First posted 08-03-12
How different ARE we from the other primates? And when did this difference occur?
These questions lead me to, "The Naked Ape", by Desmond Morris. He defined a few differences, but far more similarities. So I kept looking.
Let's start at the first primate and work our way forward:
Tiny Chinese Archicebus fossil is oldest primate yet found
Walking and Running
When I was a child, walking erect was the gold standard of humanity. And it's true, we're better on two feet chasing down game than all others, but only by degree. Bonobos showed that walking erect is no big deal:
Family Tree of Dogs and Wolves Is Found to Split Earlier Than Thought
Food has also been an area of study to define differentiation, but which species jumped what line, and when?
Human ancestors changed diet 3.5 million years ago
Another thing that set us apart was thought to be tool use, but this test also fell as chimps and other species have now demonstrated.
04-14-15 World's oldest stone tools discovered in Kenya
Tool-making and Meat-eating Began 3.5 Million Years Ago?
Tool-Making 3 Million Years Ago?
Tool-making 1.4 Million Years Ago?
When Did Humans Begin Hurling Spears? - 90,000 Years Ago?
In response, the transfer of culture became the new human benchmark, but the ability to transfer new knowledge from one generation to another has also been demonstrated by chimps...
Then there was self-awareness, which was disproved in spite of Darwin's original mirror observations:
And a nice test of abstract thinking is meta-cognition:
Chimps: Ability to 'Think About Thinking' Not Limited to Humans
And have episodic memory:
Chimpanzees and orangutans remember distant past events
Art on the half-shell
Next to fall was language. The chimp Washoe laid that one to rest in the 1960s. And then there's Koko the gorilla who recognizes 1000 signs vocabulary and 2000 spoken words. She has an IQ of about 80. Also bonobos have gesture language plus now respond to spoken language with keyboard feedback. It may be simple, but it's language. And even more languages are being discovered:
Prairie dogs' language decoded by scientists
The most literally obvious and vivid tool of man has been fire. The control of fire allowed our gut to decrease in length by about a yard as we began to cook our food and digestion improved. Human resistance to air pollution also emerged over the last million years, an indication that we lived with fire.
Control of fire wasn't just tool use, it was the most exquisite form of tool use. The trick was getting close enough to use the flame but not get burned, and then of course, not letting the fire go out. How many thousands of our ancestors played with fire before we learn to pass on these two tricks? And was this the brain and thumbs at work? Fire was the turning point.
We know of no other primate who developed independent use of fire, (thought some Bonobos have now been trained to do so with a lighter, and even use water to put it out). Man's sustained use of fire is estimated to have begun sometime between a million and 400,000 years ago:
Who Mastered Fire?
Were Early Humans Cooking Their Food a Million Years Ago?
Still, isn't the difference between us and other primates simply a matter of DEGREE in thinking and manipulating our environment? Scripts and tools are certainly learned and used effectively by other species. But our fore-brains allowed for abstraction, delayed gratification and far more complex simulations as demonstrated by the wide range of different human behaviors. So is our main difference from other primates the complexity of behaviors created by individualism and hyper-specialization?
Out of Africa
Blombos Cave contained scratches on ocher objects from 75,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Or 100,000 Years Ago?
Music, Art and Property?
Border Cave takes some level of symbolic culture and the ownership of property back to 44,000 years. The Venus of Fels Cave in Germany is clearly art from 35,000 years ago.
Could "owning things" be that line between us and chimps? This is one of the ideas put forth in Sex at Dawn. Maybe Christopher Ryan is on to something. Will this mystery lead us back to ourselves? In any case, ten to fifty thousand years ago was an exciting time for man.
World's Oldest Portrait - Symbolic Abstraction 26,000 Years Ago
Not all hunter-gatherers moved around. How could they have carried all these pots?
What 15,000 Years Of Cooking Fish Tells Us About Humanity
The key to real civilization seems to be the domestication of plants and animals - agriculture. It's often described in terms of specialization and our ability to withhold gratification until the resource matures (wheat, cows or eggs into chickens).
This may be the key to domestication 14,000 years ago:
We Didn't Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.
How hunting with wolves helped humans outsmart the Neanderthals.
Another line blurred:
Baboons Kidnap and Raise Feral Dogs as Pets
Even the line of first settlements are moving backward and becoming blurred. In school I was taught civilization started about 5,000 years ago. Then it was 7,000 years. Then 10,000. And now:
12,000 Year-Old Gobekli Tepe
Gobekli Tepe Update 04-04-15
(Wiki says Gobekli Tepe is only dated to 9559 projecting to 11,000 years old) That's still some impressive stone work which must have taken a few thousand years to develop. 20,000 years seems like a more safe number for now. We just need to find more sites and map progress, but we're definitely blurring back into our ancestors. When exactly did we become "human"?
And here is an even broader overview taking evolution into our culture - a lot of good ideas here:
State of the Species - Charles C. Mann
Maybe the missing mechanism is EPIgenitics working with genetics. It's an example of how evolution can go well beyond sexual preference:
Scientists claim that homosexuality is not genetic — but it arises in the womb
Here is a fun idea about how the n-grams of our cultural evolution is reflected in our language:
Evolution of the most common English words and phrases over the centuries 12-12-12
World's Oldest Wooden Water Wells Discovered From About 5000 Years Ago 12-24-12
Is a long childhood the key difference? Maybe:
Why Are We the Last Apes Standing?
Believe it or not, this was published long after I published this post (which like primates is still evolving). Mark Changizi seems to agree that we differ only by degree ("quantitatively so, not qualitatively"). Interesting post. I need to get his books on my list:
Bursting the Bubble of Human Intelligence 04-09-13
It seems this puzzle is filling in literally day by day. Stay tuned for more updates.
It appears we must guard against cultural imperialism in our Inquisition of knowledge. And does human behavior vary to try all possible combinations in the same way a species replicates to fill the physical range of it's environment?