What Makes Us Human?

In his review of The Gap: What Separates Us from Other Animals, Wray Herbert writes:

 A lot has been written about the abilities of other species to communicate, and those skills are indeed impressive. Bees signal the whereabouts of food, and birds have elaborate courtship dances. My dog clearly (and effectively) signals that it’s dinnertime by staring. But none of this adds up to language—not as I illustrated it above. Even humpback whales, with their very large brains, show only a narrow repertoire of communication skills, devoid of the flexibility and generative power that allow us to utter and comprehend novel expressions. Suddendorf systematically dismantles the claims of other species on language, arguing that even the great apes—the ones we have spent years trying to teach our language—fall far short of full-fledged language. What’s lacking, in the end, is the motivation to create symbols and grammar to share what’s on their minds.

Some readers, including some scientists, will not agree with this conclusion. Some believe that other animals—especially pets and lab animals—have all sorts of complex mental characteristics, that they are basically “little people in furry suits.” Since we lack verbal self-reports from the animals themselves, they cannot confirm or refute this opinion. Suddendorf labels such readers and scientists “romantics,” meaning that they favor a “rich” interpretation of the existing data. Romantics stand in contrast to “killjoys,” who prefer a “lean” interpretation. Killjoys are reluctant to ascribe any humanlike abilities to animals, and at the extreme, they view other creatures as “mindless bio-machines.”

Suddendorf places himself firmly in the middle, neither an extreme romantic nor an extreme killjoy. His goal is to go beyond opinions and preconceptions and apply the methods of science, especially comparative psychology, to questions about animal capabilities. Only by such prudent and careful analysis of animal abilities is it possible to understand the nature of the gap that separates us from them. Suddendorf’s lofty goal here is to kickstart a “science of the gap” that will define human peculiarity trait by trait.

At least the title contains the phrase “other animals,” to at least drive home the point that humans are animals. Whether “romantic” or “killjoy,” it’s hard enough to get people to admit that simple fact, let alone ponder the possibility that our fellow beings might have communities, complex emotions, or (gulp) morality.

Consider this section from “What sets humanity apart” by Stephen Cave:

…the theory of evolution tells a different story, one in which humans slowly emerged as a twig on the tree of life. The problem with this explanation is that it is much more difficult to say exactly what makes us so different from all the other twigs.

Indeed, in the light of new research into animal intelligence, some  scientists have concluded that there simply is no profound difference between us  and other species. This is the stance taken in new books by Henry Gee,  palaeontology editor of the leading scientific journal Nature, and by animal behaviour expert Marc Bekoff. But other scientists of equal eminence argue the opposite: that new research is finally making the profound difference between humans and animals clear – and two of them, the psychologists Michael Tomasello and Thomas Suddendorf, have written new books purporting to tell us exactly what it is.

Throughout the rest of the article, Cave does a decent job at presenting evidence from other scientists and making a well-rounded case to consider different possibilities. But look at the tone of the first sentence quoted above. Why is a difficulty in defining what exactly makes humans exceptional (so different from all the twigs, or branches in the evolutionary tree) a problem? Isn’t such thinking equivalent to starting out with a conclusion and selecting only that evidence which supports it?

While I’m guilty as charged when it comes to erring on the side of anthropomorphism (does that make me a “romantic”?), I still think it’s better to start with the premise that animals (humans included) are much more than Cartesian objects. In fact, they’re not objects at all. We’re paying the price for thinking that they are, and things are only getting worse.

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2 thoughts on “What Makes Us Human?

  1. Interesting. I’ve been thinking about that “different twig” because I just wrote a post about a book on the history of the human body that mentions that we are the only creature that walks on two feet and doesn’t have feathers (like birds) or a tail (like a kangaroo). That walking uniqueness was the first thing that made us human and it started 6 million years ago. Fascinating stuff. Here’s the link: http://threepointeightbillionyears.com/2014/02/17/walk-run-eat-the-story-of-the-human-body/

    Brock Haussamen

    • Very interesting indeed. Here’s a good site with evolution FAQs: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/faq/cat02.html — perhaps the most interesting thing to think about is that humans didn’t evolve from apes (and perhaps it was the other way around).

      But what I’m interested in here is the fact that to many people, it would be the worst fate in the world to end up being similar to other animals. Why is the thought of other animals having language or communities or morality anathema? I suspect it’s because the narrative is human dominance over “resources,” including living beings, and including other humans; any found similarity chips away at this narrative.

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