I have heard it suggested that what makes us so special as a species is our ability to empathise. That it is only because of this that we get civilisation. After all, how could civilisation work without the ability to imagine how others feel?
Implying that civilisation is a logical consequence of empathy is paramount to saying we evolved to have civilisation. But the truth is we are not evolved to be part of civilisation at all. It is something we created, and empathy has little to do with how.The way we evolved was to be part of a much smaller group known as a band. Large enough to haunt, small enough to feed. This is typical of mammals. It was this way for us for millions of years before we created civilisation. Civilisation is relatively new. Something we created in the last 12 thousand or so years.
It began with the agricultural revolution, also known as the neolithic revolution.
There was a time when we moved from eating grass to eating meat, because eating meat took less work for more energy. This was an evolutionary change. But once the ice age was over with, we were freed up to turn our creativity to take a stab at working on the work-energy problem ourselves, and here farming began.
There are still tribes around today that live similarly to how we did when all lived in bands. They live under conditions where a baby being born a girl and not a boy can endanger all the bands futures if she is not killed. Farming meant we could facilitate large number, and so this sort of thing was less of a problem. And as the numbers got larger, trade became possible.
Through the continued invention of new technologies to facilitate trade and farming we could, in turn facilitate continually more people. As time passed entire villages and towns were born, and by this point, we were inventing not only new technologies to help facilitate the numbers, but ideas on how to govern, such as religions, moralities, and law and order.
All of this--how we trade, what technologies we had, what ideas we had on how to govern--continued to improve, and as they did villages became empires. Today we live in a global village of billions. It is nothing evolution could have ever created. Civilisation required the rapid and innovative adaptivity of human creativity alone. And we are not done.
One day, chances are, as our ideas on how to govern and our technologies only continue to make progress we will move out into space and be able to facilitate trillions. This is preventable only if we stop making progress.
It's true that civilisation is a unique thing to people, but it is not the fundenental things that is special about us, it is one of many thing, all having their roots in our unique capacity to imagine, not just what others may be feeling, but anything.
To create. To solve problems.
(For more on this theme I highly recommend Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man and David Deutsch's Beginning of Infinity)