Are Human Beings Unique or Not? Part 2

Human beings are storytelling creatures.

How many times have I said this over the course of my life? Far too many to count. It’s my very most favorite fact about us. It’s a source of absolute delight to me. We’re the only animal that has been observed to tell stories. It begs a question in response to my last post re: what, if anything, makes humans unique from other animals:

Why didn’t I list storytelling as the characteristic that makes us unique?

Why did I end up with something as depressing as “we’re the only animals who sometimes hate ourselves?”

Storytelling is built into the most basic functioning of our brains. It’s how memory works. It’s how we make sense of the world. For something so deeply embedded in us, it can’t be something entirely unique to us—it must be based on antecedent mental abilities in the animal world. So, as with so many things, storytelling is a unique expression but not unique in its essential nature.

In their book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman present essentially the same argument: storytelling is an expression of causal reasoning—what I refer to as the awareness of cause and effect. Stories allow us to take our understanding of cause and effect and explore how the world might change given different actions. It’s a method of prediction. Causal reasoning is common throughout the animal kingdom. Storytelling may be unique to human beings but it’s based on a form of common animal intelligence.

Likewise, Fernbach and Sloman argue that humans are the only animals who show an ability to discern causes from observed effects. Many animals can connect causes to effects but we’re the only ones who can reason the other way around: when we witness an effect, we can figure out what probably caused it. (Corvids may be able to do this, too, but we can’t be sure enough to take a position on the matter.)

I would argue this ability to reason effect-to-cause is more essential to our storytelling capacity than the widely common cause-to-effect reasoning. Storytelling and effect-to-cause reasoning both express our ability to speculate.

But if I’m going to argue that storytelling isn’t unique enough to render us truly unique from other animals because it’s an expression of a general animal intelligence, then our ability to reason effect-to-cause can’t be what makes us unique, either, for the same reason: same essential intelligence, different scale and expression.

This leaves one other possibility pointed out in The Knowledge Illusion: human beings are the only animals who demonstrate an ability to share intentionality. (Read the book for a full explanation of what that means.) Shared intentionality is the most likely key that unlocked our tremendous success as a species.

As with any such claims of uniqueness, it’s entirely possible we’ll observe shared intentionality in some other species at some point. But for now, it does seem to be a truly unique ability. And it’s a much more optimistic conclusion than the one I originally offered.

Shared intent and self-vilification.

It’s appropriate, I suppose—we’re both the most successful and the most destructive species that has ever existed that we know of. Of course our uniqueness would be equal parts good and bad.


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