I was sat in the passenger seat of my mum’s car, slightly dazed in the warmth of the British summer when this question was posed by Jeremy Vine, the presenter of BBC Radio 2: what makes us human? Thinking back to a module I took on evolution and speciation for A-level Biology, my initial thought was ‘what a ridiculous question’. After all, (regurgitating what had been drilled into me at college) humans are humans because if two similar individuals can breed to produce fertile offspring, they are of the same species. And that’s that. Well okay, biologically my initial take on the question might have been accurate, but the presenter was pressing for a rather different response.
Dr David Starkey spoke on the subject and enlightened me as to the deeper side of the question. He rejected specialised traits belonging to humans as our defining feature, including language, love, altruism or self-consciousness, explaining that these features definitely are not unique to human beings. He explained that humans are unlike any other species because of an inherent inclination to make and seek patterns. He accepts that other animals share this human quality, such as spiders that construct complex silk webs and birds that engineer their nests, but none to the same extent as humans. Human patterns, Starkey explains, are on an infinitely larger scale which has led to the supposed conquering of time and space.
He says that patterns are found to be experienced by every sense: physical patterns such as sculpture or gardens are patterns for the eye; music for the ear, cuisine and wine for the pallet and perfume for the nose. Despite these, he says that the most important patterns are those for the mind: maths and language (master patterns), which are themselves patterns but also the building blocks for further and more complex patterns. I love this idea, that numbers and words can be used by humans (as Starkey suggests) to build suspension bridges, send a man to the moon or to create and preserve history or build and spread religion. These are responses to the human need to seek patterns in order to make sense of our lives in this world.
I think there might be better ways to distinguish humans from other animals, but I give credit to this explanation, because I agree that there is an inherent logic to human existence which is based on numbers and language, and this does separate us from the rest of life on Earth. I have never understood this to be a “pattern” before, but I like this metaphor (pattern: a regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in the way in which something happens or is done.) The only doubt I have about this idea is that, more often than not, human activity occurs in a seemingly random and haphazard way. I certainly don’t (often) make choices based on probability, and communication is largely based on non-linguistic understanding. Despite this, it cannot be denied that humans have codified the world into letters and numbers, and this certainly defines us as humans.
Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05wy24n (01:11:00)
Just after writing this post I came across a TED talk that proved the point that humans use and apply maths to almost all aspects of the world in an effort to organise an otherwise unorganised world. This talk is by Hannah Fry, who sums this up nicely by finding patterns in the phenomena of love and relationships:
“love, as with most of life, is full of patterns and mathematics is, ultimately, all about the study of patterns. Patterns from predicting the weather to the fluctuations in the stock market, to the movement of the planets or the growth of cities. And if we’re being honest, none of those things are exactly neatly ordered and easily predictable, either. Because I believe that mathematics is so powerful that it has the potential to offer us a new way of looking at almost anything. Even something as mysterious as love.”