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What makes humans special?

Professor Nick Chater argues that the human race's ability to coordinate our behaviour by 'we-thinking' is what separates us from animals.
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So I’ve suggested that crucial to human society– in fact, crucial to the astonishing cultural and intellectual progress that humans have made in differentiating themselves from other animal species is the ability to think about what we should do to coordinate our behaviour by ‘we-thinking’. Now, is this really right? On the one hand, one might think, well, perhaps other creatures can do much the same thing, but just to a lesser degree. After all, there are many ways in which humans are different from other animals. And maybe these are masses of degree rather than in type. And maybe ‘we-thinking’ is just one of many factors which, perhaps, is not especially crucial. I would suggest it is, because I think it underpins communication.
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And communication underpins just about everything else. But is that really the right story? That’s something that’s very much worth thinking about. And I think none of us, of course, should be entirely sure. Another thing one might think is but what about insect societies, say? There are lots of other societies on the planet other than human societies, and they’re very complicated. How is it they manage, surely– bees and ants and termites aren’t doing ‘we-thinking’, left, right, and centre. This is a substantial cognitive achievement, a mental achievement, that even chimpanzees can’t manage.
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Now, one suggestion– and I think a plausible one– is that animal communication, and the structure of animal societies is really fundamentally different from human communication and the structure of human societies.
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And one crucial thing is: it is wired in. So the communicative tricks that bees use to, as it were, convey information to each other are dances. And those dances don’t vary from one bee colony to the next on a capricious basis. They are wired into the genes of the bee. So different species of bees will have different dances. But they do not make these dances up. If you get the bees from one colony and create a new colony, that colony will automatically produce waggle dances like the previous one without any communication with the previous colony. And of course, that’s not true for humans at all.
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If you raise a new population of people in a new place, they will develop linguistic conventions. In fact, they will do it very quickly. Over a few generations, it’s possible to get groups of people with essentially no language to develop complicated linguistic machinery spontaneously. But that language would be nothing like the language that their forebears spoke. They’ll be inventing a new set of conventions from nothing. And that’s generally true, I think, about the difference between complex insect societies and non-human animals societies and human societies. What’s remarkable about human society is they’re all different. And we invent them and change them and modify them all the time. They may be shaped, to some degree, by our genes.
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But they’re not imprinted in our genes. So what’s astonishing is that societies can involve in human terms through design and change and cultural variation. They don’t have to develop at the pace of evolutionary processes operating over genes. So while it’s the case that termites, say, or ants can produce extremely complex societies over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, what’s staggering about human societies is that over hundreds of years, they can flourish and develop spectacularly– that they can develop mechanisms for raising finance. They can develop insurance industries. They can develop health services. They can develop systems for education. They can develop the internet.
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They can develop all kinds of extraordinary new processes and ways of interacting, and coordinate themselves to support all of this in a way that is unique and special and can’t be done by any other animal. And I suggest the reason we can do this is because, ultimately, we’re able to understand the problem facing us now, understand that it is a problem that we face, then figure out how to coordinate our behaviour to help solve that problem. So if you think about how organisations work for a moment, in most organisations, most of us don’t really know what everyone else is up to. We know we’re supposed to be doing.
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We know enough about what other people are doing to figure out what we should do to help. We know what we are trying to achieve in some general sense– what our objectives are. And we’re trying to make our own contribution to fit towards those objectives. But those objectives are continually changing and shifting and being adjusted.
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What makes human society so remarkable is that it’s possible for us to work collectively to understand, at least to some extent, the goals of our organisational or group or family or, indeed, whole country to shape our behaviour in an appropriate way, in a way that’s enormously flexible, that changes as the needs of our organisational group or family or subordination change, and allows us to flexibly construct and build amazing degrees of complexity, far outstripping anything that has been seen at any other point in biological evolution over the last billion years or so.
Is ‘we-thinking’ really crucial to the construction of human culture and society? Does this create a fundamental divide between human society and ‘societies’ of non-human animals (such as termites, ants or bees)?
Regard bee-communication, there is a nice Wikipedia article on the bee ‘waggle-dance’, illustrating how the dance conveys information and that the dance is fixed, rather than learned.
Humans are able to create languages, conventions, customs, and norms of behaviour, which are astonishingly (although not limitlessly) diverse. The rules governing human communication are not built into our genes; each new generation has to learn their language and culture. Bees, by contrast, do not have to learn how to produce or interpret the waggle dance, it is, in some mysterious way, built into their genes.
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