Homo sapiens compared to other species
Humans often consider themselves to be the dominant species on Earth, and the most advanced in intelligence and ability to manage their environment. This belief is especially strong in Western culture, and is based in part on the Biblical Creation story in which Adam is explicitly given dominion over the Earth and all of its creatures.
Biologists and scientists in general, though, do not consider "dominant" to be a useful term, because the adaptive value of any trait or complex of traits depends on the niche and is highly mutable. From a scientific standpoint, Homo sapiens certainly is among the most generalized species on Earth. Smaller and simpler animals such as bacteria and insects greatly surpass humans in population size and diversity of species, but few single species occupy as many diverse environments as humans. Many other species, for example, are adapted to specific environments, whereas humans rely on the use of fire (see lifeform) and on tools such as clothing and manufactured shelter, which are themselves often produced and used through complex social interactions.
Various attempts have been made to identify a single behavioral characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other animals, e.g. the ability to make and use tools (building shelter, weaving fabrics for clothing); the ability to alter the environment; language; and the development of complex social relationships and structures. Considered in isolation, however, these differences are not absolute, as ethologists have recorded such behaviors in many species. Apes and even birds, for example, are known to "fish" for insects using blades of grass or twigs, and even to shape the tools for that purpose. For these reasons, the idea that making and using tools is a defining characteristic of humans is often considered outdated, though of course no other animal uses tools to the same degree or with the same flexibility as Homo sapiens. Similarly, other animals often have methods of communication, but the degree to which humans create and use complex grammar and abstract concepts in language has not been seen in any other species.
Chomskian linguistics holds that a distinguishing feature of humans is that they are the only extant species with a language instinct - a genetic predisposition that produces a brain mechanism whose function is to acquire a language by observing those around us. Dolphins may also have this trait as they show dialect.
Some anthropologists think that these readily observable characteristics (tool-making and language) are based on less easily observable mental processes that might be unique among humans: the ability to think symbolically. That is, humans can think abstractly about concepts and ideas. They can question, use logic, understand mathematical concepts, and so on in ways greater than other animals are known to do, although several species have demonstrated some abilities in these areas. In any case, the idea that these abilities distinguish humans from other species is the basis of the name Homo sapiens, sometimes translated as "Man the Thinker". It should be noted, however, that the extinct species of the Homo genus (e.g. Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus) were also adept tool makers and there is some evidence that they may have had linguistic skills.
While humans have all these characteristics, from the biological viewpoint the question "What single characteristic distinguishes humans from all other animals?" is an odd one: it is not a question that is usually asked of cats, dolphins, or song sparrows. Finding other species that shape tools or can use sign language may shed light on human evolution, but it doesn't erase the differences or similarities between humans and other species.
Sciences about humans
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