What differentiates humans from other animals?
While driving in our minivan once we stopped and waited for a deer family to cross the road. A five-year-old in the van asked where the deer were going. We joked how they were on their way to the deer bank to pick up money before going to the deer grocery story to get dinner. The five-year-old was skeptical. Where’s the deer grocery store?
We eventually got to a better answer. They are probably on their way to forage for food or find a safe place to bunk for the night.
While reading Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (I highly recommend it based on what I have read so far), I was pleasantly surprised to come across an answer to what differentiates us from animals that perhaps explained the 5-year-old’s skepticism (p. 58):
…after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one species alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object. This is not the same as Adam scratching Oz’s back now and Oz scratching Adam’s back later, or Adam giving Oz some spare food now and Oz giving Adam some spare food tomorrow. The extraordinary promise of this event was Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz. And the more they did it, the more valuable it became. For whatever reason, no other animal species ever stumbled upon this trick–at least between unrelated individuals.
At the time of the minivan conversation, I knew that humans had these things and deer did not. I hadn’t yet made the connection that the reason for this is that we can trade one object for a different object, as Adam and Oz does in Ridley’s example.
It’s that difference that has led to our better living standard so that we don’t just spend our days foraging and looking for a safe place to bunk for the night.