• Question: What makes us human? What says that we are human and that monkeys aren't, could they be humans and us be monkeys and we just say we are humans and actually we aren't?

    Asked by to Aimee, Dave, Greig, Laurence on 25 Jun 2014. This question was also asked by .
    • Photo: Greig Cowan

      Greig Cowan answered on 25 Jun 2014:

      Interesting question. This is really about definitions, I think. The labels “humans” and “monkeys” are just names that we have given to try and distinguish between two different species that we observe on Earth. Those names try and cover a range of differences (and similarities) between the species. From a high viewpoint, someone might say that we are very similar to monkeys but if you dive down into the details then you will see that (for example), monkeys are typically smaller than humans, have smaller brains, are covered in hair and have a different skeleton than humans.

      The modern humans, Homo Sapiens, have been around for about 250,000 years. However, people have found a long line of fossils that have been used to trace back to earlier human species, all the way to about 2 million years ago. The earliest human species was probably Homo Habilis, which were typically smaller in size and had smaller heads, closer to monkeys.

    • Photo: Laurence Perreault Levasseur

      Laurence Perreault Levasseur answered on 25 Jun 2014:

      Very deep philosophical question, bethsinar 🙂 !!

      Well of course the first thing a scientific mind would look at these days is the DNA. Human and monkey DNA (at least the one of the great apes), is astonishingly similar, about 96% of the genetic code is the exact same thing (took that from the national geographic, might not be 100% reliable, but gives a good idea!)!! (The DNA difference between the two species isn’t actually the full story, it’s also important to look at what genes are actually expressed within each species, and that can also make a huge difference.)

      So ‘humans’ and ‘primates’ are those two groups of living things that share 96% of their DNA, while within each of those groups, the DNA varies by only about 0.1%.

      But then we can think about this question more philosophically. What is it that makes humans being what they are? why are they so different form the rest of the animals? There are few things we can name that, seemingly, only humans can do, like laugh, cry, fall in love. But is that what defines humans? And, more importantly, who am I to say animals like, I don’t know, dolphins, don’t fall in love? I’ve never been in the head of a dolphin!!

      I’ve heard a lot throughout my education that ‘Humans are rational animals’. But I’ve often seen humans being completely unreasonable, and we’ve known for a while now the even crows are capable of very complex problem solving, deceit of other birds (which means they can project themselves in their ‘shoes’ to think what they want or may do), plan for the future, and a lot of behaviours that seem like they require a lot of reasoning!! Some chimps can learn sign language and use it to communicate, dogs can learn about 200 human words and recognize when a word isn’t known to them, and from there infer what it means, some elephants can paint, mice can feel empathy and help their captive fellows, and the list of mind blowing things animals do is pretty long.

      One thing I do not think animals do, though, is to wonder about things like the origin of the Universe, the meaning of life, what’s our purpose on this planet, our place in the universe, what are the laws of nature. Somehow, curiosity and desire to figure out answers to the most profound questions is something I feel is truly human. So maybe (and I don’t pretend to be a philosopher or to know much about these things here), science is somehow the expression of a universal human feeling.

      So, maybe, you asking the question is actually the answer.

    • Photo: Aimee Hopper

      Aimee Hopper answered on 25 Jun 2014:

      Humans, or homo-sapians, have a very interesting background! Homo comes from Latin homō “man”, ultimately “earthly being”. Sapiens means “wise” or “sapient”. Apparently 😛

      The idea is that we humans have got higher brain function, so that distinguishes us from the monkeys and apes.

      if you have a spare half hour or few, then Jeremy Vine has asked loads of different celebrities the question “what makes us human?” for the BBC

    • Photo: Dave Jones

      Dave Jones answered on 25 Jun 2014:

      Human and monkey are just labels, like apples and oranges. It wouldn’t really matter if you called an apple an orange, because it would still be the same. It’d still have the same colour, the same texture, the same taste. That is because it is genetically different from an orange, so even if you call it an orange it will still be different. It’s just the same with humans and monkeys. Humans and monkeys (whatever labels you give them) have different genetics. We, humans, have evolved to not have tails, to have larger brains, to have more dextrose hands (better for using and making tools), to walk up right instead of on all fours. So, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the label is, we are fundamentally different from monkeys (even though we share a common ancestry).