What Separates Humans From Chimps and Other Apes?

What really separates a human child from the beloved chimp? See more pictures of mammals. Tambako the Jaguar/Getty Images

Human beings see themselves in everything. We establish emotional connections to animals with facial features resembling our own infants. It's nearly impossible for us to mark two dots on a sheet of paper without seeing a pair of eyes staring back at us. We've even gazed into the night sky and marked the shape of our own ephemeral bodies against the timeless spill of stars.

It's not surprising then that we stare at gorillas and chimpanzees and see aspects of ourselves: the bestial, the innocent, the savage and the adorable. And unlike kittens or distant constellations, we actually have a great deal in common with apes. We're all tailless primates, belonging to either the Hylobatidae family (in the case of gibbons) or the Hominidae family, which encompasses chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas and human beings. Among the apes, humans have the most in common with chimps. In fact, go back 5 or 6 million years and you'd find a common ancestor that both humans and chimps share. We also share between 94 and 99 percent of the same genes, depending on the study.

That meager percentage encompasses the gulf of difference between the animal wilds and the human world of empires, science, architecture and spirituality. We're both shackled to so much of the same genetic programming, yet humans take the same basic yearnings and exaggerate them to hideous proportions. Tribal allegiances escalate into wars of extermination. Mating games become industry and art. Our hunger shapes and scars the planet.

Approximately 10 million years ago, the great apes splintered off from their evolutionary kin. Between 200,000 and 250,000 years ago, Homo sapiens emerged on the scene, and the species began its slow ascension toward global domination. What truly set this particular strain of life apart?

Why are we the ones standing on the free side of the cage?