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The Weirdest Things That Humans Do

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
We human beings are a pretty strange bunch. On the one hand, we're the most intelligent species on planet Earth. On the other, we behave completely differently to the rest of the animal kingdom. But what things do we do that nothing else does? What makes the human race so unique?

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The Weirdest Things That Humans Do

Humans are an odd species. While we’re really just animals, we have the distinction of being the most advanced species on the face of the Earth. Our intelligence is incomparable to other creatures, and we have created concepts of culture, art, and history, things that other species are simply incapable of doing. But when you get down to it, humans do some truly strange things that are not seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom. In this video, we’ll be looking at the some of the most bizarre human activities and exploring what it is within our biology that makes us act in such a way.

The primary reason for our unique traits is our complex brain. As we evolved larger and more complex bodies, so too did we evolve larger and more complex brains. Around 800,000 years ago, our ancestors’ brains began to grow and evolve to deal with the changing climate. It allowed us to interact with each other and survive in the ever-changing temperatures and environments of the world. And while our brains are closely related to those of the chimpanzee, we have far more white matter, which allows for faster and more complex connections. We also have much larger frontal lobes than any other mammalian species, which accounts for incredibly complex processes like abstract thought, concepts of morality, and planning. In short, it is our large, complicated brains that make us human. And it leads to some incredibly intricate and pretty peculiar traits.

One unique thing that humans do is lie to each other. Yes, some animals trick others to attain what they want. For example, blue jays have been known to imitate hawks so as to scare and scatter the other birds, allowing them sole access to a source of food. And the eastern gray squirrel hides nuts in its teeth and pretends to bury them in various places so as to trick potential thieves. However, no species lies quite like the human.

Humans often use their leading form of communication, speech, to spread lies and knowingly deceive friends, relatives, rivals and strangers. Some lies are small, whereas others can breed an incredibly complex “web” of falsehoods. And while this may or may not surprise you, lying is actually incredibly common – and done for a variety of reasons. Small lies are typically told as a means of preservation. Sometimes we lie to our friends and family to preserve our relationships with them. Our brains are very tribal, and in order to protect the tribe, sometimes deception feels necessary. That, or it feels the simplest solution. Politicians are often presented as masters of the art of lying due to tribal necessities. Other, more complex and hurtful lies are typically told as a form of self-preservation – when someone is trying to preserve their own self-worth, or trying to avoid punishment or ridicule.

To some degree, another indirect form of lying can be seen in the physical alterations we make to ourselves. Humans are the only species vain enough to physically alter their appearances to appear more physically attractive. While some animals can change color to appease a mate, humans are the only ones to say “you know what? I don’t like my nose. I’m going to physically alter my nose.” In 2016, Americans spent over $16 billion on plastic surgery. It’s clear that many people are not happy with the way they look. So, by altering our appearances, we believe we appear more attractive to potential mates – or to general society. In some ways, it’s simply another form of those fancy, colorful bird dances you see on nature documentaries. Only we’re smart and advanced enough to use modern medicine to physically, knowingly and deliberately alter ourselves – rather than accept the hand we’re dealt. Of course, it’s also very much a psychological issue. By thinking that you look better, you will supposedly also feel better, happier and more confident in yourself. In that way, it’s another form of self-preservation.

Our tribal mentality also leads us to perform some very odd social cues that not many other species do, such as blushing, laughing, and kissing. All of these functions are ways in which our body overrides our brains in order to better protect the foundation of the tribe. While kissing may seem like a conscious decision, scientists believe that it is actually a biological instinct. The skin around our mouths contains a host of pheromones, a chemical that allows two people to become physically attracted to each other. Female breath and saliva also carries important chemical information that tells a potential mate if they are ovulating. Finally, a hormone responsible for social bonding and sexual reproduction called oxytocin is released during a kiss, which allows two people to feel more social and trusting towards each other. Kissing is simply a biological function that we must perform to have stronger bonds and procreate.

Laughing is biological function also meant to strengthen social bonds and the overall positivity of the tribe. Laughter evolved from panting, as our ancestors would pant when happy or playful. This exact behavior can be seen in chimps and gorillas. Vocalization evolved from the natural panting sound, but it serves the same purpose – to strengthen emotional ties. When we laugh, we signal contentment or playfulness, which in turn allows others to perceive us as friendly. Laughing is a social interaction meant to lessen stress and strengthen cohesion. Which is also why laughter is contagious – when we see one member of the tribe having fun, it lessens stress and allows us to bond through spirit.

Finally, there’s blushing, which Charles Darwin called “the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions”. Scientists are generally stumped as to why we blush, but in 2009 a team of Dutch psychologists – led by Corine Dijk, Peter de Jong and Madelon Peters – suggested one seemingly logical answer. They believe that blushing is a way to communicate to the group your genuine remorse. If you are lying about your regret or embarrassment, you won’t blush. However, if you are truly embarrassed by your actions, you’ll blush to signal to the tribe your genuine denouncement of recent behaviour. This in turn allows members of your tribe to look upon you favorably. They’ll see that you’re not lying, that you’re genuinely upset, and may in fact be more forgiving. Again, blushing may be another biological factor meant to keep a tribe at peace.

These are all social behaviors, and while they may relatively unique to humans, their biological traits may be shared (in some capacity) with other animals. However, there are two things that are completely exclusive to human beings – art and religion.

Humans have been making art for millennia. But what purpose does it serve? Unfortunately, it’s one of the great mysteries of our species… And creating art is simply an inherent biological process that we have for some unknown reason. But that hasn’t stopped us speculating. Some psychologists believe that art is about beauty. Perhaps similar again to the colorful dances shown off by some species of bird, humans make art to attract other members of their species – as a kind of fanning of our feathers. And if you think that’s bogus, just rewind back to the groupie culture of the 60s and 70s. People were readily prepared to follow a band around a country or the entire world, all because they liked what they saw and heard. The band’s art, in this case their music, served as a preening display to attract friends, followers and mates.

Others believe that art has more to do with conspicuous consumption – that the owning and admiring of luxurious displays and things signals superiority and power. There are also theories that art was (and is) a way of capturing nature. By painting animals and natural scenes on cave walls, our ancestors may have believed that they “captured” an essence or spirit in the image, allowing them to easily kill the real-life animal without feeling bad. Similarly, ancient humans may have drawn themselves on cave walls as a means of preserving their physical bodies. By capturing their own likenesses, they declare their place in history – proving that they were there, at that specific point in time, before their bodies and souls disappeared. Through art, we ponder our own mortality. Which in turn leads to our final point. Religion.

No other species on this Earth is religious. Animals and insects are purely instinct-driven. They hunt for food and water, and they sleep when they need energy. They do not have the mental capabilities to discern why they are there, or why specific things in nature act the way they do. For evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, the development of religion is the result of multiple evolutionary factors – including agent detection and etiology. ‘Agent detection’ is our brain’s natural ability to perceive the presence of others – which was advantageous when we lived in the wild amongst numerous dangerous creatures. While ‘Etiology’ relates to our understanding of why things are the way they are. So, back when we didn’t have science or medicine to explain the inexplicable, we created myths and stories to discover the origin and function of natural phenomena and biology. When these processes (and more) combined, it allowed humans to ‘solve’ the previously unsolvable. We personified things that were incomprehensible, and we created idols and divine rules out of that which we did not understand. We created religion.

From vast social practices to small everyday habits, we do some pretty weird things when you think about it. But nearly everything we do, no matter how weird, has an evolutionary purpose. We are both biological and cultural beings. And while our bodies perform certain things that our minds cannot comprehend, we consciously enact various traits in order to keep the tribe together. It’s sometimes a little unusual, but it’s all part of being human.

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