The biological gap between us and our great ape cousins is small. At last count, only 1.23 percent of our genes differ from those of chimpanzees. But mentally, the gap between us and them is a Grand Canyon.
On an average day in the life of the human species, we file thousands of patents, post tens of thousands of Internet videos, and think countless thoughts that have never been thought before. On a good day, chimpanzees are lucky to exploit rudimentary tried-and-true techniques, such as using stone tools to crack nuts.
Not only do we innovate more than the other great apes, we are vastly better at sharing ideas with one another. The majority of recent behavioral studies focus on information-transmission rather than invention. All of the great apes can learn new tricks by imitating a human or another ape. But only humans go one step further and routinely teach each other. Teaching may be the signature skill of our species, and researchers are now zeroing in on three particular mental talents that make it possible.
Our unique talents
Mind-reading. Humans are exceptionally skilled at thinking about what's on other people's minds. A teacher, for example, needs to understand what a student knows and doesn't know. Researchers used to believe that chimpanzees lacked this talent entirely. Although recent experiments at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany are showing that chimps share at least a bit of this skill, humans are clearly head and shoulders above the great apes in mind-reading savvy.
The Triangle. Watch a human parent building a block tower with a child and you'll see a special skill at work. Let's call it the Triangle; its three points are the adult, the youngster, and the tower. Both adult...