Monday, August 10, 2009

Unique. Sort of

From American Scientist. Melvin Konner's of Michael Gazzanger's book.
The human brain has tripled in size over the 6 or 7 million years that have passed since humans diverged from chimpanzees. A certain amount of reorganizing went along with that increase in size, increased lateralization being a prime example. Many genes and noncoding RNAs are expressed only in human brains, and many of those have to do with wiring up the brain during development. Bipedal walking freed our hands and allowed us to develop our unusually opposable thumbs for making tools. Our brains uniquely evolved for language and for an exceptional ability to think about the mental states of others.

We are the only species that can gossip, an important means of social control, and only a human will expend energy punishing a cheater who has cheated someone else. We are the only creatures that show disgust (hence our peculiar concern with purity), blush in embarrassment or shed tears of emotion. We display levels of empathy attained by no other species. We mentally imagine and simulate the actions and experiences (pain, shame) of others to a remarkable extent. Our lives are pervaded by aesthetic choices and preferences unknown to other species. We create art, religion and narrative, and we are self-aware to the nth degree. Only we can autocue, deliberately remembering and reminding ourselves of things. …

[But] countless unique human qualities were used by cultured Germans to murder millions. And only a human would advertise on the Internet to try to make a profit by bringing men seeking sex to an entrapped 13-year-old girl. In the core of our uniquely human brain is a set of structures brought down from our evolutionary past, and it is far from clear that they are really controlled by the newer structures. Too often, our unique human qualities seem to end up in the service of baser motives that we share with many other species. …

And although I myself may spend more time contemplating the dark side, I completely agree with Gazzaniga when he says,
No other species aspires to be more than it is. Perhaps we can be. Sure, we may be only slightly different, but then, some ice is only one degree colder than liquid water.

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