The Specialness of Us

Auguste Rodin, ‘The Thinker’, 1880.

You’d probably agree that as a species, humans are special. But if you’re asked why we are special, what would you say? Most people have never thought about this in a deep way. In this post, I will try to provide an answer based on science.

The Language Facility

I would argue that we are special because we can plan the future. Sure, the future is fraught with uncertainty. But if anything, this is why we plan, whether consciously or subconsciously. We save up for rainy days, we invest our time in education, we purchase insurance, we ponder about what the future holds when we retire and plan for it one way or another. No other animals engage in planning, at least not to the extent that we do.

Why does complex planning make us special? Because it requires us to run simulations in our heads, which amount to thought experiments of actions without the need for sensory input and without generating output responses. In short, we plan in a remarkably abstract way.

I argue that it is this complex, abstract form of planning that makes us special. Not only is it unique in the animal kingdom, but it also requires the facility of a well-developed language that we and only we possess. By well-developed language, I mean a language system with all the richness of a grammatical structure.

Why is grammar so pivotal for humans? Anyone who have traveled abroad knows that to communicate basic needs or ask for directions, you need to know a few referring words, supplemented with hand gestures. But to communicate about things not in the here and now, things more abstract, you need much more. You need to understand how to use grammatical structure. Grammar is essential for verbal utterances to convey ideas more complex than is possible with protolanguage, especially if more than two people are communicating. Grammar is the “killer app” of our species.

In short, what makes us special is that we are blessed with a complex brain that is able to acquire grammar that in turn enables us to plan, to run simulations in our heads about actions without the need for sensory input or generating output responses. In other words, a super-imaginative brain. 

Sophisticated language is one trait particular to humans, and our brains reflect that. Broca’s area, responsible for speech, and Wernicke’s, which is dedicated to understanding spoken language, are proportionally larger in humans than in non-human primates. Image credit:

Mathematics is a Language

What I call a grammatical structure is in fact a descriptive/communicative manifestation of a mental structure for modeling or imagining the world.

Go over this sentence again; it has wonderful implications.

When we think of language, we think of vowels, consonants, sentences etc. But mathematics, the manipulation of abstract symbols, is also a language and a very powerful one at that. It is the way we understand the laws of nature, without which we have no way to grasp abstract concepts like velocity, momentum, relativity, quantum effects and so on. Mathematical thinking is essentially another manifestation of the brain’s simulation ability, but in the realm of the quantitative/relational/logical rather than the descriptive/communicative.

So, the upshot is this: we are special because we possess a complex brain that has a remarkable mental capacity for imaginations, to run simulations in our heads and to manipulate scenarios that are descriptive/communicative (grammar) as well as quantitative/relational/logical. Even more remarkable, brain size isn’t the main thing. We don’t have the highest brain-to-body mass ratio (that honor belongs to the tiny shrew). But we have a brain, whose complexity and sophistication put other animals – even our closest relative, chimps – in the shade.  And that has made all the difference. It has allowed our species to coordinate actions across time and space, it has enabled even average Joe to plan for his retirement decades away, and it has given us a rich vocabulary of mathematics that has powered our science and engineering in dazzling ways.

We are indeed special and we should celebrate the wonder of that fact, as the poet Walt Whitman’s did in his celebrated poem, “Song of Myself.”

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

~ from “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass.

Further study

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