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Humaniqueness

It might seem like an obvious question, but what really makes humans different from some of our four legged friends? Learn more on this Moment of Science.

A group of dolphins swimming below water

Photo: jurvetson (Flickr)

A group of dolphins swimming below water in the Pacific Ocean near Lana'i, Hawaii.

It might seem like an obvious question, but what really makes humans different from some of our four legged friends?

We’re different from dogs, horses, and even chimpanzees, right? Yet in many ways we’re not that different. We share much of the same DNA, and many animals are good problem solvers, just as we humans are. It’s even been discovered that some chimps make tools, so why do humans believe they are so different?

It has to do with the sophistication of our brain.

Dolphins, for example, can communicate efficiently in auditory ways that we can still only guess at, and dogs can figure out where your shoes have been from their smell. Though we can’t compete with that, we do possess a unique flexibility in putting together different information and generalizing what we learn. It’s the difference between what Harvard researcher Marc Hauser calls “laser beam” intelligence and “floodlight intelligence.”

What he means is that most animals, like dogs and chimps, solve specific problems with specific solutions, but they can’t use the solution to one problem to solve a different kind of problem.

For example, a chimp might fashion a crude tool to fish for termites, but it almost never uses that tool to solve other problems. For most animals, solutions to problems are narrowly focused, like a laser beam.

Humans, in contrast, recognize a much wider application for what we already know. We invent a tool for one purpose, and learn to use it to solve other problems. Our brains can recombine old information, helped by our ability to think abstractly, and develop new categories.

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