Ask A Scientist

Why are people different?

Asked by: Amanda Drake
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Gymnastics, weather and animals
Career Interest: Veterinarian

Answer from Michael A. Little

Distinguished professor of anthropology, Binghamto

Research area:
Human adaptation to the environment

PhD School:
Pennsylvania State University

Swimming, choral singing, antique toys and books

Wife, Adrienne, and two grown children.

Web page address:

That is a very simple-sounding question with a complicated answer! One of the things that make us different is our DNA or genes. We inherit half our genes from each parent and they mix in very intricate combinations. Because there are so many genes that we have, each of our combinations is different from everyone else, so each of us is truly distinctive! Also, some of us are girls and others are boys, and they are very different from one another, especially when they become grown adults. An exception to this is identical twins, which are basically clones of one another. The same case would hold for identical triplets or quadruplets, but they are very rare. Now, if nearly all of us are unique (except for identical twins), what make us even more different are the experiences that we have when we grow up. Some children are rich and others are poor, and children around the world have different ways that they live. These different life ways that people have are called their "cultures." All of these experiences - how often they are sick, whether they have enough food, whether they are happy or sad most of the time, whether they smoke or take drugs, whether they live in a healthy home environment - influence the way they grow and the way they are. Even identical twins begin to be different as they grow older and have different life experiences. Another way that we are different is associated with where we originally came from. Some of us have ancestors from Asia or the Pacific Islands, and others of us have ancestors from Africa or Europe or native North or South America. People from these different areas look similar to one another, but different from people from other continents. This is because of both their genes and their lifetime experiences, and the evolutionary conditions of their history. Today, people have moved all over the world, so we see these differences and similarities all the time. If these are some of the reasons why we are different, then we might turn around the question to ask: Why are we the same? Well, at one level we are all different, but at another level we are all the same. We are all members of the same species (Homo sapiens), which means we walk on two legs, we have hands that can do lots of intricate tasks, we are all very smart, we are very social, and we are also very emotional and affectionate. So, it really depends on how you look at us (as people): on the one hand we are all different, yet on the other hand we are all the same!

Last Updated: 3/1/17