Last night, while I was trying to sleep, I had an idea that stuck in my head. The fact that my best ideas come in bed is no surprise, so I have confidence in this little experiment. Every day, when I get home from work, I won’t allow myself to do anything fun (games, opening mail, what have you) until I’ve done something creative. Whether it’s a blog post, a story for a friend, or work on my imminent Genius: The Transgression campaign, it’s the gatekeeper to really relaxing for the day.

The more I think, the better the idea sounds. I want to get better at self-control, focusing on one thing, and doing something about the guilt that accompanies laying about all day. I want to have something to show for myself! While the Habitica daily task I set for myself is a small help, I plan on carrying myself through this on momentum. If you want to make something a habit, you have to do it every day until it’s set. So, let’s start.

I recently finished Year Zero by Rob Reid. The premise is simple- aliens discover our music, and they love it so much they end up owing humanity the entire universe in licensing fees. It’s worth a read- though I’m not sure I’d pay full price. Year Zero got me thinking about aliens in science fiction.

Aliens have their uses. As a science fiction staple, I could talk about aliens and all the purposes they serve. Mr. Reid has a view I happen to like- the idea that humans are exceptional in some way. Perhaps I’m biased towards humanity, given that I’ve met far more humans than aliens, but I like to imagine that in any given intergalactic society, humans would have a special niche. I’ve never liked the common swords-and-sorcery fantasy image of humans as “boring”. They’re less pretty than the elves, less strong than orcs, and worse at mining than dwarves. Sure, there’s usually tradeoffs- you can snap an elf over your leg, orcs are dull pawns of brighter races, and dwarves are stubborn and short-sighted. I get it- coming up with original ideas is hard. It’s much easier to start with something you know (humans), turn up one knob, and turn down another. If you play Dungeons and Dragons, this idea is mathematized. Elves are like regular people, but they’re prettier (more charisma) but easier to kill (lower constitution). After all, being a human is the default in real life.

There’s a somewhat famous Tumblr post that had the idea that humans can be exceptional before I did, as well as a number of stories.

The Tumblr post and most of the stories in that Reddit thread have humans coming out ahead via their physical prowess or some cosmic accident. Sometimes intelligence plays a role, but the real advantage of being human isn’t just being smart. If you ask me, the thing that makes humans human is collective learning. Other animals on this planet are intelligent, sometimes scarily so. The real human advantage is the ability to collaborate.

The ability to truly collaborate is unique among humans. Many animals communicate. Pack animals warn each other of predators. Prairie Dogs have a language for this purpose. What makes humans unique is the ability to learn as a group. If a wolf discovers a better way to kill a deer, it has no way to tell the other wolves about it. If a human discovers a better way to kill a deer, it can spread this information to its fellow humans to help the tribe survive. Imagine trying to start an agricultural society when you’re the only one that knows how to plant seeds. Sure, you might be able to show your kids how to do it, but it’d be a lot faster to be able to tell your friends how much easier it’d be to plant seeds and raise baby animals than to hunt and gather. Society as a whole can advance when you don’t have to learn everything for yourself. If I’m an early farmer, and I find out that fertilizing crops makes them grow better, I can tell my fellow farmers that and my whole tribe suddenly has more food to eat. More food means we can have more kids to work the farm and I don’t have to work as much land.

You often hear this described as standing on the shoulders of giants, and it’s a uniquely human trait (as far as we know). Crows are very smart birds, and experiments suggest they know how to communicate and collaborate on a problem, but they have no way of building on previous discoveries across generations. Even a genius like Isaac Newton can only do so much in his own lifetime, yet society as a whole benefits from his ideas even after his death. This is something that you see aliens do in many science fiction stories. Perhaps this ability is necessary for any suitably technology. You don’t develop the technology to contact alien life unless you have some way of building on previous works. That could be an interesting science fiction story. Aliens that are biologically incapable of collaborating. Maybe they never develop language, but spaceships grow on trees on their planet. Or they live long enough to independently invent calculus, medicine, and all the other things we learn from each other. No man is an island, but maybe these guys are.

Until we either teach chimps to grow crops or meet intelligent alien life, we’ll never truly know whether collaboration is uniquely human. Until then, I’ll have to listen to my high school world history teacher, Dr. Jim Stephens, and say that collaborative learning is what it means to be human.