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"What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason; how infinite in faculty, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals...."
A chapter of the manga Ah! My Goddess has a minor goddess visiting Earth go into raptures when she gets to taste "Earth's famous soft-serve ice cream!" They don't have ice cream in Heaven? Then what's the point of going there? For that matter, Peorth returned to Heaven with a lot of games and books she'd picked up during her stay on Earth, and was asked not to do that again, because so many of the other goddesses were distracted from their duties. Apparently we can create entertainment that the deities just can't match.
Neon Genesis Evangelion invokes a variation upon this, explicated in the extra materials from the PS2/PSP video game Neon Genesis Evangelions: "Humans" are effectively a special kind of life form that includes the Milky Way's first intelligent species (the First Ancestral Race), along with the Seeds of Life (Adam, Lilith, etc.) and the races they birthed on other worlds (Lilin, Angels, etc.). Furthermore, the FAR didn't just create the Seeds and send them off to do their thing; they went physically extinct to provide the souls for them and their offspring. Humans really are special...
Heroic Age: Humanity was the last species to respond to the Golden Tribe's call to leave our homeworld for the greater galaxy, but we were the only ones who did it entirely under our own power (the Silver, Bronze, and Heroic Tribes all had a bit of assistance from the Golden). Even among the four who responded, we're the only ones who consider our past to be important, rather than focusing exclusively on the future... a trait that the Golden Tribe also possessed. We were also the only species besides the Silver Tribe to be assigned a Nodos in the Golden Tribe's Batman Gambit to stabilize the galaxy.
In Transformers Cybertron, only humans can hear the sound made by the Plot Coupons' power. This was an addition made to the dub to fully justify the continued presence of the human companions after their initial usefulness as native guides largely ended. With this worked in, the Autobots had a legitimate need for the whole trio of Coby, Bud, and Lori to stay on and accompany them on search missions. They don't seek assistance from other humans because that would risk completely blowing The Masquerade and causing mass panic. Optimus Prime is perfectly aware that most humans would tend freak out about the presence of thousands of Super Robot refugees. So contact was initially limited to the three who had already found out (and had assisted an injured Autobot).
It seems that humans get the short end of the stick in Bleach, considering their short lifespans. But because they don't live very long, they improve much more quickly. Chad and Uuryu went from being cannon fodder for a Gillian to slapping around Privaron Espada in under a year, whereas it took Renji at least a decade to unlock his bankai.
Parodied in the Buck Godot comic book series, where the one thing that makes Earth unique in a galaxy crowded with advanced species is that it was the only planet ever to invent the popsicle. Nonetheless, they still get the greatness-beyond-imagination speech from the Winslow at the end of one story.
Well, humanity is one of the few races not to give into the insanity surrounding the Winslow and realise that, indestructibility aside, it's just a silly, harmless little animal and not some all-important MacGuffin.
Unless it is.
In both DC Comics and Marvel Comics, what makes humans special compared to various alien races is often stated to be their propensity to develop unique superpowers. This is justified in a canon DCU story where it is revealed that life on Earth was originally meant to evolve a godlike, superpowered race, which ultimately ended up as humans because of genetic experiments performed by aliens in its early history. Nevertheless many humans retain the genetic potential to awaken superpowers, which is why Earth has so many superheroes. Other examples from both companies are below.
The other way humans are special is diversity. This is perhaps lampshading the typical Planet of Hats phenomenon among other species.
In the Green Lantern comics, the Guardians of the Universe pick out humanity as one of the next few species to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence, and note that humans make wonderful Green Lanterns. In a bit of subversion, one of the other races picked out as having potential is a species of intelligent space chipmunks, and humanity by and large doesn't seem to change much for 1000 years when the Legion of Super-Heroes comics take place.
Played straight in the Elseworlds story Superman: Red Son, where it is revealed that Earth is actually Krypton in its distant past and that humans ultimately evolve into one of the most technologically advanced races in the universe.
Note that was the opinion of the original Guardians. The new Guardians of the Universe think that, while Earth has has some imagination and great will, humans are stupid savages (like other races who hear about Earth), despite most of the reality bending stuff being related to them. The two Guardians who disagree with this opinion are Ganthlet (who is the last original Guardian) and Sayd (who is his lover and seen how good humans can be firsthand), but are now exiled from the rest. The reason being that they "coddle humans too much" and for thinking that being emotionally detached from everything is bad (which has been shown to be true).
Blackest Night #7 reveals they're lying. The Guardians know damn well Earth and humans are special, they just don't want anyone else to know.
Prior to Final CrisisDarkseid was interested in humanity because humans were one of the few species that possessed the Anti-Life Equation in their collective consciousness. He was especially interested in finding the few rare humans who possessed the entire Equation in their minds.
When an alien conqueror sets his sights on conquering Earth. En route, he learns a stunning fact: the humans on that planet repelled the supposedly unstoppable attacks of Galactus, the feared god-like devourer of worlds not once, but multiple consecutive times. He quickly u-turns his ships and flees fearing a species capable of that kind of defense.
This happened a second time, in an X-Men parody of the DC series Invasion. A group of aliens move to invade the world of 'Australia', and only one does the research. He finds out that the planet has hosted several people who can harness the Phoenix Force, have fought off Galactus, beaten back the Skrulls, once hosted the Silver Surfer, etc. He ran to alert his superiors. They shot him for interrupting, claimed that whatever he said couldn't have been that important, and proceeded to have their invasion fleet wiped out by Colossus, Longshot, a drunken Havok, and Wolverine.
Played for laughs a second time when aliens challenge earth's greatest heroes (The West Coast Avengers) to battle with their robot to test their strength. After all of the Avengers kill the self repairing robot one after another, we find that the aliens assume that all 6 billion humans are a composite of the 6 members of the WCA, with all their powers combined, and instantly rethink their invasion plan.
This is based on a number of older Stan Lee Stories where a superhero fights off an alien invasion, and the aliens flee, thinking that all humans are like this, or in Iron Man's case that the humans have an army of 'robots'.
Uatu, a member of the ancient Watcher race, is convinced that humanity is innately noble, to the point he broke his non-interference vow to help save them from Galactus, the Planet Eater. After being put in trial for this, he has pretended to not care about humans anymore... but always manages to indirectly aid when needed, such as the time he tricked another Cosmic Entity (The Stranger) into not killing a group of superheroes, simply by showing up to "observe" the event, which led The Stranger to conclude Uatu would not have bothered unless the humans were going to win anyway.
A Marvel short story had an alien marvel (pun not intended) at the attention such a fragmented backwater like Earth could be the only world in the known galaxies that produces the delicacy "ice cream." The alien in question is a trader who buys the stuff by the tanker-full.
Ultimate Marvel has this with Captain Mahr Vell in the Ultimate Secret arc. He defects to the humans partly because of their enjoyable (American) culture, including Krispy Kreme donuts.
This was the aim of Kurt Busiek's multi-year The Avengers tenure. Essentially, if humans were allowed to reach and colonize space, they would quickly conquer it. Thus, everything from Thor's ability to open portals getting stolen to killing the Supreme Intelligence to The Crossing was an effort by Immortus to keep humans on Earth.
It really came to a head in Maximum Security, in which the aliens of the Marvel Universe turn Earth into a prison to keep the humans busy.
During Infinity, the ruler of Spartax calls Captain America a "stupid ape" and refuses to listen to his strategies. Someone then points out that the human race has managed to defeat the Kree Empire every single time they've clashed, while Spartax only has a 34 percent win ratio. Suddenly, everyone decides it's a damn good idea to listen to Cap's advice.
This is apparently why the Builders are hellbent on destroying humanity. One Builder even asks Captain Marvel what makes humans so special.
Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan initially holds that humans aren't really all that special ("In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon"). He changes his mind when he learns of Laurie's heritage, and decides that every human life is so improbable as to be miraculous.
In Preacher two fallen angels quickly discover that life on Earth is a lot more fun than anything Heaven has to offer. One of them tells his friend that he wishes he had been kicked out sooner.
In various retellings of the Superman origin story, this is usually one of the reasons Jor-El sends his son to Earth.
In Turnabout Storm, humans are regarded in Equestria for their strong sense of justice, so much in fact that they based their judicial system on the human one.
The Prophecy. Gabriel and a segment of angels are outraged God gave "talking monkeys" a soul.
The aliens of Dark City abduct and study humans because unlike them we possess individuality, and are potentially more than the sum of our memories, i.e., we have "souls". They need to discover this secret for themselves so that their race can survive, but it blows up in their faces when they end up accidentally granting one of us their reality altering powers.
In Penn & Teller's short film "Invisible Thread", an advanced alien race comes to Earth and puts humanity on trial, demanding to see one unique aspect of humanity that justifies their habitation of Earth. The government contacts Teller, who was a genius scientist before turning to stage magicnote and/or they confused him with noted physicist Edward Teller, but he and Penn go to the military base on the belief that they're being asked to display their illusions. After every single genius from every field of human endeavor fails to impress the aliens, Penn and Teller perform their "invisible thread" trick, which satisfies the aliens. Afterwards, however, the aliens send a letter stating that they saw right through the illusion, but were amazed that any species would lie about something like "invisible thread".
Dr. Nelson: He learned, almost too late, that man is a feeling creature, and because of it, the greatest in the universe.
The Predator franchise boasts humans as one of the best preys in the galaxy. Sure, they're physically weak and in almost every incarnation, their technology is far behind the eponymous alien races, but those little bastards are still really hard to kill. Their adaptability is something else that's shown quite frequently, as Predators are often defeated simply because the human they're hunting uses something in their surroundings as a weapon, sometimes including the Predator's own weapon.
Spoofed in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. The guys ask God to introduce them to the greatest genius in the universe so they can enlist his aid in fighting their Robot Mes. Following God's directions leads them to a pair of squat, ugly Martians. The Grim Reaper smugly asks "Did you really think the greatest genius in the universe would be from Earth?" and Ted, shrugging, replies "Yeah."
The alien creatures that attacked earth in Independence Day have pulled the same routine of exterminating any resistance and stripping whole planets bare of natural resources like a literal plague of locusts across countless worlds. Guess what happened when they picked a fight with humanity?
Particularly telling is that, once their impenetrable shields were disabled, the alien fighter pilots were getting outright spanked by the human pilots. You're talking highly-advanced alien spaceships going up against jet fighters from the late-90s with a significant numerical superiority going down in equally massive numbers. Of the human pilots shown being shot down in the finale, almost all of them were hit trying to make their attack run on the main ship's primary weapon, when they would be at their most vulnerable.
Prometheus (2012): Pretty much the motivation behind every human character's reaction to David.
Deconstructed in The World's End. It turns out that humanity is the least civilized species in the galaxy, and the Network is trying to bring humanity to a level where it could be brought into the galactic community. However, to do so they have to remove anyone who doesn't want to be part of the Network; and because humanity doesn't like being told what to do, the Network need to replace a lot of people in an attempt to make them more acceptable to the galactic community . Arguably, the point of Gary, Andrew & Steven's rebuttal is that "Humans are special because they are flawed".
In the Dudley Moore comedy Wholly Moses, there is a scene where Dudley Moore's character, Herschel (who has mistakenly believed that it is he, and not his cousin Moses, who is supposed to be God's Messenger to the Hebrews) finally gets fed up and demands God explain himself, and justify basically the entire movie's plot, to Herschel. After God says, , "I am God! Who are you to question me?" Herschel responds, "Who am I? Who am I? I am MAN! And I am as you made me, a thinking being who is demanding answers!" So God gives him answers.
In The Giver, all emotions have been evolved out of humanity in order for it to overcome its flaws, and from a totalitarian standpoint it works-but as Jonas and the Giver show the Community, emotions are what make life worth it and are part of what make us special.
In Mistborn, Preservationcreated mankind by making them special: He gave up a little bit more of his soul to give mankind sentience and the ability to destroy and preserve, or destroy to preserve, as Ruin (his evil counterpart) and him were bound to the nature of their power so a human could take up his power and sacrifice themselves to kill Ruin so both their power could be taken up by another human!
Averted in the writings of HP Lovecraft, where human preconceptions of how the universe works and humanity's place in it have a tendency to get dashed or exposed as mere comforting delusions by an uncaring universe. (That said, the Puny Earthlings trope is also averted in quite a few of the original stories, ironically supporting the aversion of this trope further in a way: humans don't even have a claim to specialness on grounds of somehow sucking uniquely!)
Kid Lit example: Aliens put Humanity on Trial in the My Teacher Is an Alien books, and many of the aliens want to save them because they are special, having the biggest brains in the universe while only using ten percent of them. We are considered the potentially smartest species in the galaxy, making us special in a good way. However, we are also the only known species to allow war, poverty, and all sorts of other misery. This makes us special in a very bad way. In the Twist Ending it is revealed that these two traits are connected: the other 90% of our brains were once used in allowing us to communicate telepathically, something no other species could do. However as the number of humans increased the amount of telepathic noise increased as well, threatening to drive us insane. So we instinctively suppressed this ability, and the trauma of losing our connection has made us the violent sociopaths we are today.
A subversion occurs where humanity is infamously summed up as mostly harmless.
And yet in Life, the Universe and Everything, humans still managed to beat Krikkit and stymie Hactar's plot to destroy the universe. Slartibartfast was the leader of that effort, but it was Trillian and Arthur who did the heavy lifting.
In So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, when Arthur complains about the sparse entry, Ford explains that he actually wrote a lot about Earth, which someone else then promptly edited down to "mostly harmless". In fact, his sole contribution had been the "mostly." He was then stranded for 15 years with relatively little else to do Later, the Guide received an update, and suddenly all of Ford's extensive notes were there. Since he knew the planet had been destroyed some years earlier, this told him something weird was happening — which, Ford being Ford, he wanted to witness immediately.
This theme is brought up repeatedly, in different ways, in the Animorphs series, some less serious than others:
It's mentioned throughout the series that humans are much more resilient and adaptive than other sentient species. An example of this is the concept itself of turning into animals to fight the Yeerks. Elfangor expected the kids to use their powers to disguise themselves and, unnoticed, sabotage Yeerk operations. He had no idea - nor had it ever occurred to any Andalite - that the power could be weaponized and used for combat and guerrilla warfare.
Humans are the only sentient species in the series to walk on two legs without a tail for balance, so apparently we have the greatest sense of balance in the known universe.
Having evolved from foraging omnivores, humans have relatively strong senses of taste compared to other sentient species, and according to Ax, our culinary skills are unparalleled throughout the universe. At the end of the series, it's become common for wealthy Andalites to spend a fortune in order to come to Earth, morph a human, and eat junk food.
Another of humanity's special traits and the reason the Yeerks are so determined to conquer Earth is that there are so damn many of us. When the Yeerk leaders are told that the human population is five billion, their reaction is somewhere along the lines of "surely you mean five million". There are many, many more Yeerks than available hosts, and most of the lower classes are limited to things like animal bodies — conquering Earth would, at a stroke, increase the Yeerk forces by a huge factor.
Yet another fact was that unlike many alien species, humanity can not only survive just about anywhere, we can eat just about anything. As opposed to Hork Bajir who only eat tree bark or Taxxons that only eat meat (and in fact cannot stop themselves from eating if they smell blood).
Another fact of our biology that apparently sets us apart from all other known races in this continuity are our hemispheric brains and, by extension, our dialectic minds, conveyed memorably in 'Visser':
This mind could argue with itself. This mind could see the same event in different ways. It was insanity! A democratic brain, arguing within itself, with no sure, certain control, only a sort of uneasy compromise. A consensus of disputatious elements. This brain contained its own traitor! And, as I began to sift the memories I saw, again and again, the internal argument. The "Should I? Should I not?" debates. The paralysis of internal disagreement. But I also saw decisions improved as a result of uncertainty. Hesitation and internal discord leading to decisions that were wiser, more useful, than quicker decisions would have been. And yet that seemed a small compensation for the internal treason and confusion and conflict. No wonder they kill each other, I thought. They very nearly kill themselves! It was madness. Humans, as a species, were mad.
We apparently also advance technologically much faster than other species. Ax expresses amazement and disbelief when he realizes that humanity went from atmospheric flight to being able to send a ship to the moon in less than seventy years. Ax makes a prediction early in the series that, given humanity's rate of technological progress, humans would have achieved FTL travel in 50 years. It turns out he was underestimating humanity: the core concept of FTL travel (an alternate dimension called Z-Space) is discovered not even two years after he said this, to his considerable shock. In the last book (basically an extra-long epilogue), humanity's first Zero-space ship is under construction.
Ax: (muttering darkly) Humans. You do things too quickly. We Andalites may wind up wishing we had left you for the Yeerks.
According to one of the books with the Ellimist, some species (like humans) take a while to get going, then advance really quickly, and other races develop early but advance slowly in terms of technology, etc.
The first Visser One in the series had this to say:
"Humans have fought thousands of wars. Thousands! We as a race have fought a mere handful. They run straight into the bullets, Visser Three, again and again. Did you know that? They attack against insane odds. They defend what can’t be defended. Outnumbered, outgunned, surrounded, hopeless, they will still fight, fight, fight till they are each and every one dead. Something you might know if you stopped posturing long enough to learn something!"
Isaac Asimov once said that almost every story edited by John W. Campbell had a Humans Are Special theme. He usually averted the trope by setting most of his stories in universes with no intelligent alien life. One of his short stories, "Hostess" was a deliberate subversion — humanity was "special" because it was the only species that died of old age, because we were the "hosts" of psychic parasites that were decimating the unprepared alien races in the story.
Asimov's primary reason for wanting to avert this trope was that Campbell himself seemed to hold the view that humans were (or should be) automatically superior in some way to any other species they encountered, and Asimov didn't want to be constantly coming into conflict with Campbell about it because he considered John a friend as well as his editor.
I sometimes got the uncomfortable notion however, that this attitude reflected Campbell’s feelings on the smaller, Earth scale. He seemed to me to accept the natural superiority of Americans over non-Americans, and he seemed automatically to assume the picture of an American as one who was of northwest European origin. — Isaac Asimov, in the afterword to Homo Sol in The Early Asimov, explaining why he was uncomfortable with Campbell's Humans Are Special attitude. note In this afterword he also mentions his future attempts to avoid conflict with Campbell by the aforementioned method of removing aliens from the picture, bringing up the Foundation series as an example.
Speaking of Homo Sol, a short story by Asimov, it is a great example of Humans Are Special, as the much more advanced and numerous aliens who land on Earth fear humanity because of our ability to turn every new discovery and invention into a weapon. Asimov said Campbell loved the story because it made humans unique without suggesting we're inherently more intelligent or morally superior.
Another story is The Gentle Vultures, in which some monkey-like aliens (called Hurrians) travel through the universe helping species that have fought a nuclear war to recover themselves in exchange of a tribute. Humanity is the first species they encounter that hasn't blown itself up in a nuclear war right after discovering the use of nuclear weaponry, and they await for fifteen years for nuclear war to happen before deciding to abduct a man to understand the reason behind this. This proves to be their undoing: when the Hurrians explain the man the reason why they are there, the man viciously compares them to vultures, in that they don't help to prevent the war but instead wait till they happen to assist the survivors. This comparison wrecks the Hurrians' spirits so much (and even further when the man tells them to provoke the war like a vulture pecking on its victim's eyes) that, in spite of knowing that, when humanity invents space travel and start to expand throughout the universe, they will destroy their civilization, the Hurrians are happy to leave as fast as possible.
Used in David Brin's Uplift series where the humans — young, inexperienced newcomers to a very old galactic political scene — manage to fight, win, and show the superiority of their culture (or at least their capacity for unconventional military tactics) against several alien races.
In this case it's not that humans are innately special, but that the human race matured naturally without being "uplifted" by another race, something that hasn't happened since the Precursors. We had to make our own mistakes and learn our own lessons, and everything we know how to do, we know because we worked it out from first principles through experimentation. Most other races learn about electricity and gravity and everything else by rote out of a huge encyclopedia, and while they are more advanced than humanity, they are effectively in technological stasis. If the Library doesn't say it can be done, it can't be done. Humans tend not to trust the Library as the ultimate repository of all knowledge; after all, they've done without it for this long!
It's told entirely from the alien point of view. They are trying to save humanity from a disaster only to find out that humans have already saved themselves. It was published in 1946. Back then the most advanced rocket was the German V-2 and the number of computers in the world could be counted on one hand.
Subverted at the end, however.
In the fourth book of Rick Cook's Wiz Biz series, the protagonist is told by a dragon to save a village of humans from dragons, before realizing that his job was to save dragons from humanity in general, since we may be puny compared to a dragon, but there are a lot of us, and we learn very fast.
The Gordon R. Dickson short story Danger - Human featured aliens who have captured a human for study. During previous eons, humans have been found to be responsible for the destruction of galactic civilization, multiple times, and the aliens wanted to find out what trait or stimulus caused this change, in order to prevent it. Multiple security precautions are used including a sealed chamber, constant surveillance, and a single exit guarded by a 20-foot-high force field that only turns off for a short period of time during certain parts of the day. In the end, the human character, who has been repeatedly vivisected, psychoanalyzed, and generally given a rough time, snaps. He manages to escape his chamber, evade all surveillance, and somehow pass through or above the force field, completely unaffected by it. He then hijacks a nearby interstellar cargo vessel and heads back to Earth. The aliens are all suddenly feeling an existential dread as they realize that they have just provided humanity with the reason and the means to destroy galactic civilization once again.
Suppose "We are really, really sorry about that" won't cut it, huh?
The same author released a book, The Human Edge, containing a collection of short stories where humans have somespecialability not completely understood by other aliens. One story in that book has one species of alien intend to start a Curb-Stomp Battle, but the even-stronger aliens will intervene.
In the Alan Dean Foster novel Design for Great-Day, human loquaciousness is described as being their special talent. Other races can speak conversationally and use metaphors and everything else we associate with speech, but humans in particular are known for their ability to "talk the legs off an alligator and cast serious doubts on its parentage in the process". The implication is that while other races can use speech this way (it is, after all, an alien saying this of humans), humans are inherently better at it.
In Foster's Humanx Commonwealth universe, mankind is not inherently better or worse than the alien races they meet; but humans are very enthusiastic for fighting, even those who aren't trained warriors. And they are very adaptive. The insectoid Thranx may be better at logic and thrive in tropical climates, and the reptilian Aan are aggressive and can survive in deserts, but humans can alternate between logic and viciousness and survive everywhere with remarkable ease.
In his trilogy The Damned (A Call to Arms; The False Mirror; The Spoils of War) Foster portrays a galaxy full of pacifist civilizations that evolved on tame worlds. Few of these species can tolerate even mild violence without going catatonic from the experience. These alien races are slowly losing a galactic war to a race of cephalopods whose mastery of genetic engineering and mind control allows them to make slightly better soldiers than the free races. An alien expedition looking for allies to fight the cephalopods discover Earth, and is immediately struck by the hostility of the environment. By Damned universe standards, Earth is a Death World with impossibly harsh climates, high tectonic activity, high risk of meteor showers and geography that encourages political conflict. As a result, humans are far stronger, faster and more aggressive than any sentient species the aliens have ever encountered. Humans even seem to enjoy violence. The aliens are both horrified and thrilled. Naturally, they recruit us to fight our wars for them as soon as possible. The cephalopods soon discover that attempting mind control on humans does nothing to humans, and drives the aliens trying it catatonic. Later, they attempt to engineer a race of humans that are good at fighting but vulnerable to control. Unfortunately (for them) it backfires horribly when these humans develop strong pscyhic powers and turn on them. Realizing that they are eventually going to lose the war, the squids enact a Batman Gambit by unconditionally surrendering to the galactic alliance that includes the humans, having calculated that without the war to occupy the humans, restless mankind will soon become a problem for its allies. The other races armed humans with advanced weaponry and medical technology. They won't stand a chance if mankind decides to conquer them.
Of course intellectually humans are downright pitiful. They can't be peaceful, suck at medicine, and are pretty much dedicated combatants. Everybody else is better at something, except for combat. Of course, that lasts right up until humans develop psionic abilities. Which is later somewhat subverted, as it turns out that the Lepar, a stupid, plodding race, is resistant to telepathy.
It should be noted, however, that the remarkable thing about human resistance to mind control is our extremely violent reaction to such attempts.
As later books in the series show, it's not as much violence as warfare that is considered "uncivilized" by other races. Several of the "civilized" races are shown as being perfectly capable of violence, murder and even species-wide omnicidal mania, just not the types that are very useful in fighting wars.
Foster also used a version of this in his novelization of The Last Starfighter to explain why the Star League is so hard up for fighter pilots as to be recruiting them from pre-contact worlds. Most Starfighters are, by the League's standards, homicidal maniacs.
In Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers it is the fact we don't leave people behind. Ironically the bugs' special trait (aside from hive mind) is the fact that their prisoners don't die in captivity (unlike what happens to those humans capture).
Similarly to the Foster version above, Tanya Huff's Confederation of Valor novels have humans as one of the few species in the galaxy with the mindset capable of withstanding the rigors of combat. Only a partial example since while we may have been the first there are three other species just as capable as us, the Taykan, the Krai and in the first book the recently contact Ssilsvis. Though according to the H'san our discovery of cheese is just as noteworthy.
the big, serious, old brown bear was delighted to have so quick a pupil, for the young wolves will only learn as much of the Law of the Jungle as applies to their own pack and tribe, and run away as soon as they can repeat the Hunting Verse—"Feet that make no noise; eyes that can see in the dark; ears that can hear the winds in their lairs, and sharp white teeth, all these things are the marks of our brothers except Tabaqui the Jackal and the Hyaena whom we hate." But Mowgli, as a man-cub, had to learn a great deal more than this.
In the Galactic Milieu trilogy by Julian May, this trope is arguably overused, as within 70 years of being contacted by galactic society, humans are already beyond them in technology, besides having the most powerful psychic powers in the universe. This is balanced by... take a guess.
In Larry Niven's Known Space books humanity's special traits are luck (which is artificially enhanced by the Puppeteers) and intelligent females (as opposed to the Kzin who have domesticated their females and the Puppeteers who... just don't ask- it's gross). On the subject of War, the pacifist humans the Kzin run into only got that way because humanity realized they were really, really good at war and decided to rein in their violent tendencies. When the Kzin attacked, humans proceeded to demonstrate that choosing not to fight isn't the same as being incapable of fighting, in numerous wars of failed conquest initiated by the Kzin.
The Penn & Teller book Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends included a bonus short story involving a group of aliens who put humanity on trial, feeling that a Class-A inhabitable planet like Earth shouldn't be wasted on a Class-ZZ redundant species like humanity. The main character is challenged to come up with a single unique property of humanity, not present in any other species, that deserves to be preserved. What finally convinces the aliens? Predictably, magic tricks. The story was made into a 45 minute short called "Invisible Thread".
In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, humanity's capacity for boredom, hallucination, and irrationality makes them "special". These traits are not quite unique, being shared with dwarfs and trolls, but are lacking in the more powerful entities like the Auditors and multi-tentacled creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions and such. Pratchett treats human behaviour as fairly infectious too, for better or worse.
This theme is echoed in Good Omens. Humans can be kinder than angels and eviler than demons, much to the surprise of both, and at least one demon and angel like human inventions so much, they get serious doubts about the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse is then thwarted by the sheer plebian humanity of the young Antichrist coming to dominate his Satanic genes.
In John Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata, the thing that makes humanity special is that the Aldenata never messed with our genomes. Most of the species they did get to had their capacity for violence removed and the one that didn't became a Horde of Alien Locusts whom the other species are now helpless against.
Fred Saberhagen's Berserkers also has the capacity for violence as Earth Descended humanity's most useful trait.
The introduction to the collection Berserker has an alien specifically state that the human propensity for war is the only reason there is still any life anywhere in the known universe. The Berserkers were the product of a similar, but apparently less wise, species and no other race is capable of stopping them.
The Strugatsky Brothers (ok, one of the Strugatsky Brothers) novel The Expedition into Inferno plays this straight. Humans are special for a lot of reasons, almost to the degree of being superior, but their ability to be One Man Armies despite appearing to be Technical Pacifists really separates them from the pack. As The Two-Headed Yule phrases it: Do not bother a lion when he's eating, do not wake an elephant when he's sleeping, and never, ever, mess with humans."
Parodied and inverted in W.R. Thompson's story "Lost In Translation," in which an alien science fiction writer has his token human stand around and think admiringly about how special the alien race is. (He's also named "Climber Pinkskin." The human translator tactfully suggests a little editing on that one.)
In Tolkien's Lengendarium, God endows humanity with "strange gifts." Mortals have more freedom to choose their own destiny, and also can leave the world — i.e., die. The latter is described as something that, eventually, the Elves and Powers That Be will come to envy.
In Harry Turtledove's World War and Colonization series, like in "Rescue Party" above, humans are also extremely fast at cultural and technological development, compared to the three other known species.
Actually somewhat subverted. Characters in the books argue that humanity's speed with technology development is more because of Jared Diamond-esque environmental reasons (Earth's oceans prevented a single empire from taking over, ending competition between countries, and making society become very conservative) than humans themselves being smarter or better then other species.
There are also biological reasons. Humans are the only primates of the four known races. The rest are all Lizard Folk. Additionally, the Race, the Hallessi, and the Rabotevs all have a mating season, which is the only time of the year the males try to outperform their peers in order to catch a female's attention. Contrast this with humans, who are horny year-round (this is not to say that men are the only reason society advances; this is merely an example).
In "The Road Not Taken", another of Turtledove's short stories, humans were the only species who did not develop faster than light travel in the normal course of technological progression, despite it being actually a lot simpler than our physicists have determined. However, unlike every other civilization, they are the only ones who did develop pretty much any technology later than the steam age. It is mentioned that as soon as a race develops FTL travel, their technological advancements stop, since the FTL makes no sense in any known science, causing science to break down.
In The Host, humans not only have more senses than any other species the Souls use as hosts (point one in our favor) but also much more intense emotions. Meyer goes so far as to have Wanderer basically decide that although Souls give love somewhat unconditionally, humanity's tendency to be emotionally intense, confusing, irrational and even a tad fickle makes human love a lot more precious, precisely because it's rarer, harder to achieve and much more inexplicable (point two in our favor). Humans are also apparently the only species that's ever been remotely capable of retaining part of their original personalities when possessed by a Soul (point three in our favor). In contrast, the Souls, while very technologically advanced, very successful at taking over other planets, and naturally, unusually altruistic and kind... are dumb as rocks.
In Ben Counter's Warhammer 40,000Grey Knights novel Hammer of Daemons, when Alaric has confronted the mandrake and explained how he knew it was The Mole — and accused it of betraying a previous Gladiator Revolt, thereby causing the death of another captive Grey Knight in celebratory games — it defends itself on the grounds that it had to survive. Alaric says that for humans, to survive is not enough.
The out-of-print novel Earth Ship & Star Song uses this trope to suggest that humanity is destined to eventually take over the galaxy because we're the only race that doesn't breed ourselves for ever-stronger psionic capabilities of one kind of another. Apparently, no matter what planet you evolved on, psychic talents and fertility are mutually exclusive at a genetic level, and since every other race in the galaxy has evolved a society which drives them to breed towards ever-increasing psionic talent even as their race's fertility rate goes through the floor, they'll all go extinct in a few generations and we'll just move in.
In Wen Spencer's Endless Blue, humans are the only ones who communicate with all the alien species. When Mikhail comments on this, Paige points out that his ship has a name, and is called "she" — none of the aliens antromorphize — which is what makes it possible for humans to handle all sorts of aliens.
In Doom, this is basically the main theme of the final novel and a half.
Humans have the awesome power of being Killed Off for Real. When the human body dies the consciousness/soul ceases to exist, or goes somewhere, but a dead human is gone. All other sentient life has their consciousness remain trapped in the defunct body with all of their senses still functioning. They can hear if they're being spoken to or feel pain if somebody abuses their corpse. Resurrection is simple enough but it's possible that there isn't enough remaining of the body to succeed or it's not a priority for others. The dead are rounded up and stored in amphitheaters where operas and other performances are held to entertain them pending a resurrection. Or horrifically tortured if captured by an enemy.
All other races suffer from Medieval Stasis. They evolve and progress at a staggeringly slow pace. When the Freds scouted Earth they arrived at the end of the Middle Ages, saw a Catholic-dominated world armed with swords, and made centuries of invasion plans based on humanity remaining at this stage of development for thousands of years. They never could have anticipated mankind having nuclear weapons and early space-flight within six hundred years.
'Sacred Blood', a religious play by Russian poetess Zinaida Gippius, is about a young mermaid who finds out that while all living creatures disappear after death, humans are different - they have immortal souls, given to them by God. Even before God appeared and gave them immortal souls, they were special because they were the only ones capable of love. Thus, God (who was human himself) could love them and spill his blood for them, making them even more special.
In "The Interlopers" by Roger Dee (1954), "A hundred thousand nations from rim to rim of the galaxy—the least of them, as far as Clowdis had seen, older and wiser and infinitely stronger than his own upstart culture—suspended opinion when the T'sai spoke." When humans try to colonize an uninhabited world, a T'sai challenges them: "You think yourselves worthy of claiming our empty worlds. Prove it." The humans continue with the colonization attempt, refusing to be scared off, and the T'sai concedes the proof is sufficient. Humans are the only species other than themselves the T'sai have found with both intelligence and initiative ... and they've been watching us for millennia in the hope, now confirmed, that we'd be worthy to take over running the galaxy.
In The Secret Visitors by James White, Earth is the only planet in the entire galaxy with axial tilt, changing seasons, and interestingly varied scenery. Human art and music is renowned and envied for its variety and emotional resonance. Also, when the human characters start visiting other planets, it turns out that humans are remarkable for their fortitude in the face of physical danger, and a human ordoctor is considered a miracle worker — galactic society has long been geared toward prevention of illness and injury, so most people find the mere prospect of injury horrifying, and in the rare cases of actual injury occuring nobody has any idea what to do.
Subverted in Sergey Lukyanenko's short story Evening Conference with Mister Special Envoy where a Lizard Folk alien, whose Ominous Floating Spaceships are suspended above Moscow, Washington, and Beijing, is wondering why humans haven't been conquered in centuries past, despite evidence of powerful alien races in the sector. He finally realizes why, after revealing several disturbing facts, like how every other race advances at warp speed compared to us. According to the envoy, his grandfather invented the wheel. Apparently, humanity has been left alone because we're so dumb. They even leave their starships for humans to study after departing, as they're already obsolete by their standards (it's been only a few months).
Played with in the Star Wars EU, humans are nothing particularly special biologically, but they are far and away the most numerous species in the galaxy (populations of trillions, as compared to billions, or even millions for some other species).
Out of left field, The Dresden Files. It turns out that many of the magical creatures from the Dresdenverse are incredibly set in their ways - that's one of the downsides of being immortal or even incredibly old. Humans constantly reinvent ourselves, making our True Names harder to pin down and use against us, making us more adaptable, and fueling our ingenuity. We were scary en-masse with pitchforks and torches - now we have guns, planes, and nukes. For a species that was once essentially deer to be hunted, the fact that we're pointing considerable calibers of weapons (including the wizards, especially the eponymous Dresden) back at them in such a short period of time is both unique and impressive. Naturally, the Vampire Court uses these advances against the wizards via their thralls; refer to Dresdenverse.
Invoked by counterexample with Arianna Ortega. Harry Dresden faces her in a Wizards Duel that doesn't let her use some of her natural advantages - and, even knowing that, she still tries to use her normal tactics against Harry, and doesn't learn from her mistakes.
Arianna But... you're cattle. Harry Moo.
Humans also seem to be special in that only their awareness and/or belief in Nevernever entities — fairies, gods, demons, shen, whatever — seems to bolster those entities' power in the physical world. In the short story "Backup", Thomas freely tells Bob about the Oblivion War, because Bob isn't a mortal and his knowledge of an entity's existence won't help that entity connect to Earthly reality at all.
Humans are the only terrestrial creatures with a soul; even other sentient earth beings don't get one. They are also notable as the only creatures with truly free will, as just about every other creature either cannot act against their nature (i.e. Fae) or if they do they are changed dramatically (i.e. angels falling).
In a dark way, mortal magic has one thing no other magic can do: Mortal magic can summon the worst of Eldritch Abominations, the Outsiders. The things from beyond the limits of Creation itself that want Creation to end.
In The Kane Chronicles, humans are special because the Egyptian gods, despite their power and immortality, tend to lack originality, and often repeat events from myth (like the death and rebirth of Osiris) time and time again over the ages. This is why they prefer taking humans as hosts, since humans have a superior ability to think outside the box.
In Year Zero, we are the only race in the universe who can make proper music. We have just the right pitch, rhythm etc, while no other species even comes close. Even the songs we consider bad still make the top hit charts.
Francis Carsac's Ceux de nulle part (Those from nowhere) has a human finding a crashed UFO in the woods. There, he meets the Hiss, are race of green-skinnedSpace Elves who ask him to procure them a large chunk of gold to fix their ship. After he does that, they offer him a ride to their home planet, the center of the League of Human Worlds ("human" in this case being any race that would rather live under a star than in a frozen universe), currently engaged in a losing Bug War against the Misliks, a race of metallic bugs that can only live at absolute zero temperatures and are extinguishing all stars. The Misliks have Psychic Powers that are deadly to anyone else. The Hiss, though, have a prophecy that says that only someone with red blood is immune to the Misliks' powers. The human agrees to test the theory and enter the room with a captive Mislik. Indeed, he survives, causing protests from a race of Human Aliens (with four fingers) who also have red blood and were promised a go at the Mislik. However, the Hiss reply that the Human Aliens chose to deliberate for a long time, while the human agreed to do this almost immediately. The Framing Device is the human telling all this to a friend of his back on Earth and then asking him to join a group of human soldiers he's recruiting for the war effort. All this time, he's sitting with his Love Interest, a beautiful woman with four fingers.
In The Immortals, we learn that the Tortall Universe has a variant of this: Mortalsnote humans and non-mythical animals Are Special and able to do things that gods and Immortals—mythical things like dragons—can't, like resist the effects of Chaos vents. This is because mortals are half-Chaos by nature.
Live Action TV
This conceit has been the defining philosophy of every incarnation of Star Trek.
Indeed, the very first episode, "The Cage," has the Keeper stating that "the creature appears more adaptable than our specimens from other planets." In the end, it is determined that humans are dangerously resistant to captivity, unlike any other they've encounered.
Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation even cites the quote at the top of the page in an argument with Q, preceding it with "Oh, I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony, I say with conviction."
Although the Federation is supposedly multi-species, most of the colony worlds depicted onscreen are populated by humans. The non-human members of the Federation each seem to have their race concentrated on a single home planet. Likewise, in addition to Starfleet crews apparently being mostly human, Federation starships follow human design paradigms.
One of the Vulcans reveals in the pilot that humanity's specialness (specifically their rapid progress relative to other species) actually scares them.
Deliciously deconstructed in the final season of Enterprise, with Human Supremacism being the driving ideology of both the Terran Empire in the Mirror Universe and the fascist "Terra Prime" organization.
It's never satisfactorily explained how the Federation reconciles its multiculturalism with its humanism. For a race so assured of their own superiority, the humans sure put up with a lot of barbarism.
In fact, in Star Trek 6 the Klingons call the Federation on its hypocrisy, calling it a humans-only club aside from a few token pet species, and criticizing our anthropocentric language such as the word "inalienable."
In Doctor Who, humanity's ability to survive and adapt is what draws the Daleks to repeatedly try to conquer Earth.
The Doctor: Indomitable! That's the word! Indomitable!
The Doctor expresses contempt for Puny Earthlings ("stupid apes") during his darker moments. He does have a point, since Time Lords are superior in nearly every way. However, he has a certain degree of admiration for humans that inspires him to help them over and over again. They're just so special!
To be fair, humans aren't likely to become as decadent as his own race, the Time Lords, who the Doctor himself described as megalomaniacs corrupted by "ten million years of absolute power". In fact, when it was decided the Time War with the Daleks wasn't going so well, they decided to tear open the universe, while they Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence. No wonder the Doctor never stayed home often, and no wonder he was forced to wipe them out.
However, this theme is horribly subverted in the Tenth Doctor episode Midnight.
And then affirmed fantastically with the Season 4 Finale, with "The Doctor Donna". "I can think of things you two never would!"
And we invented edible ball-bearings! No other species in the galaxy ever thought of that.
Towards the end of the Tenth Doctor's run, human Wilfred marvels at the Doctor's long life and many adventures. He says "We must look like ants to you." The Doctor responds "I think you look like giants."
The irony being that the entire premise of the show is that the Doctor, an alien, is having to almost constantly save humanity from extinction. It has even been lampshaded somewhat in the new series and in Torchwood, where human characters faced with seemingly-unstoppable alien menaces openly wonder whether the Doctor will show up in time to save them.
Gwen Cooper: There's one thing I always wanted to ask Jack. Back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his. The man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world; except sometimes he doesn't. All those times in history where there was no sign of him.. I wanted to know why not. But I don't need to ask anymore. I know the answer now: Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet and turn away in shame.
Ultimately what makes humanity special in the universe of Doctor Who is our tenacity. As revealed in "Utopia", at the end of the universe, when entropic heat death is finally destroying everything that ever existed, it is humanity, out of all the billions of species in the universe, that has made it to the end. The tenacity is acknowledged by at least one Dalek who in the face of it's hateful, xenophobic peers asked "If we Daleks are so superior, why are we on the very edge of extinction while humans thrive?"
A particularly annoying example in one of the earlier episodes of season one has every species on the station inviting the others to take part in celebrations of their dominant religious faiths. While the Rubber-Forehead Aliensall follow a single religion, the humans, at the end, bring out an almost goofily long line of representatives from every conceivable Earthly religion. One assumes this was meant to be heartwarming, but it's so heavy-handed it comes across as smug and self-congratulatory. (A later episode reveals that Narns, too, have a variety of beliefs; G'Kar is the religious leader of the G'Quan sect aboard the station; Na'toth is atheist, and mentions that one of her parents was a follower of G'Lan.)
The Vorlons tell Delenn that the humans would be important in the upcoming shadow war. Unfortunately that is not demonstrated convincingly; individual humans are important, and B4 and B5 are important. But humans in general seem to stay out of things.
At one point, Delenn mentions that the humans are the only known race who would build a station like Babylon 5, where all races were welcome—anyone else would have built a station only for their own race and maybe a few others.
In Red Dwarf, humans (the few that remain) are not only special among other races, but the forefathers of literally every other race in the universe.
This was the explanation of why the Visitors didn't use their conversion process on all of humanity to make them compliant. According to Diana, humans are unusually strong-willed compared to other species, which makes mass conversion impractical — at least for the time being.
In the 2009 reimagining, Anna desperately tries to figure out why her Bliss won't work on humans. She barely manages to Bliss a single human, although she is bleeding from the effort. She then tries to do the same to all 6 billion of us. It takes a Half-Human Hybrid to successfully do that.
Prime example: Stargate SG-1: Humans are the dominant race in the galaxy, with the Jaffa running a close second. Of course, it is worth noting that the Jaffa are themselves an offshoot of humanity, bred by the Goa'uld thousands of years ago to suit their purposes. Every other race they meet is either extremely arrogant, Always Chaotic Evil, has questionable morals, or are otherwise 'inferior' to humans. Probably the only exception are the Asgard, who also owe their their lives to the humans multiple times, despite being Sufficiently Advanced Aliens; and they commit species-scale suicide at the end anyway. Even the Ancients themselves (also humans, of a "previous evolution", who actually bootstrapped the evolution of humans on Earth), while being the show's legendary race and "gods" who ascended to a higher plane of existence, are labeled as wrong in their morals, for the most part. (They are so adamantly against interfering with the mortal plane that they would sooner allow all life in the galaxy to be destroyed than step in.) Compare Rousseau Was Right.
Earth Humans specifically, commonly referred to as the Tau'ri, are particularly special. In the Milky Way galaxy, almost every planet is hindered in advancement by the Goa'uld except for Earth and few others, which got a chance to develop freely. Other unhindered worlds are often beyond Earth standards technologically, but the Tau'ri are notable for their determination. The situation with the Wraith in the Pegasus galaxy is similar, where their feeding on humans limits the population growth of most societies. So, in the end it's not so much "humans are special" but "earthlings are special".
More to the point, there's very few other species than humans. The only major ones are Wraith, who are revealed to be part human anyway, Goa'uld, and Asgard. A few others exist, but 95% of everyone is a human or a related species in the three known galaxies. Earth Humanity is special because we have the ATA Gene, and the main reason for that is because we're the most crowded planet in the three galaxies. Human settlements of a few hundred to thousand is the norm, and the ATA gene is recessive.
In fairness, there is a very good reason Human dominating is the case and it's based around a completely different species. The dominant species for thousands of years have been the Goa'uld, a race of mind-controlling megalomaniacal parasites. The first species they possessed en mass were the Unas. A far larger, more intimidating and all-around more powerful species blessed with both huge endurance and natural self-healing (which the Goa-uld's own supplemented perfectly). Humans are in comparison weak, frail and pathetic. But they also have superior senses of taste and touch, and aren't as ugly. The Goa'uld, being gluttonous hedonists focused on power, food and sex decided to make Humans their slave race for few other reasons than these. They seeded Humans across the stars en mass for use as slaves and worshippers, and killed off any other species (or any Humans that got too advanced) to protect their own seats in the galaxy. When inevitably their empire fell, the Humans were already everywhere. Less a case of Humans special, more a case of Humans getting vaguely lucky the Goa'uld invested so much in them before finding a better species.
Farscape has a good example in Crichton. While his alien friends make constant reference to how deficient humans are and can't understand how they manage to survive at all, they're saved time and time again by Crichton's defining human trait - ignorance! Quite simply, Crichton knows so very little about the region he's arrived in, more often than not, his successes are due to the fact that he just doesn't know when he's been beaten... and his own personal Crazy Awesome traits.
Not to mention the episode where Crichton gets to save the day because his inferior human vision makes him less susceptible to a particular effect caused by a special kind of light.
Crichton (as a battle cry): Humans! Are! Superiooor!
By the fourth season, Crichton's companions on Moya and even his enemies are beginning to recognize humanity's drive and potential. Emperor Staleek was willing to specifically conquer and enslave Earth, despite being so far out of the way that without wormhole travel it would take over half a century at maximum speed for a Peacekeeper Command Carrier to reach it. When Crichton finally managed to return home and introduced his shipmates to Earth, humanity's strength as a Determinator is specifically mentioned by Noranti during a series of videos recorded by Crichton's cousin. One of the more supportive and sympathetic Talking Heads in the in-universe documentary that resulted takes great pride that this has been noted by an alien being.
Dr. Jason Fletcher: Listen to what she's saying about us. Humans never give up. Now, for that to become impressed upon an alien mind, this simple fact that we would tend to take for granted ourselves, becomes validation that we eventually will fit in. Never give up.
In Power Rangers' first few seasons, earth-born humans are special mostly because we're one of one only three or four planets in the universe to not be conquered by the Big BadDimension Lord. Also hinted that something about Earth is really special given that we have more than a dozen Ranger teams, whereas most other planets are lucky if they have a full team rather than a single ranger.
In Kamen Rider Blade, several Undead enjoy assuming human form because humans (and the Human Undead they're decended from) are unique due to the fact they have emotions that most Undead lack in their natural state.
In 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dick decides to extend the aliens' mission on Earth indefinitely because he finds us so fascinating. Apparently, we're the only species they've ever encountered to possess complex inter-personal relationships and emotions.
Mythology and Religion
In The Bible, humanity is special because they are the only creatures who bear the image of God (one Psalm specifically states that we're just "a little lower than angels"). "For God so loved the World; he gave his only begotten Son; so that whosoever would simply believeth in Him, would not perish. But would have everlasting life." - John, Chapter 3 - Verse 16.
Of course, another Bible verse (Exodus 33:20) specifically says that we cannot bear the image of God, and there was that time that God got so pissed off at the world that he drowned it.
Certain branches of Buddhism hold humans as the ideal form to try and achieve Buddha-nature. They lack the distracting luxuries and powers of godhood, possess the intellect lacking by animals, and are not burdened by the pain found in the realms of the Hungry Ghosts or hell.
Contrary to many modern religions or fantasy genres where humans are better than virtually every other race or somehow special this trope is averted in many ancient religions. Ancient Greek religion regarded humans as far below the gods and in some ways worse off than animals since they lack the powers of a god, but also lack the ignorance of an animal, leaving them to live in a Crapsack World and know about it. Mesopotamian Mythology has humanity created by the gods to be a force of slave labor so the gods can live a life of luxury.
Baseline humanity in the New World of Darkness has few things going for it, but a big one is that we're the only species with the divine spark, which lets us shape observed reality to an extent (and what keeps most of the incredibly powerful monsters at bay).
Mage: The Awakening has a certain opposing view between the mages of the libertarian Free Council and the authoritarian Silver Ladder. The Free Council mages believe Humans Are Special, with human works and endeavors containing arcane knowledge. The Silver Ladder mages believe humans aren't special, but that they should be, and being denied the arcane power they deserve is the ultimate crime.
A big one is that only a human has the capacity to become a mortal Demiurge. The supernatural races can't create a Promethean because they lack human passion, or have powers that would tend to shortcut the drive and obsession necessary to pull it off.
In the pen-and-paper roleplaying game Teenagers from Outer Space, the aliens all have superpowers, but Earthlings have a few special abilities of their own, and to top it all off, Earth is universally acclaimed as the single coolest planet in the entire galaxy. (Which is why the aliens go there.)
Humans also have the ability to "fake out", i.e. convince an alien of just about anything, like draping carpets over your head makes for impressive evening wear, or that kissing is a perfectly socially acceptable way of greeting anyone. After all, humans are the coolest species in the universe, so they should know, right?
It seems humanity is the only species to actually invent popular culture/entertainment at all. Hence, we have the best music, movies, clothes, soft drinks, etc. and any alien species will either import what humans invented in this line, or copy it. One of the sample characters is a Rubber Forehead AlienHigh School Hustler who explains that she can get the best tech from her homeworld simply by sending Earth music or fashion to them in trade.
It's actually the other way around. She's amazed by how she can get a ton of awesomeness (designer jeans, Converse Hi-tops, sportswear) in exchange for a ratty old fusion generator or other junk.
In 1st and 2nd edition, they had no special abilities whatsoever, but could run the full range of ability scores, could belong to any class, and had no limit to what level they could gain in their class. Other races could belong to two classes at once in predetermined combinations, but only humans could change their classes after creation (although it was a pretty grueling process, requiring you to start from scratch until you regained the level you switched at).
In 3rd edition, humans again have no special racial powers, but instead gain a bonus feat of their choosing and can develop an extra skill, allowing them to excel right from the start. While other races have specific favored classes that don't count against multiclassing penalties, a human's favored class is whatever class he has the most levels in, making multiclassing a bit easier.
In 4th edition, other races get bonuses to two predetermined ability scores and two predetermined skills, 2-4 passive abilities, and a bonus activated power (normally an 'encounter' power). Humans get a bonus to only one ability score, none as such to skills, and only a small bonus to all non-armor defenses as a true 'racial' ability...but by being able to assign that ability score bonus to whichever ability they choose and start out with training in an extra class skill, a bonus feat, and an extra first-level at-will attack power from their class list (which is a pretty big deal as for most classes this means going from having two such convenient always-ready attack modes available ever to having three), they can be easily competent in any class of their liking whereas other races' perks tend to encourage them to stick to the niches they're 'naturally' best suited for. They also get feats that are useful for anyone such as "human perserverence" and "stubbon servior". Humans are special in fourth and maybe third!
As of Essentials humans now have a true racial ability "Heroic Effort". With it if you miss with an attack or fail a saving throw you can add a +4 bonus to the roll but you must give up the bonus at-will to get it. A good power, but if it is better then the bonus at-will or not is up to you.
Pathfinder, as D&D 3.75, gives humans an absolutely amazing racial power. Like in 3.5, humans have an extra skill point per level and an extra feat. Humans also have no ability score penalty and a +2 to any one stat, allowing them to be amongst the best at every single class. There's no natural proclivity to lack in the area for a single class. Since ability scores are purchased in a non-linear fashion, making up for a racial deficiency is quite costly.
All these examples ignore an additional trait humans have; they have no particular enemies or hatreds. If the Game Master is the hacky-slashy kind that doesn't take into account role playing motivations, it's useless, but if (s)he does, then every PC who isn't human is going to run into Fantastic Racism which makes certain NPC or Monster creatures hostile right off the bat. If the GM really pays attention, it can even be a combat advantage.
Dwarf: "Why are the orcs all after me?"
Earth Dawn is unique in that humans are mysterious nomads, of which the other races are wary. Their racial powers are nearly nonexistent, save for their ability to crib abilities from other classes.
Subverted in SLA Industries where humans are even less special than the sewer-dwelling mutants, have no homeworld and seem to be kept around for the novelty value (and for a cheap workforce).
Played with in Exalted; the very thing that makes humanity Special and allowed them to rise up to overthrow the Primordials at the behest of the gods is that they were NOT special; humanity was created as a servant race -to- the servant race of gods, weaker than almost everything else in the world, barely capable of using the magic of Essence. A mayfly race intended to be born, pray, and die, totally dependent upon the gods, providing them with needed power through prayer, so the gods would serve the Primordials. As a result ... binding them into servitude was deemed unnecessary, and when they were given power by the gods, they were able to rise up and throw down the Primordials. Humanity is Special specifically because Humans Suck, in effect.
The human creature type in Magic The Gathering is a relatively new addition to the game. Previously it was simply ommited for the fact that humans run the full gamut of colors, classes and power and have no synergy with each other.
Even after our addition to the game lore, the human race plays a mostly insignificant role in most settings (the occasional legendary human in a given set might as well be replaced by any other creature); interestingly enough, most Planeswalkers (both in-game and lore-exclusive) are humans despite there being no mention at all about humans being special in any given way (other than the writers being human themselves).
Dragon Dice has only one race/army representing humanity - the Amazons. They are the only race to have been created solely by the male creation deity, and have access to any of the magic in the game that isn't race-specific by adapting the type of terrain they're located at - a degree of adaptability that no other race in the game shares.
The small press RPG JAGS Wonderland plays this for horror. Originally, Wonderland was expelled from the universe as we know it for being based on imagination and whimsy rather than physics and logic. The Caretakers were perfectly fine with this, as they didn't wish to dirty their hands with that logic malarkey. And then humanity came along — creatures of logic that could imagine and dream — and the Caretakers decided, "Well, we can't have that..."
Consider that humans aren't just meant to inherit Creation, but that the terrifyingly-powerful Caretakers are nothing more than stepping-stones meant to facilitate Mankind's ultimate awakening. Humans are special because Creation is literally intended for them.
In Scion by White Wolf, the collective desire of humans to tell stories is the primary driving force of Fate, a power that binds even the Gods themselves. It is also through this that the characters' power grows. The more a Scion is talked about, the more powerful they become.
The Terrans (Earth & Sol system humans) in the X-Universe games have superior technology compared to the other races, they're the only Type 1 species on the Kardashev scale that managed to independently develop FTL travel (the other capable species are at least Type 2), they have the largest navy, and the most well defended sectors. Earth is guarded by a massive space station wrapped around it in geosynchronous orbit; the Torus Aeternal has massive guns, and you can see thousands of capital ships orbiting the Earth behind the Torus. The Argon Federation, the Lost Colony of humans and the largest human faction, lacks the Terrans' technological superiority, but they still manage to win huge areas of space despite their (usually) inferior capital ships.
Also worth mentioning: Humans in general were recognized by the Ancients as being so intelligent as to pose a threat to their long-term plans. The Ancients reacted by rearranging the gates near Sol to trap the Terrans in a closed loop of systems with no native intelligent life. The modern Aldrin region is part of this loop. Oddly, it ended up being Earth's accidental creation of the Xenon that derailed their plans. The Ancients created a second closed loop to contain the Xenon, inadvertently enclosing the Argon, Boron, Paranid, Split, and Teladi as well. So humanity is indirectly responsible for the very creation of the X-Universe.
Explored in several of the Super Robot Wars games, most prominently the Alpha and Original Generation series. In addition to the more run-of-the-mill conceit that humans are supposedly an aggressive and warlike species (given our history), the aliens often hang a lampshade on the fact that Earth is home to a suspiciously large number of WMD-class Humongous Mecha (because the games are a crossover between different mecha anime series). This may lead them to believe that Humans Are the Real Monsters, which usually doesn't end well.
The early Warcraft games used this especially Warcraft I where everything else on Azeroth was Always Chaotic Evil. Even in Warcraft II the humans were the most heroic of the races of the Alliance. Later games went on to show some humans could be pretty villainous and orcs could be heroic.
Humans can use arcane magic (and even demonic magic in some cases) freely, without becoming truly addicted or falling into a blood rage, as the various elven races, orcs, or draenei do. Humans are also some of the strongest wielders of holy magic, with only the Naaru (who are the physical embodiment of the Light) and the Draenei (who spent millenia being specifically trained by the Naaru to wield holy magic) rivalling them in their power. On the other end of the spectrum, corrupted humans are capable of far greater terrors than orcs or even the demonic Eredar are capable of, as shown by Arthas.
In Advent Rising the human race is presented as being the closest to perfection; a race of latent demigods. This leads to humanity being the center of attention of many alien races and near-extermination. One of two surviving humans then proceeds to open a can o' whup-ass on the genocidal aliens with the above-mentioned demi-god powers.
In The Journeyman Project: Legacy of Time, the actions taken by both the series' hero and the series' Anti-Villain characters are shown to be the reasonable responses to the still-kind-of-violent races of the Symbiotry of Peaceful Worlds. The actions of the humans, who have gotten over their petty squabbles faster than any other race in the galaxy, grant them the privilege of protecting the Legacy, until the other races can prove themselves worthy of it.
Humanity in Mass Effect have started numerous colonies across the galaxy and have taken a large role in galactic politics in less than thirty years. This has lead to resentment from many aliens, most notably Saren.
However, Mass Effect also subverts this trope in a rather clever fashion. Not only does Kaidan lampshade it when he mentions that other races are just as varied - "They're like us." - but it's implied that Earth is itself in the early stages of becoming a Planet of Hats (the hat is tenacity) as a result of its tentative acceptance into a larger galactic community. (Captain Anderson is in fact British, according to the first novel, but Earth is monocultural enough that this is not readily apparent.)
It's confirmed in Mass Effect 2 that humanity really is special compared to the other races of the galaxy. Considering that this judgment is made by a monster that has chosen humanity as the centerpiece of its plans... this is one of those occasions where being special is not a good thing. It is made clear that humans have a LOT more variance and flexibility in their genome, and therefore a lot more potential for mutations and evolution. Better, at least, than the other known races and the Protheans.
One of your teammates will happily enlighten you about this observation, stating that for most species you can look at an individual and make an educated guess about their temperament, intelligence, strength etc based on their species (though all species of course have outliers). Not so with humans, who have far more variance in all these factors than other species. This makes them perfect to use as lab rats because you get a wider range of outcomes from a smaller test pool.
In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers have the perfect plan to exterminate all galactic sentience that they have executed possibly hundreds (or even thousands) of times (use a Reaper vanguard to open the citadel), but is foiled by humans. Then their backup plan (build a new Reaper out of humans to open the Citadel) is also foiled by humans. Then their backup backup plan (in the Alpha Relay) is also foiled by humans. So they abandon their well-laid plans that have worked for millions of years and just Zerg Rush Earth. That is how much humanity has outright pissed off the Reapers. Sure, you could capture the Citadel and use it's control over the relay network to cripple galactic transit, but humans are that much of a threat that they have to be eliminated first.
Then again, it's highly suggested the real target and reason for invading Earth is simply to eliminate Shepard. Leviathan notes that humans are completely average and suspects that the Reapers are equally as frustrated as they are, trying to figure out how such a insignificant race could produce someone so utterly dangerous?
In The Elder Scrolls all the other races of Tamriel are united under a human Empire. There are mythic reasons involving a creator god's reincarnation and his nephew taking a shining to a human rebel queen, but it helps that while humans can have lots of kids in a few decades, your average elf only breeds when their population is low, so humans plain have more soldiers.
Played straight on the 3 campaigns of Guild Wars since the Player Character can only be human, the lore mentions that when humans appeared they had no thick hides, sharp claws or fangs to defend themselves from monsters, but they worshipped the gods who created Tyria and in turn those gods gave them the gift of magic to defend themselves, thanks to this, humans were able to dominate the 3 continents, it is also mentioned that the humans's comings and goings are of great interest to said gods althought they no longer directly intervene. It is also human heroes the ones who defeat the fallen god Abaddon and it is the human Kormir the one who consumes his power and ascends to goddess.
From Eye of the North onward this is been steadily subverted with the introduction of several races like the Asura, Norn and Sylvari, the Charr had already been introduced on the first campaign, Prophecies, Guild Wars 2 is confirmed to have all of those as playable races, details on the story show that humans have been pushed back because of the emergence of ancient dragons allowing other races to gain foothold on previously human-controlled territories, as it is mentioned "all races are now on equal footing".
Mega Man Zero explores this. The Big Bad of the first game, Copy-X, although technically a Reploid himself, favors the survival of humans over his own kind, leading to the main conflict in the series. However, freedom fighter Zero, who directly opposes Copy-X, holds this view as well, thinking that, as a machine designed solely to wage war, he cannot change the world, but instead believes in the humans who can.
Though, humans have not that much competition with only Reploids being a rival 'race.' And some as Copy-X are programmed to serve/support humans so it's not their choice to do so.
Lucasarts' The Dig uses this trope. The aliens who Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence as immortal Energy Beings eventually find that they are doomed to be mere observers for all time without physical bodies. They want to come back home, but can't find the way, and the only surviving alien is certain that if the humans open the gateway, they too will find themselves unable to tear themselves away from the beauty of Spacetime Six and ultimately be trapped as surely as the aliens were. Fortunately, Humans Are Special and have Heroic Willpower (or sheer bloody-minded stubbornness) that allows them to resist the siren's song and hold the gate open for the aliens' return.
Big BadAllied Mastercomputer from the videogame adaptation of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream deeply envies humans because they can experience life in a way that AM, despite all its power and knowledge, can never hope to know. AM can't really see, taste, smell, move, or touch anything, and is a prisoner of the miles of circuitry that make up its physical form. Ironically, in the Bad Endings of the game, just like in the original story, AM inflicts a similar fate on the sole surviving human by turning them into an immortal blob.
In Conquest Frontier Wars manual on of the Celareon (energy beings) gives a long speech about humans and their virtues ending with "They may not look it, but they are a formidable enemy from the rest of the galaxy"
Halo also contains this in that, as recently revealed, Humans are almost genetically identical to the Forerunner, the Precursor civilization that was god-like technologically and is actually worshiped as gods by the genocidal Covenant. While not direct descendants, the fact Humanity is almost an exact genetic match, plus the fact that they are the only species which can operate Forerunner technology, AND the fact that the last act of the Forerunner known as Librarian was to save Humanity from certain death, they definitely qualify for this trope.
The Forerunner Saga novels take it even further: Humanity was a major space-faring power back when the Forerunners were at their prime, and a combined Human-San'Shyuum (Prophet) alliance was able to defeat the Flood, and drive it back away from the galaxy. Humanity was also on the verge of understanding Precursor tech (the Precursors were... well, Precursors to the Forerunners), which had stumped the Forerunners for millenia. The only reason humanity isn't a Sufficiently Advanced Species is that the Forerunners attacked the Human-San'Shyuum Empire, won (because the Empire was busy driving the Flood away), and de-evolved humanity while quarantining them on their homeworld, essentially "resetting" the species' development. Holy... crap.
Indicated in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, in which the arrival of humanity is the only thing that can break the Planetmind's tragic cycle of nearly coming to full sapience, and then killing off most life on the surface in the process.
In Nexus: The Jupiter Incident , humans are set up by the remains of the Precursors to enable the destruction of the monsterss they have created. Slightly subverted in that the majority of humanity is out of commission, and it falls to a Lost Colony to aid the protagonist. Humans are far from being the strongest race here. The Noah colony is much more advanced than Earth simply because they were given this technology by the Vardrags to fight the Gorgs. The Vardrags consider humans useful because Humans Are Warriors.
The Word of God states another reason why humanity is unique - in their adaptiveness, they can splendidly get along with the good races, but if pushed, they can be as cruel and ruthless as the Drengin.
Later deconstructed by the fact that because of their developing psychic abilities, they are attacked by the Zerg, who wish to assimilate them so they can eliminate the Protoss and overrun the galaxy.
Both played straight and averted in Master of Orion series. Humans managed to dominate the Orion Sector twice and claim to be the direct descendants of the Precursors. However, their backstory states that they actually were created by another ancient race as a specialized bioweapon. Moreover, their creators were disappointed with the result, so the first humans were sent away into some backwards corner of the galaxy and quickly forgotten.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, humanity is able to match the alien invaders in direct combat and technological prowess by reverse-engineering their tech, and ultimately is able to develop Psychic Powers through studying psychic aliens. This is, in fact, the Ethereals' entire goal: looking for a species with both great physical ability as well as great intellects able to use psychic powers. unfortunately for them, their effort to bring about humanity's potential worked a bit too well.
To clarify, unless you screw up everything and the Aliens win, There are no Ethereals anymore. An X-COM Psionic literally tears the kingpin for their Hive Mind out, and everything dies as a result of the psychic whiplash.
In Devil May Cry 4, Dante makes a speech to this effect after defeating Agnus. Agnus points out some partial hypocrisy, as Dante isn't fully human himself. In a bit of a twist, Dante doesn't reveal precisely why humans are special. He considers it obvious, and withholds the answer so that Agnus dies in ignorance, as a final insult to him.
Dante: You gave up your humanity. You've always started from the assumption that humans are weak. Ok, sure, their bodies lack the physical capabilities of a demon... but humans still possess something that demons lack.
Nero may have provided the answer to that question:
Nero: I never could take those legends too literally. But I do know that Sparda had a heart. A heart that could love another person, a human. And that is what you lack!
Somehow, no matter how powerful, intelligent, or awesome a Pokémon is, it always has to obey the human who captured it. Even when that human is a random child. Especially when that human is a random child.
Monster Girl Quest has the goddess Ilias who feels this way about humans or so you think. It turns out the angel Promestein truly does feel this way. She declares that she loves humans for their unpredictability and their thirst for knowledge and technological advancement, and as she dies declares humanity itself to be her successor.
Downplayed somewhat in the Diablo universe, where this trope applies only to a small percentage of the most powerful humans. These humans, known as "Nephalem", are not compelled to any kind of behaviour (unlike the demons and angels who sired them), have the potential to surpass the demons and angels in power, and are Immune to Fate.
Subverted in Killroy and Tina where Earth's only cosmic significance is as the most awesome red-light district in the universe.
In Schlock Mercenary, humans are doing very well for themselves for a race that's had Wormgate access less than a thousand years, with the eponymous firm's engineer having invented a device that made those same Wormgates obsolete accidentally breaking a six-million-year-old treaty with Andromeda that only the Wormgate's owners had known existed (lucky they'd broken it first).
According to Dr. Tomorrow in The Mercury Men, humans are unique and special among all the races in the galaxy. They are the only race that has discovered space flight.
The With More, With Less arc in Harbourmaster deconstructs this. The entomorphs do like quite a bit about humans and Aquaans, but feel they ought to be wary of them anyway. No matter what any given human's psyche is, they're the dominant side of the relationship, whether they seek/desire it or not, just by having the more powerful technology. That power makes it functionally impossible for humans to do more than "let" the entomorphs determine their own affairs and keep sovereignty over the world of Tethys in general. After all, even pure benevolence is no perfect ward against the malignity that carelessness can bring...
In the webcomic Ow, my sanity humans are studied by an alien race that thinks in a linear manner similar to humans. While they may have had a head start technologically, they are amazed at how we're catching up since we can learn at a geometric rate.
In an origin story from Blade Bunny, yet another god has been slain by a human, so the sun and the moon decide to make their next child as weak as possible in the hope that he would grow up to be both a god and a hero and thus not get slain by a hero.
Orion's Arm calls this trope "Plucky Baseline Syndrome" in universe, in a galaxy full of Transhumans, Posthumans, and god-like ais the notion is generally considered humorous. Baseline humans' specialness, if anything at all, lies in that they were the originator sophonts of the now splendidly diverse Terragen civilzation.
On the other hand Terragen (all sophonts descended from Old Earth) civilization is more technologically advanced, diverse, or numerous than every extant xenosophont race contacted, and quite a few extinct races. Of the four xeno superclades on par technologically three have comparatively small populations and have been stagnant for millions of years, and the fourth was technologically uplifted by Terragen civilization. So Terragens may be special within their own bubble of influence, at least until their expansion brings them into contact with other civilizations of similar scale - which have been detected, but are as yet too far away to contact, or for them to know about the Terragens' existence.
Averted in Aelan mythology from Ustal Naror islands: humans are known as pseudo-elves (because appeared later and are less intelligent than they), but are less stupid than clouds and exactly as stupid as rafters were.
Cracked: 5 Seemingly Impossible Things Your Body Does Every Day It's a list of Exactly What It Says on the Tin. For example, your stomach has to repair/heal/recreate the stomach lining twice a week. Another factoid they list is that your brain has 100 trillion synapses (1,000 times more than there are stars in the galaxy). It says two scientists tried to build a machine with the computing power of the human brain. They used 82,944 processors, but only could achieve one second of the brain's power.
Used as the explanation for why the Drej blew up Earth in Titan A.E.. Sorta-kinda a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, in that the Drej wouldn't have had to worry about us if we hadn't been pissed off over them blowing up our planet.
And if they'd had the sense to just leave it alone at that point, the Titan wouldn't have been recoverable, and the guy who could find and activate it would never have gone looking for it in the first place.
Super Skrull : You humans think you are so special? Even your powers, we can make better ones!
Of course, you can leave it to Captain America to turn this trope right back around against the Skrulls while he's kicking his own Skrull doppleganger's ass in front of the whole world in what was probably the biggest CMOA of the second season.
Captain America: There's more to human beings than our bodies and minds, something you'll never understand: our spirit! We never surrender! We never give up! Ever!
The most obvious difference between humans and every other species on the planet is our sapience — but then, that hardly counts, since any intelligent aliens (which is what this trope is about) would have that too, by definition (and it's not like we can really know that other creatures don't have sapience too). Ditto opposable thumbs and toolmaking, agriculture, language, music, art, etc. in the vast majority of examples.
These two videos 12 cover unique aspects of humans.
Elephants and dolphins share many behaviours with us that may be signs of sapience, but without a way to effectively communicate with them, there's no way to positively confirm this. Elephants have been shown to mourn, and appear to have a concept of revenge and grudges (as unfortunate humans in areas where elephant-hunting is common have experienced firsthand). Dolphins not only recognise themselves, but play in the mirror like we do, are the only animal that gets as creative as we do at recreational sex (they even invented nasal sex, since the blowhole is technically a nostril), and have a very well-demonstrated capacity for evil.
One real physical advantage enjoyed by humanity is our endurance. We are relatively good at keeping a brisk pace over long periods of time. A prehistoric technique called persistence hunting takes advantage of this; it essentially entails following around an animal that you want to eat until it collapses from sheer exhaustion (then killing and eating it).
The only animals that can match us in this regard are wolves — even horses, which are commonly thought of as high-endurance animals due to their ability to travel at high speeds even while carrying heavy loads, can't match human endurance over a period of days rather than hours.
Actually, Spotted hyenas do it as well, though faster than humans or wolves, and thus shorter (between about 3 and 10 km depending on the prey).
While only dogs and wolves can actually keep up with people over the course of days, even they have trouble and are vulnerable to overheating when it's hot and humid because they don't dissipate heat as efficiently (wolves evolved in a much colder climate than humans did) and must stop to cool down before humans have to. When it's cool enough for a dog or wolf to maintain about 3mph (human walking speed) without overheating they can keep up indefinitely.
In general, it's not so much that humans are the most enduring per se in terms of muscle fatigue, but that, thanks to sweating, we have the best heat endurance. That's why African wild dogs normally hunt at night, when it's cooler. Panting isn't nearly as effective as sweating for keeping body temp down (whole body surface area evaporation vs just the mouth) and so most species will suffer heatstroke and "cook" until their organs fail if forced to keep going in heat. The disparity is greater in hot environments, of course, but anywhere if the pace is high enough body temp becomes an issue. The downside, though, is that it uses a lot of water.
Humans are also highly adaptable. We might not be the best at climbing, running, or swimming, but very few species can beat us in all three. And while we might not have the special advantages of creatures made to thrive in extreme heat or cold, we can tolerate a greater range of temperatures than most species can, which has probably contributed to the early spread of humanity across the whole planet.
And it's not just our ability to survive in a wider variety of temperatures, but that we can build and make things that let us live in more extreme climates. Humans can make all kinds of clothes for temperature regulation, and there are different types of houses for different types of condtions. Our use of electricity to heat and cool homes has certainly helped.
You don't need modern technology: humans colonized every continent (except Antarctica) and most major islands, with climates ranging from the arctic tundra to desert to jungle to mountain to plain to forest, equipped with nothing more sophisticated than rocks, sticks, and bones.
Related to this is our ability to change our careers multiple times in our lives. A human can be a farmer, then become a soldier, then become a scientist, then become an industrialist, then become a farmer again. To a sentient species with biologically defined castes, this kind of fluidity would be incomprehensible.
Another human trait is vindictiveness. Like all creatures we don't like ourselves, our cubs, our mates, and our lairs to be disturbed by predators. And we have found that the best way to prevent that is simply to hunt predators down the way we do when we hunt for meat. Unfortunately "predators" often means other humans for we have not quite got Ape Shall Never Kill Ape into our heads. Still this is a remarkably effective survival strategy as is noted by the rarity of creatures preying on humans. Parisites are of course an exception to this, but the fact that we have devoted an entire profession to exterminating these is more evidence of this tendency.
On the flip side is the human ability to cut a deal, even with previously enemy species. Want to work towards a common goal? Awesome, welcome aboard, we'll do what we do best and you do what you do best and we'll all prosper. Want to start shit anyway? See above, re: vindictiveness. Compare the dogs, who made a deal, and the wolves, who didn't. Dogs thrive across the world in hundreds of variations and are treated as almost honorary humans. Wolves are struggling to avoid extinction and would probably be there if the humans hadn't backed off.
Another uniquely human trait is our ability to throw things with a reasonable balance of distance, accuracy, and power. It often gets overlooked because it's so basic an ability to us that we amuse ourselves by skipping rocks, shooting paper balls at garbage cans, or tossing balls at milk bottles in order to win large stuffed animals. And yet that simple ability is something that absolutely no other animal on the entire planet, including our closest relatives, can do, or ever did before our own ancestors. Just one of the many unique benefits of opposable thumbs and arms designed to throw things.
A 10 year old child can throw a baseball at about 40-50 mph. An athletic adult can throw a baseball somewhere in between 70mph to over 100mph. An adult chimpanzee can only throw something at around 20mph. Considering that kinetic energy increases with the square of velocity, a 10 year old child puts 4-7 times as much energy into a throw as a chimpanzee and and adult puts 11-30 times as much energy into one.
Humans (and our ancestors) have a styloid process on our third metacarpal (the bone in our palms that is between our the base of our middle finger and our wrist). That is a bone extension that lets us lock our wrists in place and isn't present in any other extant species of great ape. This allows us to manipulate tools with greater strength and dexterity than would otherwise be possible.
In the cases where we can't escape from a predator using the environment or chase it off with thrown projectiles, our agility and range of motion can serve us very well in a fight. Very few animals can spin, bend, and twist their bodies in as many directions or as quickly as we can. We don't tend to think of humans as being particularly capable fighters compared to most animals, but bear in mind that modern humans are rarely in peak physical condition. In the wild, we might very well come off as Weak, but Skilled.
The difference in arm strength between a man and a great ape is misleading since most of the human muscle mass is in the back and legs. Great apes may have enough strength to rip an opponent's arms, yet they are poor walkers, unable to run on ground, unable to punch (their arms are evolved for gripping and tearing, and, more than that, their fingers can't bend quite enough to ball into a fist) and barely able to swim.
We've had tools and weapons so long that we've evolved to use them. Without a weapon, we're nearly helpless against anything big enough to consider us a meal. With a weapon, of almost any kind, we're death on rollerskates.
The oldest stone hand axes we find were made about 2.5 million years ago. The oldest fossils placed in the Homo genus are about that old too. This is not a coincidence. There is a reason why we're apex predators practically everywhere we wish to go and why everything short of another apex predator tends to leave us alone.
We have unusually sharp senses on the whole. We have incredibly good eyesight for mammals (though not as good as many birds), above-average hearing, and a decent sense of smell (though we tend not to rely on it much compared to sight and sound). One of the reasons we tend not to consider this is that dogs — one of the species we interact most closely with — have better hearing and smell.
Our smell isn't great, but being descended from foraging omnivores (as opposed to grazers or predators) means we have a very good sense of taste, which can detect bio poisons (generally anything that we call "rotten" or "off-smelling") at very low levels. We're natural chemists.
Our vision is arguably better than that of a dog or wolf. We can't see anywhere near as well as either in low light, have a narrower field of vision, and don't sense movemement as well. Dogs and wolves are basically red-green color blind and shortsighted. We are not. We also have better color vision and better binocular vision. We can distinguish between shades of color and estimate ranges in ways and at ranges dogs and wolves can not.
Another thing that makes humans special in real life is language. Sure, many animals can communicate in a limited way, but not a single other species has our capacity to recursively apply a limited set of communication cues to express absolutely everything imaginable. Even primates who get taught sign language never develop this capability to spontaneously make more language.
And another is our ability to learn from the past, namely by recording our ancestors' innovative achievements and building on them in turn. Apes and monkeys have a lot of similar advantages to humans, but in thousands of years, they're still using the same techniques to get fruit, bugs, etc. While in thousands of years we've gone from the invention of the wheel to space travel. It's called the Ratchet effect.
Recently monkeys and crows have been found to pass some traits down along the generations, but no species has come close to the sheer scale of human dedication to history.
Our range of sounds is pretty unique as well, although some birds can match us in that field. Some substantially exceed us, like the lyrebird.
With language comes our unsurpassed ability to work together. While some animals can act together, none come near the level of coordination and sheer numbers that humans can. Sure, a couple of lions are scary and dangerous, but even the weakest human tribe can easily bring dozens of combatants to the fight, operating as one through almost mind-reading communication and far-reaching planning capabilities. The only thing more dangerous than a group of humans is a larger group of humans.
Communication is a huge survival benefit. As far as we know, all other animals on the planet have to personally encounter a novel threat in order to recognize it as a threat and/or deal with it. Humans can tell other humans how to prepare for and/or deal with a threat the second group has never personally experienced.
Probably as a side effect of verbal language, humans have better voluntary control over their respiratory reflexes than any other non-aquatic mammal. Being able to exhale steadily is necessary for speaking at length, and this, together with the fact we don't pant, means we can override the respiratory rhythms imposed by the medulla oblongata to a point of light-headedness: useful for swimmers or when exposed to smoke or other inhaled hazards.
Humans have a better sense of rhythm than other species, which generally can't distinguish between a steady beat and an erratic one. Not only does this awareness provide a basis for numerous performing arts, but it's crucial for coordinating our actions when performing hands-on tasks (rowing, marching, harvesting, knitting, hammering) that require careful pacing.
Although humans are not the only toolmaking species on the planet — chimpanzees have been seen twisting grass blades together to make a prong for retrieving maggots — we are, without question, the best toolmakers on the planet. No other species can hope to compete with communications satellites, nuclear missiles, and the Toyota Land Cruiser. One reason for this may be our desire to teach each other how to make things; chimps learn toolmaking by observing other chimps making tools, but they have no desire to deliberately impart their knowledge and skills to each other, and as a result there is enormous cultural loss from one generation to the next. In that regard, our greatest strength may be our ability to think inside the box.
In fact, modern humanity is even special in comparison to earlier humans in that we can invent new tools basically at will. Pre-humanity had been using stone axes for millions of years without substantial modifications to the basic design, which gives credence to certain theories that tool-using is actually at least partially instinctive in many species.
Humans are extremely good at finding new uses for existing tools. Most of the basic tools one would find in a toolkit small enough to fit in a woman's purse can be used either as weapons or to make weapons.
Handedness is something humans express to the extreme when compared to other mammals. Processing visual details and spacial clues to the degree we do in color requires immense amounts of brainpower when compared to hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Fine motor control and language also require alot of brainpower (but not as much as vision). Humans have brains large enough to completely handle vision with one side of the brain while fine motor control and language are handled by the other side. Our brains are powerful enough that one side can do all three but, as anyone who has tried to write with their off hand will tell you, the end result is awkward and clumsy.
There are only two living species of mammal that use bipedal walking as their primary form of locomotion: Humans and Ground Pangolins. Other species of Primate and Pangolin are capable of bipedal walking (as are almost all birds, which are descended from bipedal winged dinosaurs). Ground Pangolins have a tail which they use for balance while walking. Humans don't have a tail and must walk upright to maintain balance.
If there are other sentient, intelligent organisms in the universe who have developed a data system similar to the internet, they probably have pages describing how they are special as well.
Depending on religious beliefs, a human could be anything from the most advanced life form on the planet to a creature made in God's image to a god himself.
According to some religions, the cosmos was literally made for us. How's that for special?
On the other hand, Hinduism puts us below cows on the karma ladder, and in certain cases monkeys and even rats.