Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Are humans really different than animals?

In the light of new research into human intelligence, some animals have concluded that there simply is no profound difference between animals and humans. According to several recent books by prominent animals, no significant difference can be found in animal research (that is, we assume, research conducted by animals) that would justify the commonly-held believe that humans are somehow different.

“There is nothing special about being human," says Henry Gee (of a species unspecified) in The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, "any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium ... humans are just one twig in the thicket, and they could easily have never sprouted at all."

The insensitive remarks about guinea pigs and geraniums is in part due no doubt to the fact that none of the books were written by guinea pigs or geraniums, which is understandable: Geraniums have been having a hard winter and the guinea pig community has never been very sympathetic toward scientific research (for obvious reasons).

According to Mark Bekoff, author of Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation, humans are different from animals only to the extent that we are "the only animals who cook food, and no other species is as destructive of its own and other species."

Whatever species of animal Bekoff may happen to be, he clearly seems to have a chip on his shoulder (possibly some past run-ins with humans that went wrong), as does Gee. In fact, humans don't seem to fare too well at all in these books.

"Like Gee," says reviewer Stephen Cave, "Bekoff supports his case with examples of altruistic rats, toolmaking crows and evidence of the emotional lives of bees. Towards the end, there is even an account of what appears to be animal spirituality: one group of chimpanzees have been recorded participating in a “waterfall dance”, during which they would stand upright at the water’s edge, swaying rhythmically from foot to foot and stamping for up to 15 minutes.

According to recent research ... Uh, hang on a second.

Let me check these books again. Hmmm. Well, shoot. Actually the books are written by human, not animal scientists. In fact, there are no animal scientists. As it turns out animals don't conduct research or do science or even write books. They don't read them either. In fact, they are not even capable of asking the question of whether they are different from humans.

Only humans do these things, a fact so obvious that even a geranium could have figured it out.

If I couldn't do all these things, I too would be swaying rhythmically and stamping my feet in sheer frustration.

You'd have to be as dumb as a rock to think that humans really are no different from animals. Come to think of it, since we're no less the products of nature than rocks, why should we be any different from them either?


KyCobb said...

Fairly stupid post. Humans are animals. You might as well ask if apples are really different than fruit. Now are humans different from other kinds of animals? of course we are; each species is different in some way from every other species.

Martin Cothran said...

Fairly trivial comment. I think everyone recognizes the equivocal use of the word "animal." You are referring to the use of the term as it is used in an expression such as "rational animal," which I agree with. But there is another use of it to refer to what used to be called a "beast" or "brute animal."

I think it was fairly obvious that I was using it in the latter sense.

KyCobb said...

Well Henry Gee's comment is completely accurate, or you could say that humans are special in the same way every other species is special in that each have unique characteristics that other species don't. Assuming for a moment that Bekoff's comment isn't a quote-mine taken out of context, its trivial to note that humans do in fact have mental capacities that other animals lack.

One Brow said...

The real issue is whether the mental differences are in degree or in kind. So far, the evidence indicates it is a difference of degree. Given enough time, you could breed a cat capable of doing science, reading books, and asking questions about its own nature.

Singring said...

'You'd have to be as dumb as a rock to think that humans really are no different from animals.'

Which is why no scientist I have ever come across claims there is *no* difference. Most of us simply accept that there is no *qualitative* difference.

As usual, Martin, you completely and utterly fail to get the point.

And as OneBrow points out, we've been here before: other animals can do what we can, just not to the same extent.

It's a quantitative, but not a qualitative difference.

In addition, it should be fairly trivial to accept that taxonomically, humans are animals. Or, if you want to be more general, Eukaryots.

That is, if you're not a creationist/cdesign proponentsist.

Lee said...

My cat liked your article, Martin.

Anonymous said...

My cat has dinner in the oven and is on her way to pick up my dry cleaning, and when she gets back she's going to kill my neighbor's barking dog. It's a shame she can't talk, but we can't have everything.

Anonymous said...

Gee's book "Misunderstandings of human evolution" shows indeed some essential misunderstandings of human evolution.
The traditional idea that human ancestors in Africa went from the forests to the plains (e.g. the "savanna hypothesis") rests on a logical error (post hoc, ergo propter hoc) which confuses "because" and "since": since non-human primates in the trees are quadrupedal, and humans on the ground are bipedal, we became bipedal when we left the forest, it is thought. Some paleo-anthropologists rightly realize that this cannot be the whole truth (e.g. savanna monkeys are less bipedal than forest monkeys: the so-called “baboon paradox”) and believe that our ancestors already "stood up" in the branches, possibly not unlike gibbons, who walk bipedally over branches and hang vertically from branches.
But traditional paleo-anthropologists including Gee consider only the possibilities of living in the branches and/or on the ground, neglecting the possibility that hominoids could have spent part of their time in forest swamps, rivers or coastal waters (e.g. the so-called "aquatic ape hypothesis", which is a misleading term: it is not about apes or australopiths, but about waterside Pleistocene Homo).
The different elements of human locomotion did not evolve at once, but arose mosaic-like: early hominoids such as Morotopithecus ~20 Ma were already "vertical" (orthograde); gibbons and humans still have vertical spines most of the time; and most Mio-Pliocene hominoids were generally "upright", not necessarily for walking or running on terra firma, but rather for climbing vertically in the branches above the forest swamps (where most Mio-Pliocene hominoid fossils lay) and/or for wading on two legs like lowland gorillas still do in the forest bais (where they collect floating and waterside vegetation).
The evolution of human locomotion – wading and/or walking on two legs ("bipedality"), an upright posture with vertical lumbar spine (“orthogrady”), an "aligned" build with head-spine-legs in one line, and very long and straight legs (which are four different things) – is more Darwinian than Gee thinks. Fossil, paleo-environmental, archeological, isotopic, and comparative data independently converge to show that Pleistocene human ancestors did not run over the open plains as many traditional anthropologists claim (e.g. the "endurance running" fantasy: a just-so, cherry-picking "explanation" fitting in savanna preassumptions). The malacological data (on molluscs) show that virtually all archaic Homo fossils and tools were associated with shallow water habitats and edible shellfish (Munro 2010 "Molluscs as ecological indicators in palaeoanthropological contexts" PhD thesis Canberra), and sites as far apart as England (e.g. Happisburgh, Boxgrove), Indonesia (e.g. Mojokerto, Flores) and southern Africa (e.g. Dungo V, the Cape) lay in coastal and estuarian sediments. Pleistocene Homo populations during the Ice Ages, instead of running over dry open plains, apparently followed the coasts and rivers (sometimes even in savannas :-D) when they dispersed to different continents, collecting waterside and shallow water foods.
In a comparable way, Gee misunderstands the evolution of human speech: I guess he forgot to read our papers (e.g. in Hum.Evol., Nature, New Scientist, Nutr.Health, HOMO, TREE), some of which can be found at
--marc verhaegen