Have you ever heard someone call another person an “animal?”
It’s not a very nice thing to say. It suggests that a person is less evolved. Calling someone an animal isn’t the smartest insult, either. Why? Because you're an animal!
Are Humans Animals?
Well, we’re all animals. I’m an animal, you’re an animal, we’re all animals. As a human, we are certainly different from other animals, but that’s only due to a small set of skills. Many parts of the human condition are actually present in animal life.
In short, in the scientific community, humans are a form of animals, but there are many things that differentiate them. Let's go over how humans evolved from other species of animals and what makes us different.
Evolution of Humans
If I were to ask you what animals we evolved from, what would you say?
Most likely, you would say chimpanzees. This answer is technically correct, but evolution did not make chimps into humans overnight. Chimpanzees first evolved into early Hominins over 7 million years ago. “Hominins” is an umbrella term that covers all of the species between chimps and humans. There are over 20 types of hominins known today. Most of them were only found in different parts of Africa.
(Wondering why I’m saying hominins instead of hominids? Hominids covers all primates, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans. All hominins are hominids, but the only hominids who are hominins today are human beings.)
As we trace the journey from chimpanzees to the appearance of early humans, we start to see species with fewer ape-like traits and more human-like traits.
These traits include larger brains and smaller teeth. These small teeth are not meant for vicious fighting and attacking other species. They are just used for eating.
Other notable characteristics include the ability to use tools and the ability to walk upright. Hominins only started walking upright about four million years ago. This trait, known as bipedalism, separates early Hominins from Australopithecines. Like the early Hominins before them, Australopithecines are now extinct.
The third and current stage of Hominins include species within the genus Homo. All species within this genus, like Australopithecines and early Hominins, are extinct except for humans. But these different species had some specific characteristics and skills that made them stand out. They began to use fire. Their tools were more advanced. They began to migrate out of Africa and explore other continents. Species in the Homo genus are more human than ape.
The first Homo Sapiens appeared on the planet between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. We are the only species of hominin left. But we are still, like the Hominins before us, a result of evolution from primates and other animals.
For those who enjoy classification and organization, let’s look at how humans fit into the Animal Kingdom.
Humans are a specific species of animals:
- Species: Homo Sapiens
- Genus: Homo
- Tribe: Hominini
- Family: Hominidae
- Order: Primates
- Class: Mammalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Kingdom: Animalia
What Makes Hominins Different From Other Animals?
Obviously, humans are different from animals. But the specific characteristics that make us different have been up for debate.
Specific characteristics, like larger brains, smaller teeth, and the ability to use tools, often separate early Hominins from chimpanzees. But as we learn more about evolution and other species, we see that these characteristics were not unique to hominins. Some pigs have the intelligence to use tools. Wallabies and other animals can walk on two legs when necessary. Large brains doesn’t always mean that an animal is exceedingly smart. What we do with our brains, however, sets us apart from the animals that came before us.
What Makes Humans Different From Animals?
Now that we have established that humans are animals, we may begin to explore a new question: what makes animals different from humans?
This answer hasn’t always been obvious. Experts are still observing traits and skills in animals that show just how similar we are. Even if early humans did have advantages over other animals, it took years for us to acknowledge this and advance our species.
This journey is outlined in the best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In the book, Yuval Noah Harari tells the story of how humans evolved from chimpanzees and other creatures in the Homo genus. He traces the evolution of humans from where we were 2 million years ago to where we are today. There is a big difference between humans then and now.
“We assume that a large brain, the use of tools, superior learning abilities and complex social structures are huge advantages. It seems self-evident that these have made humankind the most powerful animal on earth. But humans enjoyed all of these advantages for a full 2 million years during which they remained weak and marginal creatures. Thus humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores.”
For two million years, the differences between humans and other animals weren’t so obvious. When did things change? There is one major point in history where humans truly became the species that they are today. The impact of this moment is described in Sapiens.
The Cognitive Revolution
This first point in history happened about 70,000 years ago. Harari calls it the Cognitive Revolution. Cognition is the process of acquiring information and understanding through experiences, thoughts, and perceptions. Humans began not only to understand the world around them, but also to seek out this understanding. They also tried to explain the world around them through stories, myths, and art.
We are the only species that has the ability to use and understand a complex and expressive language. Humans can tell stories. We can embellish stories. We can use stories to teach others a lesson, to manipulate, or to entertain. This has allowed us not only to understand the past, but also to dream of the future. And as we learn more about the humans of the past, we may begin to build a future that continues to improve and evolve our species further.