To Shed Some Light

The Difference Between Human and other Animals

Morality, which means distinguishing right from wrong and then following what’s right, is thought to be uniquely possessed by people. So when non-human animals do something that disturbs us, like my well-fed cat killing a songbird, we say he is not to blame because he is only acting out of instinct. (Instincts should not be confused with reflexes that involve only quick, momentary nerve impulses, and bypass the brain.) Instincts are much more complex.

Since carnivores in the wild must kill to get nourishment, their hunting abilities have selective value. Evolution can only work with traits that are reliably heritable. This is obvious in regard to physical features like teeth and claws, but what about hunting skills? These need to be taught by parents to their offspring. As is the case, for example, for young lions and fledging eagles (1). Can linear DNA code for complex hunting strategies, such as those followed by wolf packs (2)?

Do people have instincts? For example, is the human need for revenge an instinct? When someone hurts us, a need to retaliate often persists even when we realize its futility, and when we know that such fuming can lead to harmfully high blood pressure. Successful coping depends on us learning to channel such feelings into constructive action. This depends on reasoning and planning, and this, in turn, may only be possible with some sort of language.

All animals communicate with behavior and with sounds. Even my cat’s meow clearly varies. Bird songs have been found to signify things like,” this is my territory” or “ I am looking for a mate”. Great apes in captivity have been taught to use sign language, but their messages never rise above expressions of simple needs or desires. Only studies of crows and other corvids have revealed sophisticated non-human communication that demonstrates the ability for memory and planning: Crows have been shown to pass on recognition of a new danger to their offspring, even long after the particular danger is passed (3). This requires memory and planning.

Still, human communication appears to expand beyond that of any known in non-human animals. By reasoning, people can envision future scenarios, and combine different observations and abstractions. This involves symbols and words, arranged in syntax. Perhaps the purest illustration of this is the use of higher mathematics in physics. It is astonishing that quantum physics, whose application makes the modern digitalized world so successful, can at present only be described by equations.

So far all the communications we have considered are utilitarian, but what about aesthetics? What is beauty and why do we appreciate it? In this context students of animal behavior have pointed to bowerbirds, who construct elaborate and colorful places. Although this functions to attract a mate, and therefore it is still utilitarian, it rises above things like beautiful plumage, because the bowerbird has to select and arrange many colorful objects, from what is available.

Most people value seeing or hearing something beautiful, whether it was made by nature, like a flower and a sunset, or by humans like art and music. It is like a love we cannot define but need. Evidence for such a need has been found in all human societies. Ever since people have buried their dead, they made decorations. Cave images made with red clay, shell jewelry, and engraved stones have been dated to 100,000 BC. On the other hand, there is no evidence of any non-utilitarian, non-human constructions. Admirable animal dwellings, such as beehives, always have some important use and are not just decoration.

Human ability and creativity in art, as well as our extensive use of tools, depend not only on our brain development but also on our opposable thumbs and upright posture. Were these anatomic “innovations” so useful because of our complex cognition, or did we develop our brainpower because of them? In evolution almost all advances occur stepwise in stages, and therefore which factors are the most selective may vary with different circumstances. So the “which came first” question is hard to answer.

Is love, when not linked to reproduction, unique among humans? Our pets seem to demonstrate loyalty. And some wild animals appear to show such attachments: It is hard to see the grieving of elephants over the death of a companion (4) as adaptively useful. On the other hand, supposed altruism demonstrated by prairie dogs, who alert their packs when danger approaches (5) is clearly adaptive because it benefits a closely related prairie dog population. Is human altruism, only governed by our selfish genes (6), or does saving an unrelated someone from pain, rise above this?

Most people think that only humans are sentient, which may be defined as “understanding ideas in compact condensed forms”. Thus killing non-human animals, as long as it is done without causing them pain or fear, is excused because they are not sentient. Some non-human behaviors suggest that the difference between non-human animals and people is only quantitative. This notion conforms to an idea basic in evolution, i.e. that change occurs in degrees. Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest, and geologist formulated this philosophy over a hundred years ago (7). He saw no conflict with it and his belief in God, who Teilhard saw as drawing creation, step by step, to His level.

  1. Vrginia Morell, “Do Animals Teach” Natl. Wildlife Oct-Nov, 2014
  2. R. Escobedo, C. Muro, L. Spector, and R. P. Coppinger, JR Society Interface, 2014
  3. Josefa Bleu , Manuel Massot , Claudy Haussy and Sandrine Meylan Proceedins of the Royal Society 29 June, 2011
  4. Carl Satin “Depths of Animal Grief” Nova, July 8, 2015
  5. JL Hoogland, “The black-tailed prairie dog: Social life of a burrowing mammal”. The University of Chicago Press. 1995
  6. Richard Dawkins “The Selfish Gene”, Oxford University Press, 1976
  7. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. “The Phenomenon of Man” Translated by Wall, Bernard. New York: Harper 2008

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