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10 Ways Humans are Different from Animals
First, a long intro
Humans are the only animals that use tools, show empathy and alturism, and develop strong relationships.
Just kidding. Because of recent breakthroughs in the fields of animal cognition, ethology, and comparative psychology, humans are continuously astounded by the capabilities of animals that, despite consistent intuition from pet owners, were originally considered to be unfounded in the scientific community.
In surprisingly recent history, humans were once thought to be the only tool users until chimpanzees were observed using modified grasses to 'fish' for termites by Jane Goodall and her primate research team. Aside from our closest relatives, a myriad of animals are tool users, including sea otters, monkeys, birds, octopuses, and even crocodilians and certain arthropods.
Our previous ignorance to these mostly obvious traits of non-humans is strongly influencing how animals are perceived today. As more discoveries are made in the science of animal cognition, many people are starting to associate the idea of ‘human exceptionalism’ as an arrogant myth, or a concept that has been derived from religious belief and ignorance. A discussion about the qualities that separate humans from animals tends to play out in the same, failed way.
For some reason, it’s common for people to think of space travel as the crowning, definitive human achievement. “Humans have been to the moon, we are obviously different from animals” one will claim, and others will refute this by saying “animals don’t have hands like we do, otherwise they could replicate our feats”, or something to that extent. Well, the former is true, but it must be refined. There’s far more to the human species than space traveling (and it’s not like most of us have accomplished this, anyway) and they all lie with our advanced metacognitive ability which is unlike unique physical abilities in animals (gibbons with advanced hearing, bats as flying mammals).
Many people are quick to point out literal concepts that animals have in common with us until the argument devolves into a battle of splitting hairs over definitions. Humans use tools, but so do chimps. The fact that humans build cars while chimps sharpen rocks is entirely irrelevant. Others proclaim that the human mind is not unique, and we operate just like animals.
Humans undoubtedly have similarities to animals because we are animals, having evolutionarily descended from ancestors that were similar to the modern non-human extant apes. Therefore, the animal psychology embedded in our minds is akin to the skeleton that is the foundation of the human body, but that doesn’t mean you ignore the other layers that make a fully functional organism. Humans are undeniably a unique animal among animals, and here I will attempt to refine abilities that are only known to them, currently.
*The word ‘animal’ for these purposes will be considered to mean ‘non-human’. I’m fully aware humans fall in the kingdom Animalia.
1. Using Tools to make tools
Because it can be so variable and must be meticulously defined, tool use in animals is a subject in this article that is the most likely to be challenged in the future. From kindergarten and up, animal science classes will teach children about sea otters that use rocks to crack upon muscles and the exciting intelligence of some birds that use sticks to obtain grubs.
More recently, a group of dolphins have been observed utilizing sponges to protect their snouts while they forage for food at the sea bottom. In the animal kingdom, this takes a considerable leap in cognitive complexity.
However, in the case of the otter, the rock use is likely an evolved trait that all otters will “learn” because it is now inherent to the species, like flying to birds. I've raised 2 birds that have learned to fly without my direction. That’s not on the same level as the sponging dolphins because one animal innovated the technique and passed it to later generations.
There are many examples of animals that create and use tools that we normally don’t associate with intelligence. Is a bird making a nest using a tool? How about a spider forming a web or wasps making a nest together? The boxer crab uses two anemones to defend itself.
Tool use can be instinctual which is analogous to the insight humans use to develop (and keep improving) their tools. Unlike the otter, our tool use will rarely be the same from other human groups, as we use sophisticated learning, insight, and experimentation to formulate ideas for useful objects.
Humans are adept at using tools to make tools, such as sharpening a rock with another rock to make an arrowhead, or using machines to construct tractors (humans are obviously the only beings, living or dead, to construct machines).
Chimpanzees also manufacture tools, such as rock sharpening (this also shows that they have the motivation and benefit of advancing tool production) but I’ve yet to find an example of wild chimpanzees using a tool to make another tool.
This might seem like a petty focus, and perhaps one day we will see an example, but in comparison to tool use, tool manufacture is exceedingly more rare, and only present in some primates and birds. What is present is still crude; chimpanzees modify blades of grass with their teeth to make it more efficient in entering termite nests, or sharpen sticks to stab sleeping primates for food.
It is interesting to consider that while it would benefit chimps greatly to keep improving their technology, there are limits to the steps of their tool making, suggesting that it is difficult for them to progress. The lab bonobo (a close relative of the chimpanzee) named Kanzi was taught to sharpen rocks by humans to create more efficient tools. Time will tell if this more complex form of tool making will be achieved among chimps without human influence (a student can’t copy his neighbor’s answer on a test and get credit).
Humans are the only extant animals that cook their food with fire (our ancestors, Homo erectus, did too), and even incidences of animals modifying food creatively (making a salad with vegetables, using dipping sauce, tenderize meat, ect.) are rare or debatable, generally occurring with human infleunce.
While this might not be a particularly exciting difference, it is another example of our proficiency in manipulating our environment due to heightened metacognition. Cooking existed before the existence of humans—in our close hominid relatives—which may have played a big part in our evolution due to the increased and more readily available nutrients from meat and vegetables.
Humans are the only animals to wear clothes, or engage in self-ornamentation. One might say, “well animals don’t need clothes”, but human fashions exist for more complex cultural reasons other than protection from the cold.
Humans that live in tropical climates also decorate themselves in elaborate dress, exhibiting a profound complexity for expression and building upon instinctual cuing such as mate attraction and group identification. This is another example of the animal framework becoming the pillars for more complex behavior.
4. Variant Reproductive Behavior
Sexual selection in humans is greatly modified by physical, societal, and cultural elements that strongly impact mating strategies, sexual desire and variable social constructs such as marriage. The rich mental life of humans has vastly complicated one of the most primitive, fixed instincts inherent to all life—reproduction—as it does with many basic elements of life. Marriage, a ceremony inherent to humans (animals also do not seem to have organized ceremonies), may be monogamous, polygamous, arranged, or free choice. The gender roles in human cultures vary considerably as well, all heavily influenced by cultural difference.
In animals, 'culture' (in a specific definition that actually includes some animals) generally extends only to crude technological discoveries (tool use in chimps), dietary preferences, and unique vocalizations (killer whales).
5. Social Change and Movements
Some groups of humans undergo radical changes to their societies as they adhere to evolving principals toward their idea of morality and ideology. Some human groups, due to pioneers of a different mentality, have challenged the natural instinctive roots that humans possess in their framework, such as patriarchy. This results in many human groups the modification of culture, gender roles, and other societal rules against instinctual inclination.
All other members of the animal kingdom have stable hierarchies and social systems, whether they are patriarchal (chimpanzees), matriarchal (killer whales, bonobos, and elephants) or a mix of group relations (bottle nose dolphins), despite a long existence compared to the appearance of modern humans (50,000 years ago).
What they all have in common is that they do not change from what they’ve evolved to be. Some humans suggest animal societies are perfect or ‘superior’ (this despite that in the human view, animal societies contain atrocities such as cannibalism of young, killing non-threatening species, and maltreatment of low ranking individuals), but the truth is that, just like the 'perfection' of ant and bee colonies, there doesn’t exist the capacity for language, ideology, and a heightened awareness of existentialism and a modifiable existence that would facilitate the desire of cultural change in the societies of animals (those that have them).
Either that is the case, or humans are again expressing sophistication in creativity by formulating (and building upon) concepts of fairness, equality, and other moral themes. These cultural outlooks are not restricted to humans, and apply to their conduct of non-humans as well.
Religion (also existing only in humans) can often be a creative human conjecture to rationalize intangible concepts. Because of how humans have shaped their societies, they may have eliminated natural selection.
6. Pet keeping and agriculture
Humans are the only animals that keep pets, taking it several steps further as to even domesticate them (demonstrating impeccable foresight about genetics exchange), and control their environment radically with the advent of agriculture (also including the domestication of several plant species to produce larger quantities of fruits and vegetables).
This feat obviously requires a grand understanding of the natural environment. For some animals like cetaceans, achieving this would be impossible physically, but capable animals like non-human primates and any species with the ability to carry and dig do not seem to possess either the ability or desire to farm plants or animals even though it would benefit them.
Pet keeping has the following criteria: The relationship of the pet keeper must be different with its conspecifics than with the pet, to rule out instinctively motivated adoption. There is an element of dominion (whether the pet keeper wants to admit it or not). Many pets are spoiled and excessively happy but are still very much owned and controlled.
Pet keeping is not offspring rearing. Many humans might convince themselves that their pets are family members, but at the end of the day, their relationship with an animal even as emotive as a dog will never approach a true relationship with another human.
Humans are fully aware of their relationship with their pet even if they vocalize otherwise. Humans might unconsciously seek certain pets for more framework instinctual drives (maternal), but they are aware that a pet is not a human and they have a lower status. Other humans keep pets of which their status is clear (pet fish, rodents, reptiles, ect.). Some animals are kept to interest and entertain the keeper.
Pet keeping does not apply to animals under human influence that “adopt” (dog nurses fox kits) or become friends with another species (Bella the dog and Terra the elephant). Adoption is a paternal instinct and most animal friendships occur through human influence (animals that are 'tamer' living with the comforts humans provide maintain more youthful, playful qualities). Ants also instinctively use aphids in an analogous way that resembles human agriculture.
There is one issue with declaring isolated anecdotal cases of possible animal pet keeping as adoption or friendship; if by some chance I was wrong about pet keeping and an animal genuinely kept a pet in the same aware manner as a human, how would we know?
We humans know that we keep pets and not surrogate children. In order to determine pet keeping in another species, we must take what we know about the species and apply it logically.
- Are the ‘pet keeping’ animals all female or have they recently given birth? (which might indicate a maternal instinct, unless the males also participate in child rearing in the species).
- Is the pet keeping example uniform amongst different groups of the same species or isolated? (Most or all human societies keep some form of ‘pet’, whether it’s for practical or recreational use).
- Is the animal being kept long term or 'played with' for a short period?
Pet keeping is not an innate or instinctual behavior of humans but a result of advanced theory of mind inevitably drawing them to the control of another imperative part of their environment—other living things—as they provide numerous benefits. There isn’t anything beneficial in a human’s environment that they will not eventually come to control in some way.
Farming and domestication are human innovations. Not all human groups use or have used this survival method (like dolphin sponging). Once having far more practical usage, pet keeping evolved into an entirely frivolous source of companionship and stimulation for humans that have essential resources in excess.
**The following are NOT examples of pet keeping**
Before you ram your keyboard to correct me...I know there will be some people who have seen these famous stories on YouTube or Facebook that superficially (if that) resemble animals keeping pets.
- Terra (elephant) and Bella (dog): This is more of a friendship/alliance, and it is human influenced.
- Koko the gorilla and her cat: (occurs in captivity, must be initiated by the animal without human influence).
- Ants and mealybugs/aphids: This is an inherent instinctual symbiosis, not an innovation, like that of pistol shrimp and gobies. Such relationships increase fitness and are essential for survival. The animals have no choice in the matter.
- Leopard and macaque: Possible mix of maternal and play instincts.
- Lioness and antelope: This is a (highly unusual) maternal adoption from one confused individual.
- Dog adopting fox kits and any other maternal adoption under human influence
7. Writing System
Irrefutably, while the existence of language in non-humans is often debated, humans are the only animals that use writing systems, a more sophisticated form of language and communication that is an unmatchable innovation.
Like the creation of symbols, but far more complex because the letters have no visual reference, human writing systems are a very efficient way for humans to transmit information to other humans, only like human language, human writing systems have limitless meaning, and were probably paramount in the human’s ability to progress by providing information from pioneers to other generations.
Humans are incontestably the most, if not the only, creative animals in the world. They are startlingly gifted at improving their technologies tenfold from the abilities of other animals, but their complex ability to formulate ideas doesn’t just apply to survival, such as obtaining food, rank in in society, or constructing superior shelter.
Humans are also creative for pleasure, or merely to express themselves. The talent of humans to produce art work varies from individual, but all humans can engage in art forms while it is highly questionable if other animals do so.
Art varies tremendously, from drawing, singing, plays (and movies), poetry, sculpting, dancing, and more. Animals irrefutably don’t engage in most of these art forms (trained animals, again, are not an example). Many animals ‘sing’, and to some humans, this is considered to be beautiful, but it is highly suspect if it occurs for expressive reasons.
Most animal ‘singing’ is known to be for mating purposes (the most popular example are song birds chirping). This is also true of animals that ‘dance’. Human behavior again has evolutionary origins in these instincts but they’ve been modified with heightened awareness and mental complexity.
*Note, these examples aren't art
Please do not write in the comments that elephants or any other animals paint. I'm fully aware of painting elephants and chimps and have bought the 'work' of both species. The Youtube video(es) of an elephant painting an elephant holding a flower has been taught and guided by humans.
No animals initiate symbolic representations of real life objects on their own.
Before you tell me that all humans had to learn their skills as well, ask yourself, who taught them?
9. The Pursuit to Excel
The vague concept I speak of here applies to the human desire to heavily improve upon or perfect talents which require extensive energy, resources, or time, that are not necessarily related to the instinctual need to survive. Sometimes they are even contrary to self-aggrandizement.
Some random examples of this include but are not limited to: Recreational swimming, basketball, learning a foreign language, gardening, ballet, home improvement, controversial artistic expression, drawing non-professionally, accumulating film taste, body-building, long-distance running, collecting, skate boarding, animal rescue, and travel.
Animals (without human influence) almost exclusively direct efforts to perform behaviors that have materialized to enhance the evolutionary concept of fitness (unconsciously). Their early play behaviors generally result within them heightened abilities to perform essential survival behaviors or increased likelihood of sexual selection (proficiency in hunting, two stags fighting).
Humans vary so much in their desires and pursuits, that much of their behavior has deviated from natural selective purposes (though it has its origins in it).
It is essential for the reader to understand that language is far more complex than basic animal communication. Many humans take language for granted. They assume that when a dog barks, it’s saying a ‘word’, or that there is meaning in the noises that vocal animals make. This is an example of anthropomorphism, or the desire for humans to categorize the behaviors of animals with their own brain’s motivations.
Language will be defined in this article as:
A communication system with limitless expression capabilities, utilizing grammatical and semantic categories to convey complex meaning. Animal communication systems, such as those used by bees and dolphins, have a finite number of things that can be expressed.
Countless studies have been done to examine animal communication systems. Bottlenose dolphins are probably the top animals that some scientists believe (or hope) have language abilities, but in regards to proving limitless meaning, there is simply no convincing evidence (but much faith).
In reality, animals live in a different world from us. Many animals are equipped with heightened olfactory senses that enable them to communicate by scent marking (perhaps this is why cetaceans, evolving in the impossible to mark ocean, have developed other mechanisms).
Animals also innately (and probably genetically) have a superior understanding of body language than humans, who mostly rely on much more meaningful linguistic representations. Because we depend on language so extensively, we are often less attuned to visual cues of human body language, and miss them in animals as well.
Some animals are said to use words, such as prairie dogs, whose bark has a unique sound for different predators, but this is not language. Human language is essential in all that humans have achieved on this list and more. Language enables humans to exchange ideas, both simple and abstract. That, paired with writing, shapes human experience and condition.
Human linguistic ability is likely not the enabler of whichever cognitive talents humans hold above other animals, but a by-product of it. These traits of humans may have been derived from many serendipitous evolutionary elements (vocal ability, binocular vision, dexterity, and brain growth) that have resulted in a complex species, both harmonious and ‘evil’, conservation-minded and inevitably destructive in its pursuit to improve and control.
This may be why it is so difficult to categorize human behavior, unlike with animals.
I’m using these definitions to paint a broader picture of the human experience, one beyond forms of cognition that are employed in comparative studies such as theory of mind, episodic memory, mental time traveling, and abstract thinking.