Are humans truly unique? How do we know?

Dunne and Hamilton in The Christian Science Monitor:

HumansOf the millions of species on the planet, humans seem fairly unique. We have produced flamenco dancing and skinny jeans, jet skis and cell phones, New York and Tokyo, and fabulous art and music by creative individuals from Leonardo da Vinci to Joni Mitchell. While many aspects of human technology, culture, and society have no clear counterparts in other species, do they make us truly unique? Every species possesses traits that other species don’t, which is how we distinguish a ferret from a starfish. If every species is different, what, if anything, sets the human species uniquely apart from other species?

…Humans live about as long as the theory predicts for an organism of our size. We wean our offspring at the predicted age. We reproduce at close to the predicted rate. And so on. It turns out that across many such life-history traits, there is nothing particularly unique about the basic biology of the human species – we fit right where we should on the body-size continuum. But things get interesting when we look at the energy consumption of humans. Our basic metabolic rate, as predicted by our body size, is about 100 watts – the energy demand of an incandescent light bulb. That’s about what you’d expect given our body size, according to the theory. But in the modern industrialized world, the energy we actually consume, collectively, to fuel our lives – to do things such as construct roads and buildings, fly airplanes, drive cars, and harvest and refrigerate food – is closer to 11,000 watts, on average, for someone living in the United States. In short, people in the US consume about 110 times more energy to function in an industrialized economy than predicted for an organism with our body size. The global human average, 3,000 watts, is 30 times greater than predicted. And that does make us unique; no other species on the planet uses close to this much energy to fuel their lives. What’s more, given that the average contemporary human consumes as much as 30 times more than a pre-industrial human, our effective global population from an energetic point of view is closer to 210 billion rather than our planet’s current 7 billion humans.

More here.