Today, a scientist wonders what sets us apart as
humans. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Near the end of his book,
Celebrations of Life, René
Dubos tells us that the word "civilisation" was
given its modern meaning by a French writer in
1757. When Samuel
Johnson published the 1772 edition of his
famous dictionary of the English language, he would
not include the word civilisation. He felt it could
never replace the older English word, civility.
For Dubos, the idea of civility calls up something
basic -- a feature more than surface deep. The word
suggests something about our essential humanity.
And Dubos struggles with the question, "What, if
anything, sets humans apart from animals?"
He finds huge similarities in civility among vastly
different human societies -- the triggers for
laughter and grief, the texture of human
consideration. Our vocabulary of gesture varies,
but under that surface are universal, and
distinctly human, attitudes.
Our DNA hardly differs from that of apes. Still,
our brains are larger and we speak richly evolved
languages. People have worked very hard trying to
teach language to apes, but apes don't get beyond
isolated words and minimal phrases. We know many
cases of human children, like the Wild Child of
Aveyron, who grew up without language. We do no
better at teaching them language than we do apes.
In other words, the only creatures truly capable of
learning language are young human children.
Then Dubos introduces a real shocker. It is that we
talking humans are adapted to only one environment
-- the warm grassy savanna. That includes the
Eskimo and the Bedouin. They have to protect
themselves -- the Eskimo with skins and igloos, the
Bedouin with robes and tents.
We're one species with various skin colors and
minor differences in our eyes, hair, and noses. We
moved out of our African cradle (our true Garden of
Eden) only after we had the technologies to protect
ourselves from harsher environments. So technology,
and that includes language, differentiates us from
Dubos sees humanity as a potentiality that exists
in our species alone. And even for us, it's only a
potentiality. Without the powerful force of
community, we're right back with our brother apes
-- from which we differ very little.
Community is where technology, the knowledge of
technique, vests. And technique carries our
humanity -- the technique of making clothes,
building houses, finding food wherever we are --
the technique of speaking and of being civil to one
Our ability to transmit technique within the
community is what asserts our identity as a
species. It's a fragile difference. It's all that
separates us from our cousins -- beasts without
language, who cannot move beyond the constraints of
their specialized nature.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds