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How Teaching Separates Humans from Animals

Science Under the Microscope

How Teaching Separates Humans from AnimalsWhat makes humans different? Being teachers and loving it!

I recently had the good fortune to be in the audience for a panel discussion starring actor Alan Alda. Alda was promoting his forthcoming PBS documentary, “The Human Spark” which tackles the question of what makes us different from the other animals. The conversation between the filmmakers and local scientists was engaging and very interesting.


As the event closed, the moderator asked each expert to summarize what he or she felt was the single characteristic that most clearly makes humans unique. Answers ranged from our ability to generalize concepts from experiences and apply them elsewhere, to our ability to plan for the future. Each speaker made a powerful case for their response, and many fell into the theme of cooperation.


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My favorite answer, however, came from the hilarious Alda.

When asked what he had learned about the human “spark” from the adventures and interviews that comprise the PBS mini-series, he regaled the audience with tales of chimpanzee attacks and bonobo courtship. Finally, however, he explained that while many species learn from one another by passively observing behaviors, humans seem to be the only group that actively teaches other members of our own species. We even, he added, seem to enjoy the process of showing others how to do something.


As I thought about his response, I was struck by the simplicity of it. Perhaps what makes us human is our desire to help one another through education. More than any other idea from that night, this one gave me a tremendous sense of hope...the human race will continue to exist and thrive as long as we never stop being teachers.

What do you think sets people apart? Share in the comments section!