HUMAN NATURE'S DEFINITIVE CHARACTERISTICS
I first pondered how many animals walk for pleasure — not to hunt or eat, not to find shelter or warmth, but simply to enjoy the act of walking itself – when hiking across Isla Del Sol in Bolivia a few years ago.
I posed the subject on Quora, and the responses were largely unsatisfactory. On our last Abel Tasman trip, the subject came up again, and it got me thinking about whether additional features are unique or primarily exclusive to humans.
This lead me to an interesting collection of articles on human nature in an old edition of New Scientist magazine about the six activities that all people do. Some of them are self-evident, while others are hilarious. All of them elicit a feeling of identification and belonging.
Humans and dolphins are the only creatures who mate for pleasure, according to popular belief. This isn't the case, as you might expect. Other animals have sex that makes reproduction difficult or impossible. It's worth noting that just a few other animals are as gregarious as humans.
According to New Scientist, all mammals play, but no other animal engages in such a diverse range of activities or spends as much time having fun.
Not only do we like physical activities (sports, games, dancing, and even tickling), but we also enjoy experimenting with language (telling jokes, producing music) and using our imaginations. We are one of the only creatures that retains our sense of fun into maturity.
We begin to recognize patterns as youngsters. We may notice that a two-piece brick slots over another two-piece brick and group all the red Lego bricks together. We are continually categorizing the environment, anticipating how things will operate, and then putting our theories to the test.
According to New Scientist, this is the basic heart of science, which can be seen in everything from the creation of time and calendars to our use of measuring units and our quest of cosmic knowledge.
THE FACT OF BEING LEGAL
Many animals follow rudimentary behavioral conventions (typically centered on territory and dominance), but none have the complex system of rules, taboos, and etiquette that humans have.
We can't tell for sure if every society in the world has formal laws without researching every culture in the world, but people are wired to follow norms. These laws always control behavior in three essential areas, demonstrating that legislating is inherently human.
The first is kinship: one's entitlement to certain rights, possessions, and status, as well as one's commitment to one's relatives (e.g. a daughter inheriting land from her mother, or a father legally obligated to provide for his son).
Second, everyone is concerned about their safety, thus every civilization has rules governing when someone can murder or injure someone else.
The third issue is object usage: while there is no uniform concept of "private property," civilizations all around the world have regulations governing who may and cannot use specific items at various times.
A term used to describe someone who follows a strict diet. A meal is just that to most animals: a method to keep their bodies alive. A meal can be a labor of love, a piece of art, a seduction vehicle, or an event in and of itself for humans. Families exchange stories and squabbles over the dinner table as friends come to break bread.
Of course, our attitudes about food aren't the only thing that distinguishes us. One of humanity's greatest creations, cooking, has made a significant effect.
Cooked food, which has more calories and requires less chewing, was the major invention that allowed our forefathers to grow into intelligent, sociable beings, according to primatologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University.
He points out that chimps chew for almost six hours each day, but humans chew for less than one, leaving more time for culture and growth.
BEING SEXUALLY CLANDESTINE
My opinion on tortoises was modified after visiting the breeding center in San Cristóbal, Galápagos. I used to think of them as smart and gentle animals that plodded through life slowly and cautiously. They transformed into enormous, horny beasts that had noisy, grunting, unpleasant sex in public after the visit.
Of course, they are no different from any other species, with the exception of humans who prefer to have sex in secret. One may blame generations of societal conditioning, but experts believe there is a deeper cause. According to Clive Wynne, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, secret mating occurs in species with high inter-male rivalry.
Men consider sex as a valuable commodity, according to Donald Symons, anthropologist and author of The Evolution of Human Sexuality, and enjoy it "covertly to avoid provoking covetousness."
"This is the same reason why anyone possessing food during a famine is inclined to enjoy it in solitude," Harvard professor Steven Pinker agreed.
In other words, it's jealousy and rivalry, not shame, that motivates secret copulation.
"If you want to befriend a woman, ask her what she thinks of Keira Knightley," a female columnist once said. You'll bond in the ensuing avalanche of bile and hatred."
According to Robin Dunbar, author of Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, gossip is used by humans to solidify connections. He feels that gossip is akin to ape grooming in humans.
We have too many connections to keep up with through time-consuming maintenance, so we chat instead: "Gossip developed for the purpose of lubricating the gears of social contact," Dunbar argues, a principle that applies to everyone from schoolchildren to the world's most powerful leaders.
Surprisingly, rumor isn't always nasty. Dunbar discovered that unpleasant remarks were significantly less prevalent than harmless observations about a person throughout his investigation. In essence, we don't like to gripe; we just enjoy talking. Unless it's about Keira Knightley, in which case it's a no-brainer.