Human beings are just animals?

by Annalee Newitz


Humans may not use tools and express emotions exactly like other animals, but that doesn’t exempt us from animal status.

No two species share exactly the same sets of behavior. But we also share far too much in common to pretend that we are some form of life that transcends animal status.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is what we gain by claiming that humans are not animals. Does our special status make us seem more powerful than we are? Does it make our lives more meaningful? Does is allow us to justify our behavior toward other life forms?

The famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said that he believed “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”

Ultimately, the only animals who buy the idea that humans aren’t animals are humans themselves.

Just like every other creature on the planet, we have our special norms and rituals. Part of what makes us animals is the fact that we have unique behaviors that we can call our own.

Yet we have many other behaviors that we share with our fellow animals. Darwin wrote about this in one of his lesser-known works, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Today, hundreds of scientific studies have offered solid evidence that animals from chimps to rats share the same kinds of emotions and motivations that we do.

We also aren’t the only species to change land uses for our own gains. Beavers build dams that utterly transform the way water moves through forests, flooding some areas and parching others. Ants build massive underground cities, full of farms where they “milk” aphids for food and grow fungus to eat. So we are not the only polluting life forms, and we are not the only ones to transform landscapes with our building and farming.
Perhaps measuring animal intelligence by comparing it to human intelligence isn’t the best litmus test. As Mark Twain once said, “It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.”

Of course, hundreds of studies have already demonstrated animals’ logical, mathematical, linguistic, and emotional intelligence.

For example, for years we blithely believed that humans were the only species to use tools, until researchers documented that wasps were using pebbles as hammers, octopuses were carrying coconut shells as portable hiding places, crows were using sticks to dig in the ground for grubs and many other examples. The mathematical abilities of fish have proved to be on a par with those of monkeys, dolphins and bright young human children.

We know that elephants flirt with each other and gather to grieve over the loss of a loved one, that cows shed tears, and that monkeys have refused to pull a chain to access their only source of food if doing so caused another monkey, even a stranger, to experience a painful electric shock. In that famous study, one monkey starved and went without water for nearly two weeks to avoid hurting his fellow.

When the experiment was repeated, other monkeys also chose to starve rather than giving shocks to another monkey. A similar study done with human subjects showed that 65 percent of people continued to give other people increasingly strong electric shocks if an experimenter simply told them to do so. It’s not the monkeys who need their heads examined!

While miscommunication is blamed for many human calamities, chicks are able to cluck back and forth with their mothers from inside their shells before they are even hatched. Chickens!

One of the Declaration’s signatories is Irene Pepperberg, whose work with a parrot named Alex showed that birds can learn meaningful English, count and identify colors, objects and shapes. Alex the Parrot could even communicate his feelings in English.

Can any human speak even one word of another animal’s language? No, but perhaps it’s better that way, because if we could speak to them, how would we explain our systematic use and abuse of all the other species?

Can humans smell nuances of fragrance on the individual petals of a single rose and know whether insects have landed on it or human hands have touched it? No, but dogs can, and they try their best to, despite being dragged along by an impatient human anxious to get to Starbucks before work. Can humans navigate using only the sky’s polarized light? No, but bees can. Can humans change the color of their skin to blend in with their surroundings or keep an aggressive rival at bay? No, but cuttlefish can.

So, animals are conscious beings, capable of understanding cause-and-effect relationships, forming abstract thoughts, solving problems, using language, making tools, exhibiting long-term memory, and showing empathy, in many cases with skills that are superior to those of humans. But more importantly, animals can comprehend when they are being abused and killed, and they feel anxiety, fear and pain, just as humans do.

Chickens can only watch as other chickens are slammed upside-down into shackles and have their throats slit. Baby elephants cry out for their mothers, who are prevented from reaching them as they are beaten in order to make them perform confusing and even painful circus tricks. Mother monkeys grieve when their babies are torn away from them in the wild, to be sold to experimenters.

Finally, we aren’t the only species to spread all over the planet either. Humans share that honor with other invasive species, including extinct animals like trilobites, as well as living ones like rats, crows, cockroaches and more. Invasive species have roamed across the Earth since life began.

Humans are about as special as muddy little rodents, scampering between walls in search of some garbage to eat.

We’re all just animals. That’s all we are. Everything else is just an elaborate justification of our instincts. — Elvis Costello

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9.

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