It is funny how often I, and probably everyone else, hear people say things along the lines of 'the thing that separates human's from animals is _____'. And often what the blank is filled with is something related to the speaker's field of interest. I remember once hearing a lecture on the virtues of some bitter vegetable I can't remember the name of, and the speaker actually said that being able to enjoy certain bitter tasting foods is the one attribute separating human's from other animals. (though usually something less silly is said such as 'empathy'. note: many other mammals feel empathy. Doing a google search on this topic I have noticed almost every possible human trait is mentioned as being THE thing which separates us from other animals.)
It seems unlikely to me, that despite millions of years of shared evolution there would be one attribute unique to only humans, and that this one attribute would be what distinguishes us from other animals.
What distinguishes us from other animals is not a single trait that we have and others don't, but many many traits, shared by many other animals, that exist in humans to different degrees than in other animals. It is the sum total of these traits that make us different. For example, humans are distinguished by being more intelligent than other animals.
Nearly every trait that seems special to humans ends up being discovered in other animals, such as laughter, culture or use of tools. Yet despite discovering seemingly unique human traits in other animals, we don't feel ourselves any less human or unique because of it. We don't feel that since other primates also use tools there is no nothing significantly different about us, because we all realized it wasn't the mere having of that one trait which defined us.
Even if there did happen to be one trait only shared by humans, such as, just for example,...artistic expression, we don't consider those unable to express themselves artistically as inhuman, and if the species as a whole lost the ability for artistic expression we would not feel we were no longer human. Why? because it would not have been merely that one trait which made us human, or separated from other animals, but many degrees of traits, of which that was only one.
I think this sense of wanting only one definable attribute to separate one thing from another runs deep and occurs all over the place, making some distinctions seem more puzzling than they really are, so it isn't surprising it would often be used in reference to people as well.
The differences between ourselves and other animals are already pretty clear that I find the similarities to much more interesting and surprising. As for whatever sense of specialness or uniqueness we might come from realizing unique human traits, I think our overall uniqueness and ability to dominate every other animal has shown itself enough that we couldn't possibly need any more of a boost to our collective self esteem. If anything, I find learning of the attributes we share with other animals to be more inspiring since it is a reminder of our shared heritage and interconnectedness with both other people and everything else living.
- ► 2010 (126)
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- There and Back again
- Occam's Razor
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- The world wide internet
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- Time Travelers wife.
- ▼ August (14)
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