What truly makes humans human?
Humans are animals. That is to say, humans are composed of more than one cell and are not plants or fungi. We are more like the birds and the bees than we are like two peas in a pod.
And yet, humans are extremely different from the birds and the bees. I believe this is because of one factor: imperfect iteration by imitation. I arrived at this conclusion through a simple investigation of three questions. What makes humans different from other animals? How are these differences manifested? Why are these differences important?
Birds build nests, create music, and conjure flight. They are majestic creatures that have even more majestic tendencies. Bees produce honey, hatch microscopic larva, and follow 1 queen bee. What beautiful insects.
Humans? We do all of the above.
What makes us different from other animals is the fact that we can choose to be similar to other animals. If a bird creates a nest, a human can recreate that nest. If a bee produces honey, humans can conjure up a concoction of chemicals to reproduce the same honey. This practice is more than just “tool-making” (as some experts have ascribed to the uniqueness of humans). After all, chimpanzees, crows, elephants, and more have all been observed using tools in order to complete tasks .
Humans go beyond tool making. We imagine. Then we CPO: copy, paste, and optimize. Finally we iterate. This three-part process I call the Cycle of Imitation.
We can best understand the Cycle of Imitation through an example. Consider the creation of planes.
Humans for centuries saw other animals flying in the sky. Immediately, it was perceived that flight was possible. For years inventors imagined flying just as high as other flying animals. Leonardo Da Vinci was especially famous for dreaming up his “flying machines” which were built to operate exactly like birds. See here for an image. This stage in the cycle is the imagination; the imagination rarely fails.
From here the imagination becomes a reality. We copy what we have seen around us and, rather than leaving it in the imagination, we paste it in the real world. Due to a lack of unlimited resources, we are forced to optimize. Rather than making a flying machine with bones, flesh, blood, and feathers we settle for metal, wood, or stone bolts, screws, and nuts. Eventually, if all goes well, our imagination becomes reality. However, this isn’t the end. As more and more people use a creation it is bound to change. We CPO version 1 to produce version 2. Then we CPO version 2 to produce version 3. Then we CPO version 3 to produce more, and more, and more.
Eventually in this process of re-versioning we stumble upon something new. “Why not do X?” someone will ask. “Why not power our flying machine with momentum? Why not with fire and energy?” CPO continues until what began as an imitation of an animal becomes something completely different. This, I believe, is what gave rise to inventions such as the rocket, the computer, and others. The point at which CPO stops and new ideas are created is the point where the iteration stage begins.
So back to the question: What makes humans different from animals?
Well, what differentiates humans from animals is not imagination, nor CPO, nor iteration. It is the combination of all three. For, if we did these phases in isolation the human race would simply have a gluttony of tools and unborn ideas. The Cycle of Imitation is what truly advances our species.
So how do these differences manifest? Well, there is a nuance in The Cycle of Imitation that I did not explicitly address. However, it is the most important part of this process.
Yes, humans iterate on what other animals do, but more importantly they iterate on what other humans do. Just as humans copy animals, humans copy humans. Thus, when we run through The Cycle of Imitation we do so with our own biases in mind. As a result, the products we create are ever changing.
There is a simple test that you can do to prove my point. Ask a friend of yours to look at an object and draw it. At the same time, and without looking at your friend’s picture, you draw the same object.
Done? Now compare pictures.
How do the colors compare? What about the size? The shape? The drawings?
Both pictures will be different. In fact, I am willing to wager that if you and your friend continue doing this activity you will never have the same interpretation. More ambitiously, I bet that even if you do this activity alone (e.g. you draw the object once on piece of paper and then again on another piece of paper), you still will never draw the exact same picture twice.
Of course, if you copied something simple the image will be close to the same. However, I believe this: the more complex the object copied, the more subjective the interpretation pasted.
Whether that paste is physical (a object which is created by hand) or abstract (a re-telling of something you heard) my principal will apply. I call it Imperfect Imitation.
So back to the question: How are these differences manifested?
What starts as a “flying machine” in Da Vinci’s mind can quickly become an “aeroplane” in the mind of the Wright Brothers because perfect imitation is imitating imperfectly. Our experiences create the difference between humans and animals. Consequentially we are able to create extremely complex tools.
But why imitate at all? Moreover, why is Imperfect Imitation important?
Well, unlike other animals, humans actually do not create much value for nature. While plants create oxygen and bees create honey, humans take. In fact we take so much that it is human nature to put the word “human” in front of “nature.” After all if the word “nature” is there, why not take it for us?
Have you ever heard of “bee nature?” “Flower nature?” “Bird nature?” Of course not: the concepts barely even register. Instead we often say “the nature of bees” or “the nature of flowers” or “the nature of birds.” Such phrases describe all that bees, flowers, and birds do not by choice but by a deep and innate desire.
Nevertheless, despite all that humans take, they do create a few natural elements: Abstract ideas [thought, experiences, memory, etc.]; waste [sweat, poop, pee, etc.]; and senses [movement, perception, hearing, etc.]. Some of these creations are internal and can only be experienced by the individual while other creations are external and can only be perceived by others.
So why do we Imitate Imperfectly?
Well Imperfect Imitation is the principal synthesis of internal creation and external creation. This is the nature of humans. This is our innate desire.
As babies, as teenagers, as adults, and as individuals we would be nothing without both The Cycle of Imitation and Imperfect Imitation. These, together, are the defining factors of what make humans human. Fundamentally, what is shared between these two principles is shared between all humans and no other species: imitation.
 Chimpanzees have been observed making “sponges” out of leaves to drink water on the go. Crows have been observed manufacturing spears out of twigs, wood, and sometimes metal to impale larvae. Even elephants, in all of their gargantuaness, have tools out of branches with their trunk and feet.