Human beings have only recently shown how very special they are. Fifty thousand years ago we had the same bodies and brains as today and we probably had language. But we didn’t have much by way of art, and our artifacts were limited to the functional – stone tools for hunting and butchering, for instance.
That changed around 40,000 years ago, when the archaeological record shows a sudden magnificent flowering of art and even musical instruments. Cultural evolution – which outpaces by orders of magnitude the superficially similar genetic evolution that had given rise to our big brains in the first place – went into overdrive. Next came the transition from the hunter/gatherer to the settled agriculture way of life, soon to be followed by cities, markets, governments, religion and war. The Industrial Revolution expanded cities to megalopolises, propelling our species to worldwide (and potentially disastrous) domination, and even to reach out to the moon and planets.
Simultaneously, the human mind has reached out to the wider universe, and far beyond the time constraints of a human lifespan. We now know that the world limiting our ancestors’ brief lives is a tiny speck orbiting a small star among some hundred billion stars, in an average galaxy among some hundred billion galaxies. We know that the world began 4.6 billion years ago, and the universe 13.8 billion. We understand the evolutionary process that generated us and all DNA-based life.
There’s plenty that we still don’t understand, but we are working on it. And the urge to do so is perhaps the most inspiring of all the unique qualities that make us human.