How humans are (not) unique

Robert Sapolsky

Beat me, said the masochist.

No, said the sadist.

We, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only species that can understand the humor (ie, the meaning) of this conversation. It involves advanced versions of simpler concepts such as Theory of Mind and tit-for-tat. But the simple versions of those and other concepts are not unique to humans. So the definition of human really rests on marginal complexity.

Take 37 minutes of your time to watch Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant and hilarious neuroscientist at Stanford, as he analyzes what makes humans “uniquiest”. It is a prime example of making science accessible through storytelling.

The short of it: Almost all of the things that we used to think made us humans unique in the wild kingdom can in fact be observed in other species. Such as:

  • Intra-species aggression (including genocide)
  • Theory of Mind
  • The Golden Rule
  • Empathy
  • Pleasure in anticipation & gratification-postponement
  • Culture

However, we humans exhibit these facilities with a twist — with an added layer of complexity.

(By the way, he refers to the same baboon study that I mentioned in this post, but could not locate. Does anybody have a lead?)

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Ricardo

Not an absolutist

Not an absolutist

We’re still in the sub-series of posts on “honorable mentions” in our wider search for the world’s greatest thinker ever. To remind: in this sub-series I commend great thinkers who made a huge contribution, but in a circumscribed area of expertise. Today: David Ricardo.

Area of interest: Trade (not necessarily between countries!)

Why great: Because he demonstrated with simple logic something non-obvious, which is that two individuals (or households, or countries…) can both benefit from specializing and exchanging their wares even if one side is better (more efficient) at producing all the wares.

The key insight is that there is a difference between absolute advantage and relative advantage, or comparative advantage, as Ricardo called it. Let’s say that A is better at making guns and butter than B, but its advantage is greater in guns. If A makes the guns and B the butter and both trade, both will have more guns and butter than they did before.

Comment: At first glance, Ricardo’s idea may seem very geeky. But actually it has far-reaching implications about interdependence in a harmonious society, which includes a household and a global society. For all its simplicity, the idea is also astonishingly hard to grasp. People keep getting it wrong. You hear politicians and journalists saying things like: “What if China has a comparative advantage in everything…” Well, that’s logically impossible. It means that the speaker does not understand the idea.

But the moment I realized that this was a truly great idea came when I read about research that showed that the Neanderthals succumbed to us, ie Homo Sapiens, because they did not have a division of labor whereas we did. Neanderthal women joined the men in the hunt. Cro Magnon women looked after the children and gathered, whereas the men went off to hunt. Even if women of both species had been better at hunting in absolute terms than men, their relative advantage would have been greater in caring and gathering, so that specialization and trade gave us the edge. Put differently, Smoot and Hawley were … Neanderthals. 😉

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