I know what you’re thinking…well actually I don’t. Why? Well one, I’m not psychic but two, because the answer to the question of whether or not we should count ourselves as animals isn’t as straight-forward as it may seem.
For many people how we view ourselves as human and where we fit in this world is very complicated, based on anything from religious teaching to school biology. I know, I know, many of you might be thinking to yourselves, what is this girl on? How are humans not animals? Or maybe some of you are thinking, what the heck, we are so different from cats/dogs/snakes, how can she even attempt to lump us in the same group as them?
Well read on my friends, read on, and maybe you will see what I mean about why this issue can be complicated…
Language (Only English – sorry)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the main definition for an animal is:
A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically has specialised sense organs and a nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.
So from a language point of view that includes us – we can tick ourselves off for all of the above criteria. However, more often than not we use the word “animal” to refer to all those living organisms that feed on organic matter, have specialised sense organs, a nervous system and the ability to rapidly respond to stimuli but aren’t human – lions, lizards, birds, spiders, whatever. In the social sciences (where I have my background), it is becoming more and more common to use the term “non-human animal” to refer to those with a lot more hair than ourselves which arguably is more specific and some might say accurate but can be either positive or negative when it comes to word limits. We also use the word “animal” specifically to talk about human behaviour. We might call someone an animal for doing something awful or for being a particular thing – a “political animal” for example. And of course the origins of the word “animal” comes from the Latin animalis meaning “to breath” or “have breath.”
We also like to use language to compare people to animals for many purposes. I’m sure we can all think back to our English lessons at school and learning about similes – you know the ones with “as” or “like” – and common phrases such as “blind as a bat,” or “as cunning as a fox.” Of course we have also taken words commonly used for some animals and made them into derogatory and offensive names for certain people: “bitch,” “pussy,” “ass,” just to name some of the ones that have been directed towards myself. There are many other awful examples which have been and are used in an attempt to make other people appear less than human. This is because from a societal perspective (and society is that intangible thing that attempts to dictate world views and rules), humans are superior to animals but that is a topic for discussion on another day!
Moving swiftly on….
Yes people, from biological perspective we are animals! In fact we share just about 99% of our DNA (the stuff that makes up our genes and therefore things like hair colour, skin tone and eye colour for example) with Bonobos (above) and Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).
Heck, we share 50% of our DNA with Bananas……!
The chart above shows just some examples of species taxonomy which is just one of the scientific methods used to classify the world. It is a system most commonly associated with a Swedish man called Carl Linnaeus who first published his hierarchy based naming system in the 18th Century. As you can see we are even connected from a taxonomic perspective to butterflies, however distantly that maybe.
So as you can see we are primates and as primates we are just one of about 300 species which range from tiny Grey Mouse Lemurs (Microcebus murinus) to the huge Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). While there isn’t an overall consensus on how, when or why we became our (mostly) hairless, bipedal – two leg walking – selves (thanks to the overlapping nature of evolution); the earliest fossils named under the Homo species list date back roughly 2 million years.
Now I’m pretty sure I don’t need to list all of our physical similarities to the many, many species on Planet Earth i.e. having a backbone, or you know, having a nose. So instead I thought I’d look at some of the things the human body has or does that are often believed to be solely or uniquely human.
Physically we are one of a minority of species with opposable thumbs (thumbs that can be placed opposite our other digits on the same hand – bet you just did it right?) which makes it easier to grip objects. We share this uncommon trait with some of our primate relatives: Great Apes (Gorillas, Orangutans, Chimpanzees & Bonobos); Lesser Apes (Gibbons & Siamangs); Old World Monkeys (those native to Africa and Asia such as Baboons and Colobus Monkeys) and a few species lemurs and lorises. But did you know there are quite a few non-primate species that also have opposable thumbs including Koalas, Giant Pandas and even some species of frog!
Now how about something distinctly female…menopause… Also known as “the change,” menopause is when human women stop being able to have children naturally and is associated with hot flashes and night sweats amongst other delightful “symptoms.” In human women it can last for many years or just a few months. While many species have a decline in fertility in their later years, very few live for very long after they become infertile (both in the wild and captivity) such as female chimpanzees. However, menopause has been seen in both short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and Orcas (Orcinus orca) where females stop producing young but continue to live for decades. Some scientists have suggested these species (including humans) who do continue to thrive for many years following infertility do so in order to help younger generations reproduce in something known as the “grandmother-hypothesis.” Others have suggested it is because there are only limited resources so one generation stops reproducing so that the next one can thrive. This has become known as the “reproductive conflict hypothesis,” although some scientists have referred to it as the “Father of the Bride 2 hypothesis,” after the Steve Martin comedy in which a man must cope with the demands of both his wife and daughter being pregnant at the same time.
What Makes Us Human
Ok, so we’ve looked at what makes us part and parcel of the animal world but what is it that makes us stand apart?
Brain power = Despite not even being one of the physically largest brains relative to body size our brains still pack quite a bit of punch. One of the oldest epitaphs for man is “Man the Toolmaker” which worked well in differentiating us from other animals until the lovely Jane Goodall (the original promoter of Girl Power) discovered that Chimpanzees make and use tools. So basic tool-making we share with many species but the way in which we take inventions and innovate over relatively short periods of time is actually wonderfully fascinating even though the methods and/or outcomes may not be so great.
Existential thinking = aka asking questions and thinking about what is this world in which we live. As smart as I believe non-human animals to be I do find it hard to consider my cat asking herself if her relationship to me is a healthy one (although I do think sometimes she is actually plotting to kill me) for example or whether or not there is life after death.
Belief in a higher power = linked with existentialism, I also find it hard to believe that non-human animals ask themselves if there is such a thing as God and on top of that allow that “higher power” to dictate/define their lives.
Our Nakedness – and the fact that we cover it up – I mean yes, the human body is covered in lots (and lots) of little tiny hairs – but unlike our animal relatives, we need clothes to keep warm and while there are examples of other species experiencing embarrassment, we are the only ones who go through it simply because our bodies aren’t covered in fur (yes I know it’s tied up in social/cultural constructions also but for now let’s leave it at that).
Growing Up – We take a really long time to physically reach adulthood and part of that is because there is no longer the need for us to mature quickly just to survive. I mean horses and antelope young are literally on their feet and moving within a few minutes of birth. Not to mention staying in the family home until the ages of 18 or even later for many of us poor millennials.
A Final Word
So as you can see, there are compelling arguments that show both why we should accept that we’re just one cog in the vast diversity of Planet Earth and that in fact we have some elements which suggest it’s totally ok to hold our heads above the “animal” world. With that being said I’m just going to leave you with some final thoughts:
- Just because we have superior brain power is that enough of a reason for our superiority complex?
- Are we counting our chickens before they hatch? Perhaps one of the reasons we see ourselves as better than animals is because WE haven’t yet come up with the technology to fully understand them.
- We keep raising the bar – first it was tool-making – but then we found animals use tools; next language – but not only do some species understand human language but they have their own complex ways of communication. So now we’re at the delightfully intangible “culture” – but what that is and means is different to everyone and everything.
So where do you stand?
Note: Many of these points are pure opinion and/or in many cases a simplification of some very, very complex issues.