It always surprises me when animal activists or biologists attempt to downplay the differences between human and nonhuman animals. They inevitably point towards recent discoveries in animal behavior and claim that there is nothing separating humans from nonhumans. They say that Homo sapiens was originally the rational animal until we found evidence of rational behavior and even rudimentary thought in nonhuman animals, especially apes, dolphins and some bird species.
Or the activists point out that humans have been dethroned as the “communicating animal” when we discovered evidence of complex signaling in other animals and clearly, apes communicate through complex gesture and body language, as do many animals. Humanity was also thought to uniquely possess culture until we discovered nonhuman animals passing down behavioral traditions from one generation to the next.
Moreover, Homo sapiens was also known as the “handy man” until we saw apes and birds utilizing tools in order to get food or achieve a difficult task. We are no longer the only user of tools then. Humans were also thought to have unique “mind reading” skills until we discovered this ability in great apes and some monkeys. Humans are also not the only animal with a complex system of morality and normative structure for monkeys and apes also have a conception of social justice. And finally, humans are also not alone in having personalities and complex emotions.
So what is the difference? Where is the chasm? I hope my point is now obvious. Just look at the above photos, at what humans have accomplished through sheer force of will! We have constructed a giant device, 17 miles long, 570ft under the ground, colder than deep space, designed specifically in order to understand how the universe works at the sub-atomic level. Am I the only one floored by this? Whenever people point to chimps using sticks (tools) in order to dig out insects as evidence that there is no great difference between human and nonhuman animals, I am always taken aback. Are they simply not aware of what humans have achieved? That we have landed robots on Mars? That we have sent our machines beyond the confines of the solar system? That we can hurl individual protons at each other with enough energy so as to recreate moments shortly after the big bang?
There are many similarities between humans and nonhuman animals, no one can deny this, but the differences in magnitude along the various dimensions are so incredibly vast that it strikes me as constitutive for a sharp, rather than continuous break. Humans are not just tool users, but ultra tool users. We are not just thinkers, but ultra thinkers, ultra minds. We don’t just have communication, but ultra language, capable of infinite complexity, mathematical modeling, and sweeping beauty. We are not just animals then, but ultra animals, in charge of our own destiny.