A series of gene mutations have allowed humans to leave their technological mark on the world, writes Faye Flam at Bloomberg. People aren't the only animals that use tools, cooperate, or plan for the future, as Flam notes that crows, hyenas, and jays have shown they are capable of those respective tasks. But, she says, people have been shaped by natural selection to adapt to environments they've altered.
For instance, a recent study found that people harbor a gene variant that allows them to more easily break down the byproducts of burning wood, a variant that chimpanzees don't have and that Neanderthals lacked, though they too, relied on campfires. "There's no way to know if this contributed to the Neanderthals dying out — but having a genetic advantage may well have helped our lineage to thrive," she says.
Similarly, Flam notes that humans have genetic variants that enable many of us to digest lactose and to metabolize alcohol, while another variant also makes some of us flush and get sick, preventing us from having too much. "What makes us special is our collective smarts — the advanced state of our cultural development — which appears to be intertwined with our biological evolution," Flam writes at Bloomberg. "In other words, when humans invent technology, we also reinvent ourselves."