Are We The Teachable Species?
|7:00:01 PM, Tuesday, May 01, 2012|
“(blogs.discovermagazine.com 2011.11.22.) We know that our species is unique, but it can be surprisingly hard to pinpoint what exactly makes us so. The fact that we have DNA is not much of a mark of distinction. Several million other species have it too. Hair sets us apart from plants and mushrooms and reptiles, but several thousand other mammals are hairy, too. Walking upright is certainly unusual, but it doesn’t sever us from the animal kingdom. Birds can walk on two legs, after all, and their dinosaur ancestors were walking bipedally 200 million years ago. Our own bipedalism–like much of the rest of our biology–has deep roots. Chimpanzees, whose ancestors diverged from our own some seven million years ago, can walk upright, at least for short distances.
If looking for human uniqueness on the outside is difficult, is it any easier to look on the inside–in particular, at our mental lives? There’s no doubt that our minds allow us to do things that even our great ape relatives cannot. For one thing, we can represent the world symbolically in our heads, and we can use words to communicate that symbolic thought to one another. Yet we can sometimes find surprising links between our own mental lives and those of other animals. We’re very good at making and using tools, but that doesn’t mean other animals can’t do so as well. Thinking about the future may seem like a quintessentially human activity, but there’s some evidence that some bird species can travel forward in time, too.
Yet even as scientists find more links between our own faculties and those of other animals, some continue to stand out. And their rugged distinctiveness makes them all the more interesting. One of the most distinctive of all is, to me at least, the most surprising: teaching.
If you’re a college student reading this during a lecture because your professor is boring you out of your mind, you may not consider teaching a very big deal. But when you consider everything that goes into one person teaching another, it’s a remarkable behavior. Consider what it takes for you to teach a child how to tie her laces, or write her name in cursive, or skip a stone. She has to watch you do the action and store a representation of that action in her brain. She also needs to listen to you, to understand why a twist of the fingers or the flick of a wrist is important to the procedure. You, the teacher, have to watch her try it, recognize when she gets it wrong, and explain how to do it right. Just as importantly, you have to help the child understand why learning a particular action matters–so that she won’t cut her foot, so that she could throw a stone across the pond, and so on…”