What is it that makes us human? Is it language, imagination, morality, or is it that we cook and wear shoes? Or perhaps we are less human than we think, since Neanderthal and Denisovan genes can be found in all of us! What is truly unique to human beings? How closely related are we to other species?
There are some fascinating and unexpected answers in the book “How to be Human: Consciousness, Language and 48 More Things that Make You You.” The book takes us on a tour around the human body and brain, taking in everything from evolution to email, from the Stone Age to Spotify.
The authors of the book, New Scientist deputy editor Graham Lawton and his colleague Jeremy Webb, ask: How do languages change the way our brains are wired? What can evolutionary theory tell us about who we are attracted to? How does your voice give away clues about your political views, your sexual allure and even your salary? Why is gossip the human version of a gorilla picking fleas from its mate? And how can you live to 100?
From the body to language , through emotions and possessions, to the most tricky questions about life and death, witty essays in the book fits well with enlightening illustrations that range from how your brain creates the illusion of 'self' to the allure of body odor.
Lawton says the book began with the idea of an alien biologist looking down on the earth – a planet teeming with life, but where one species stands out from the crowd – human beings, says broadcaster Jesse Mulligan in Radio New Zealand.
"The list of things that we can do that no animal has ever achieved … language, cities, technology, religion, music, art. The list goes on and on and on."
But some of our most sophisticated creations - such as language - are also problematic. Although language seems like it was originally designed to help us communicate, most of the time it divides us as a species, Lawton holds. Some scientists even suggest this division is intentional." We're a very tribal species. We take almost every opportunity to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller and smaller groups."
While we aren't the only earthlings who laugh – rats laugh when tickled – we're probably the only species to laugh out of politeness, he says. One of Lawton's favourite experiments involves a group of scientists who went out to record 'laughter in the wild', i.e. laughter of human beings in public. Whenever they heard someone laugh they went up and asked the person why they were doing it. Many people didn't realise they were laughing and couldn't say why they were laughing, he says.
The conclusion – most 'laughter in the wild' has nothing to do with humour. He adds: "The most banal comments would illicit laughter … Someone went up to someone else in a shopping mall and said 'When you've finished with your shopping trolley can I use it?' and the person, in response, laughed. That's just not funny … Laughter is a social signal we send to each to say that we're okay."
Our life of laughter and love is truly nuanced and subtle. We need to acknowledge that there is so much of beauty and depth in ourselves. We are part of an ongoing adventure, which is remarkably complex. There are lots of areas where we can learn from and be impressed. Truly, we can look at ourselves and be in awe and wonder. This realization should help us to respect ourselves and to treat fellow human beings with dignity. This should enable us to revere the nature, that sustains us. Joyfully we can laugh at ourselves and others.
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Between Before and Beyond!)