Bridgette Byrd O’Connor, BHP Team Member
Louisiana, USA

The Driving Question (DQ) for Unit 6 really got me thinking about how primal we humans can be, in particular when some of our basest instincts come out. For me, this is often when I’m driving (and yelling) at people, desperately wishing I had a siren, a bullhorn, or maybe a tank! In fact, there are times when it is difficult to distinguish Homo sapiens from other animals. We communicate and gesticulate; we need water and food for energy; we sleep to allow our brains and body to rest; we fight and sometimes prey on other species; we have communal instincts; we use tools; we’re social animals. All of these traits are shared between us and other species. But humans are also quite different from other animals. So what is it exactly that makes us different?

This question should be easier for students to answer than DQs in earlier units because they don’t need too much in the way of content to come up with at least a few differences. This is one reason why I like to start with the DQ Notebook in Lesson 6.0, rather than 6.1. In this way, by the time students return to the DQ Notebook in Lesson 6.3, they should have ample content knowledge, including the inclusion of one of the central themes of this course—collective learning—to more fully answer this question. But this DQ, along with the Investigation 6 question (How does language make humans different?), allows students to contemplate how we also share many characteristics with other species.

This notion of our interconnectedness is more fully investigated in the articles in Lesson 6.0, including “Lucy and the Leakeys” and “Jane Goodall.” In addition, students explore our connections to both primates and other species in the Evolution Comic. Lesson 6.1 examines how we know about early humans by outlining the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology, while also acknowledging that we have much left to discover. The activity What Do You Know? What Do You Ask? really allows students to dig into these disciplines to construct a team that will help them figure out an event or process in the history of early humans. A second activity in this lesson that I particularly enjoy using is Historos Cave. We want students to understand that there are sometimes only small clues that help us understand the history of early humans, but that we can also use these clues to piece together how our ancestors lived, including what they ate, how they might have communicated, and, of course, what makes humans different from other species. The Crash Course Big History videos in this unit also help students answer the questions of 1) how humans are connected to other species and 2) what makes us different from them. In addition, they help students understand why human evolution matters to us by illuminating the genetic connections between different species, and why human ancestry is also important, in particular in terms of how science can both be used for good and sometimes to push an agenda (such as the pseudoscience of racial differences).

There are some additional assets in this unit that help students with the historical thinking practices of causation (Alphonse the Camel) and with their mapping skills (Human Migration Patterns). But probably two of the most important themes of this unit are the focus on collective learning, which is a key concept of the course as well as the main answer to the DQ of what makes humans different from other species, and the kickoff for the Little Big History Project—the culminating project of the course that asks students to make connections between an object or concept and the BHP thresholds, including those thresholds that relate to humans. Final thought: While it’s super important for students to be able to reflect on the DQ about what makes humans different from other species, I also think it’s important to stress what makes us similar, including how racial distinctions are truly only skin deep—a mutation that simply allowed those in colder climates to soak in more vitamin D from the Sun. In addition, I think we should stress the connections between our species and other animals, which is crucial to fostering a sense of community and connectedness with other species in the world.

About the author: Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, world history, and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and US History curricula.

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