What makes us different from animals?


What separates people from animals? It’s one of those perfect philosophical questions that doesn’t have a right answer. It’s an interesting thought experiment where you explore a little bit about what you think about animals and people, and whether we’re different in form or degree. A lot of my first answers don’t hold up to much scrutiny.

  • Empathy for creatures outside of their species – check (many mammals will adopt other animals. Here’s a leopard basically adopting a baby baboon
  • Willingness to go hungry for the sake of someone else – check (dogs will do that for their owners’ time or safety)
  • Storytelling ability – check (bees can explain where they’ve been to other bees, and crows can describe humans whom they hate to other crows, who will then attack those humans on sight)
  • Existential crises (who knows? A squid might wrap itself around the sperm whale that’s about to eat it while deep in the throes of ennui)

The list goes on. Right now I think we have them beat at literature, (though, if you’re abstract enough, ants’ pheromone trails are their own form of codified writings) and at imagination. But really, we’re separated by the diversity and complexity of our societies.

While many animals understand ambition (lions vying to be an alpha or ants warring for territory), for them it’s really only about surviving and procreating, humans are alone in how we combine ambition with imagination to create an abstract goal to pursue. We have an idea, and we know that if we convince people through ideology or entice them through a paycheck, we can collaboratively make the idea happen, and it can be anything from a new type of society to a canning factory.

This ability, exercised on a species-wide level for thousands of years, gave us the Sistine Chapel, running water in our homes, and interplanetary travel. We live in the good and bad ideas of the inventors and philosophers who came before us (In this way, life really is a bizarre, abstract dream – the rat race is a fever delusion that’s only become real though our collective imaginations and the work we put towards them. Look around when you drive, try to picture what your neighbourhood looked like before people came along, where the grass, trees and hills were, and the herds or packs of animals that slept where you drive every day. That’s reality, that’s what was here before us and what will be here after us. We are the dream.)

The weird thing about humanity, is that as our society changes, our brains evolve and we become smarter, more imaginative, more creative, more empathetic, and more egalitarian. And that’s a strange thing, that we are the only species to become objectively better, morally and intellectually, as we live on the spoils of the genius that paved the way for our society. It’s almost as if we’re designed to reach something higher, and humanity’s still choking on the placenta of its birth on our journey to get there.

And to that point, I believe we have two fundamental forces driving us forward – competition and collaboration. We compete to find our place in a hierarchy that best suits our collaborative efforts to drive the species forward. Competition is good when we compete in healthy sports, academics, or other qualifying systems. But it’s often warped because we bully each other into suicide as a way of carving out our own little niche in the school’s social structure. We alienate what’s different because it makes us uncertain, but we’re curious about what’s different because it could give us an advantage over our peers, or over other species. I’d argue that we’re replacing that fear with curiosity more and more, and that we’re becoming better toward one another at an accelerating pace. I just hope it’s in time.

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