What is it to be human? What has allowed our species to endure and prosper in the way it has that not only other species, but also our own brethren, have over the last few million years? At first, some felt it was language. Yet research has shown that such vestiges of linguistical possibilities might have begun elsewhere, with one example being vervet monkeys today (https://youtu.be/3lsF83rHKFc).
Problem solving abilities? Perhaps the ability to craft tools for aid? Other species have been shown to exhibit such possibilities, examples being chimpanzees…and even crows (https://youtu.be/5Cp7_In7f88; https://youtu.be/BGPGknpq3e0; https://youtu.be/0jF_0tZdbqo). Or the capacity to play and coordinate? Dolphins and other porpoises have such capacities (https://youtu.be/5Cp7_In7f88). Or maybe intelligence? The conception is questionable, but including previous examples here showing such, our hominid ancestors (like Neanderthals) were shown to be quite capable of such capabilities as well…with large brains, some on average or larger than our own, crafting of tools, and perhaps even symbolic art and expression (http://news.discovery.com/human/evolution/neanderthals-talked-like-us-130711.htm; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sci/tech/8448660.stm; http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614-neanderthal-cave-paintings-spain-science-pike/).
There is also the increasingly found evidence that our ancestors might very well have bred with other hominid species as well, showing that perhaps they weren’t as different and foreign to us as first believed (http://phys.org/news/2015-05-analysis-bones-romania-evidence-human.html; http://phys.org/news/2015-05-analysis-bones-romania-evidence-human.html).
So…what makes us so special? Indeed our species has taken many of these conceptions in fantastically awesome directions, but there is no reason to believe that we had any ownership of it. More than likely, many events and accidents had to happen along the way in order for us to achieve where we are today. And even then, it wasn’t guaranteed. The ability to walk upright (bipedalism) might have come along due to sheer luck. At first, it was believed that large woodland areas eventually gave way to expansive savannahs in Africa, and that is where our ancestors might have ultimately found success since being able to look over tall grass would have been an advantage to staying alive. Yet new research seems to show that such a change in habitat, which was a long-held belief amongst anthropologists, might not be applicable at all (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2281822/Our-ancestors-did-NOT-begin-walking-upright-response-disappearing-forests-New-study-casts-doubt-long-held-theory.html).
Bipedalism is a mostly inefficient form of locomotion, which not only is slower than quadrupedal locomotion, but also liable to making the individual at risk of tripping. For all intents and purposes, such an adaption should have been a disaster. And yet we survived. How? Maybe for other, unrelated reasons. Being bipedal allowed the freeing of the hands. With that, our ancestors could manipulate the environment around them in ways other species couldn’t…perhaps to carry their meat/food elsewhere or even to craft tools in certain manners. The increase in the size of the brains of our ancestors and cousins might have come along through the crafting of such tools that allowed more protein to be consumed from dead animals, coupled with the quite literal realization of manipulating fire and cooking (http://www.newswise.com/articles/archeologists-discover-brain-food-in-early-human-ancestors-diet; http://io9.com/5834235/cooking-may-have-driven-human-evolution-nearly-2-million-years-ago). And it was through that brain growth that it would be possible to contemplate the order of life in a way that science would exist someday.
Even then, Neanderthals seemed to have many of the traits we and our ancestors did…yet they might have had fewer, more isolated population numbers than we did (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140421-neanderthal-dna-genes-human-ancestry-science/). In time, through migratory activities, interbreeding, and climatic changes, modern humans might have simply absorbed and replaced Neanderthals, and our other cousins. That doesn’t remove the fact of the spectacular cultural, technological, and global advancements that our species has been able to accomplish over the 30,000 or so years since, but it does bring into focus how marvelously lucky such a gift was. We have much to be thankful for.