, the few things where we do stand out could well be the results of an evolutionary arms race. By which I mean: You know why cheetahs are fast? Because gazelles are fast. And do you know why gazelles are fast? Because cheetahs are fast (and hungry). That’s an evolutionary arms race: a characteristic is pushed to its limit through competition to survive. It’s a great mechanism for creating stark differences of degree.
So who are we racing with? Us, perhaps. Another area where humans are almost unique is war and genocide. Much of our technological progress is related to war. National governments spend about $1.6 trillion a year on “defense”, and that doesn’t count a lot of war-relevant spending. It may be no coincidence that, the near-human species like Neanderthals are extinct. Our starkest superiority may be in ability and willingness to commit organized murder.
Our particular excellence gives us better control of our environment than any other species we know. Other species survive because they are well adapted to their environments. We survive because we can adapt our environments to our needs.
Special thanks to Quora’s: Ed Caruthers, Frank Heile, Ian York, Charles Phan, and William Pietri