The Absolute Chasm Between Human and Nonhuman Animals

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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10 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

10 responses to “The Absolute Chasm Between Human and Nonhuman Animals

  1. Deirdre

    I am not a scientist or a philosopher so at the risk of being wrong or obvious:

    The other thing that strikes me about the distinction between humans and non humans is this:
    if you look at the evolution of apes or dolphins or you-name-it you will no doubt see that apes of today are no different than the apes of eons past. They had the same abilities, were capable of the stick handling activities etc. In other words they have not advanced or evolved.

    Whereas humans: if you look at their evolution from the time of the first cave-man discovering fire, to the individual who is designing and creating devices such as those above, well, what a difference 250,000 years make.

    I mean to say, it is not simply that humans can do this, it is that once they could not, and today they can.

    There is some kind of force at play here, that allows humans to build upon and further the work of prior generations.

    Does that make any sense at all?

    ps I found your blog by googling dasein for dummies

    interesting blog!

  2. Gary Williams

    Deirdre,

    Thanks for commenting!

    I don’t think you are entirely wrong, but I do think you are misunderstanding a central tenet of evolutionary theory. Evolution is not strictly concerned with “advancement”. If dolphins and apes are already well-adapted to their environment, and the environment itself is not changing, then it is entirely reasonable to expect that they will not “advance”. Evolution is only concerned with success of reproduction and not “advancement”. If apes and dolphins are successful in reproducing without adapting, then thats how it will be. With that said, I would also be rather surprised to see that apes and dolphins have not changed at all for “eons”.

    Nevertheless, I see your point about human evolution and our great strides within a relatively short amount of time. I think this might have to do with human nature itself, which has always been exploratory and curious. The secret to human intelligence is our great flexibility towards new situations. It is not surprising then that we have changed so much given that what made us so successful in the first place was itself the ability to change, to adapt.

  3. Deirdre

    Thanks Gary for taking the time to respond. I admit I feel like an ape stepping into a library and I’m very glad to be corrected.

    I’m not disagreeing with you but I’m afraid I have a long way to go before I do fully understand what even I’m trying to say.

    You wrote:
    “If dolphins and apes are already well-adapted to their environment, and the environment itself is not changing, then it is entirely reasonable to expect that they will not “advance”.”

    But I think the environment is changing and humans are mostly responsible for that, and not only changing but changing to the detriment of apes and dolphins continued ability to reproduce. The world would certainly be an even more interesting place if apes and dolphins could successfully protect their environments.

    Again I may be way off track and seeing things in a simplistic sort of way.

  4. Bruce

    Those are the achievements of a small group of humans though. The average human is not nearly that impressive.

  5. Gary Williams

    Bruce, while yes, theoretical physics and science in general is the result of non-average individuals, the cognitive achievements of the average human are still impressive in my opinion. Compared to any other animal, the average human being is capable of achieving an incredibly complicated mastery of language and pragmatic knowledge. We can drive cars, engineer social situations, think abstractly about the past, make detailed plans for the future, make complicated moral decisions automatically or through deliberation, achieve mastery of written language, exercise symbolic thought unparalleled in the animal kingdom, experience religious ecstasy, think autobiographically, create narratives, cook complex meals, modify our consciousness through drug intake, become “bored”, have midlife crises, etc.

    All that is very impressive if you ask me.

  6. Gary,

    I too am impressed by the achievments of my fellow human beings. My life has no doubt been made easier because of everything that humans have achieved.
    Yet, too often I feel suffering and sadness. When I go to the mall, I see so much that “I need” and am having to live without.
    When I spend time in nature and with my many animal friends at Frisky’s Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary, I feel the presence of GOD and peacefulness in my heart AND I want for nothing. I am complete. Thats where I know my new definition of progress.

  7. Gary Williams

    Heather,

    I agree; quietly contemplating Nature (which we are a part of) often leads to peaceful mindfulness and a feeling of contentment. Learning to be content with what’s simply going on around you is a great lifeskill to work at.

  8. As a result of the expanding moral community and the systematic misfiring of our moral sentiments, nonhuman animals have been severely anthropomorfized.

    Animal ethology is a mess and full of wishful thinking and unjustified empathic projection. Animal activists constantly project their own phenomenology on beasts that as a by-product of artificial selection have become severely limited cognitively (i.e. cattle). Peter Singer claimed that pain is as awful for a rodent as it is for a man which is an absurd statement, ignoring the cognitive aspects of pain such as your beliefs, plans for the future, expectations, usw. Human suffering is much more worse than nonhuman animal suffering, we have too much to lose.

    • RIQ

      But these comparisons as for pain, they are, of course, utter nonsense. By what avenue would they have been concluded? Objectively? Nonsense. Something like pain, by its nature, is a specifically subjective experience–the experience of it other subjects have, had, will or would have, is your terra incognita, necessarily, forever. That said it’s clear: Peter Singer is just as wrong as you are at this point. After all, a rodent’s experience of pain may well be worse than anything you, I, or any human, could even image. Would we ever know? Obviously not.

      I tend to agree in large part with above blog entry though. Or, I should maybe say, ‘have come to agree’. Since it might well be, I wouldn’t have agreed just two years ago. Or three. Meanwhle, I find myself on the verge of going even further. Because even you are still (and merely) referring to the supposedly huge differences between humans and non-human beings in the _quantitative_ sense. But is this the whole story? Only quantity? I’m fully aware, at this point at the latest matters become truly heretic. Yet if they are, I personally know quite a lot heretics, since I claim: Common sense holds they’re not only quantitative, not at all.

      And I’m claiming this as someone perhaps ‘above suspicion’, at least in one sense, for I myself am not an adherent of any official/organized religion. At any rate, differences in quantity for me would mean that, for instance, humans were able to construct, manipulate, and use simple sticks of tremendous dimensions. Like sequoias! This indeed would be some feat, even though certainly only a quantitative difference to that what some other animals also do. If however you look at those pictures you placed in the entry, these machines and appliances, what are they? Surely they’re not exactly giant sticks, build to slay rhinos with, or something.

      But it will also be clear that the examples you chose aren’t very good when it comes to an argument like this. With just enough analogical fantasy, it may well be possible to, still, recall some sort of ‘sticks’ in them. After all, they’re actually, actual tools! And nothing else. On the other hand: What about paintings? Sculptures? Novels? Drama? Music? Architecture? Are those tools too? Well they can be! Most certainly! But they’re not in every instant, they are not by necessity. And this is my point. An ape’s stick is ‘only’ a tool. Always. For the ape it _can_ be nothing else. (Nor would there be the need for it.)

      Someone above referred to the evolution of our species–and isn’t exactly this the most astounding aspect concerning the whole affair? Because it should be known that we didn’t exactly skyrocket creatively/intellectually for a period of 250.000 or more, but in fact _cultural_ evolution set in incredibly late in the history of homo s. The vast majority of our ancestor generations were simple, primitive hunter-gatherers, cave dwellers. What they made use of as for technology, had in complexity certainly never been far above that what modern great apes can achieve. (Subtract mastery of fire.) Nevertheless, biologically speaking these were fully ‘complete’ humans, of course They were like us.

      Whatever then eventually happened, and as far as I know this remains a total unknown (though hypotheses naturally abound), it must have been dramatic–mind you however, that this really doesn’t demand it was also something abrupt! Most probably it wasn’t, but a lengthy process in itself. To get at least an example for as to how such a process could’ve occured, let me recommend a very interesting, even though a tad older (~10yrs) book: “Symbolic Species – The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain”, by Terrence W. Deacon. At least I found and still find it to be one of the better works in this vein. 🙂

      But then, what? What have _we_ become in the meantime? Animals, sure, yet.. only with some quantitative differences compared to our nonhuman fellows and friends? Like.. a few more words to denote interesting things with? A few more options as for syntactic variation in order to set said things with said words into logical (or illogical!) relations? A few more ways to establish and organize our diverse societies? A few more ways to build a dwelling? A few more ways to wage a war..?

      This is not what I (came to) think. Rather, there also seems to be an odd disparity in quality. A chimp, biologically speaking, is incomparably nearer to a human, than either the chimp to a dolphin, or a human to a dolphin. And yet, I really couldn’t tell whether I’d rather thought the chimp capable of eventually writing a poem, or the dolphin! I know this example is ridiculously prosaic, what counts thuogh is the crux. There just seems to be this kind of quality which apparantly not only sets us far apart from any other animal, but actually SIMILARLY far apart from any other animal. There just doesn’t seem to be any one animal in any sense _nearer_ to the poem writing than any other. Now this is what made me think it over. A more fundamental disparity then? Humans, of course, long held that to be a banality. Hardly anyone thought anything else. I claim again that even today, most people still think (if they ponder it, but otherwise feel) this way. A way of thought that, at the same time, is evidently strongly discouraged by authority, and there are some decent reasons for this. _That_ we really ARE a species of animals, so much, at the very least, must be clear and has to be clearly stated. Again and again, if need be. Everything else however and to my mind, for one thing is another story entirely. And then is it primarily a matter of convention and even more so of zeitgeist…

      Rampant relativizing is a tenet, if not a dogma, not only of postmodernism but one our whole era holds so dear. Don’t worry, this is going to change. But you can’t change it! You’ll have to wait for it to happen. Times change (it). So do perspectives. Best regards.

  9. Pingback: The Argument From Marginal Cases For Animal Rights | Minds and Brains

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