It’s like clockwork: every year books and articles, both popular and scholarly, argue that there’s no real difference between humans and the other animals. I recently came across a plea in The Guardian by Harvard’s Irene Pepperberg that we permanently retire the idea of what she calls “humaniqueness.” She admits that humans do some unique things, like “send probes to outer space to find other forms of life.” But all animals have unique features – for instance, bats “use natural sonar,” and birds migrate thousands of miles by an “internal GPS.” Humans, on her view, aren’t above the other animals. This claim is at least as old as when Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees dipping stalks of grass into termite holes in order to fish out termites, and Louis Leaky wrote, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!”
It strikes me as ironic that we’re so intent on arguing that there’s no gap between humans and the other animals at a time when the gap between us and the other animals has never been so wide. It’s true that we don’t use natural sonar, nor can we fly for thousands of miles using a natural GPS. But we have invented sonar and GPS systems, which allow us to do unique things like send probes to outer space. We have the power to extend life, manipulate birth, alter the planet’s atmosphere, design “smart” technologies, walk on the moon, and destroy life as we know it. We spend good chunks of our time encased in virtual worlds of our own making: TV, the internet, video games, cell phones, books, cities. We also put our fellow animals in zoos for our amusement, factory farms for our food, and labs so that we can torture them in order to advance our technological projects.
I think it’s important to rehabilitate the ancient idea of humans as “rational animals.” It’s not boastful to declare that we’re above our fellow animals, as long as “above” isn’t misunderstood. I’m not saying that we’re not animals, or that animals aren’t deserving of our moral respect, or even that animals can’t feel and think. I mean two things by “above.” First, we have a higher order of power and responsibility than the other animals, in the same way that a good teacher has a higher order of knowledge than a student, or a general has greater responsibilities than a private. Second, we have a higher realm of experiences and values – generally called “civilisation” or “culture” – that we shouldn’t trade down for the simpler realm of our fellow animals. We do indeed have a unique kind of uniqueness.
Our higher power is most obviously seen in our technology. It’s certainly true that some other animals have the ability to use and even make primitive tools. But no other animal has taken this ability to the extremes that we have. A scraped stick is the height of the other animals’ technological achievement. Obviously it was an evolutionary advantage for our early ancestors to be able to make and use tools. But it wasn’t just that they made a few more tools than the chimps. They began to see the whole world through the mediation of tool-use. A rock wasn’t just a rock: it was a potential arrowhead or hammer. A tree wasn’t just a tree: it was a potential house or bridge.
Soon their life was defined by tool-use, as is ours today in even more extreme ways. We’ve invented things like arrowheads, sailboats, gunpowder, printing presses, and computers; and these inventions have totally reshaped how we live – for better and for worse. In other words, the question about the difference between humans and the other animals should not simply be, “Do other animals ever use tools?” but, “Do other animals define and redefine their worlds through technological innovation?”
The ability to see something both as it is in itself and as it could be reshaped into a tool seems to carry with it the ability to see and make images. We sometimes think of cavemen as hairy brutes who club their wives and drag them back to the cave, but in fact the one thing we know for sure about cavemen is that they were delicate painters. They adorned their walls with breath-taking evocations of bison and lions. With its combination of tool-use and image-formation, the complex power of image-making is unique to human beings. Some chimps are able to draw interesting patterns – at the prompting of humans experimenting on them – but not images. By the way, the elephants that famously “paint pictures” of flowers and animals are simply being manipulated by their human masters. They don’t and can’t make representative images on their own.
Do we marvel sufficiently at the strangeness of images? René Magritte’s famous “The Treachery of Images” is a carefully rendered painting of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe.” Many museum-goers are inclined to chalk up the caption to surrealist mischief. But Magritte is speaking quite literally. It’s not a pipe. It’s an image of a pipe. It’s so much paint and canvas. As Magritte once said to those who criticised his caption, “Just try stuffing my painting with tobacco!” In truth, his painting both is and is not a pipe, just as all images are and are not what they represent. How strange!
We commonly use images as blueprints to help us design technology or draw up a plan or a map. Thus, it’s an evolutionary advantage to have the power to make something that, like Magritte’s pipe, is and is not what it is. But this power opens up values beyond those associated with meeting our basic needs. The power to paint a bison may be an evolutionary advantage, but you have to put your faith in distant causes to believe that actually painting a bison helps to put food on the table. Why we make and use images is a fascinating subject. But even teenagers, who plaster their walls with posters and fill their Instagram account with jpegs, understand that images play a big role in how we portray and shape ourselves. In some sense, the best answer to why we make images is that we like to. We’re the animal of art museums.
What really sets us above the other animals is that we turn this image-making power on ourselves. We live with ourselves by way of pictures, symbols, stories, and ideas. We require things like art, religion, politics, and philosophy to understand and order our identities, surroundings, relationships, lives, and deaths. In fact, the confrontation with death is probably at the root of our self-understanding. We see the dead body of someone close to us and wonder what happened to the unique something that made the person alive and unique. We’re suddenly forced to use our image-making power to understand something beyond the visible world in ourselves and those around us.
Our acts of self-understanding take place largely within language, our most powerful “tool” of all. I put scare-quotes around the word “tool,” because language is much more than a tool, though it’s certainly that. It’s also a set of images, memories, and self-understandings, which we use to make new tools, images, memories, and self-understandings. Most animals have ways of communicating wants and warnings, even of venting joy and grief. But language has traditionally been considered uniquely human because it does more than communicate: it turns back on us and shapes us. As with tools, the question about language is not, “Do other animals use verbal or nonverbal signs?,” but, “Do other animals define and redefine themselves through symbol use?” Do they gossip, keep journals, have theories about the stars, argue about justice? Language is the very home of being human.
In the other animals freedom manifests itself in limited choices, such as a lion choosing which gazelle to chase down, or a gorilla deciding where to cross a river. We too spend a lot of time wondering what to have for dinner and how to get across town. But the quandaries of freedom are exponentially enlarged in us. Our ability to form ideas allows us to imagine life radically different from how it’s presented to us. Even in our most primitive condition, we face unique kinds of questions about how to act. Which weapon should I use to kill the gazelle? Does it matter how much pain it suffers? Should I use its blood for food or paint? Come to think of it, is it holy or unholy to eat a gazelle? Should I be a vegetarian?
What we see in our powerful tool-use, image-making, and language-use is what the ancient Greek philosophers named “logos,” which could be translated as language, rationality, or order. Being a zoon logon echon – an animal in possession of logos – doesn’t mean that we’re smarter than the other animals or that we act in a more orderly fashion. It means that we step back from the world and reflect on it through the mediation of mental imagery. It means that we have the power to reshape nature, and that we experience nature almost exclusively through our ideas and cultural practices. It also means that we have an order of values – aesthetic, epistemological, ethical, and political – that transcends our immediate animal needs. If anything, the power of rationality allows us to do uniquely irrational, stupid, and evil things. But when we use the power well, we flourish in a way that words like “dignity” and “humaneness” describe.
Rationality also brings into existence a new kind of suffering: despair. We can be safe, satiated, and healthy, and still moan like Hamlet about the uselessness and butchery of it all. As the philosopher Hans Jonas says in “Tool, Image, and Grave” (an essay that deeply informs my own), “In the gulf opened up by the confrontation of the self with itself, the greatest heights and the deepest depressions of human experience have their place.”
Though our despair can make us long to return to the less mediated experience of our fellow animals, it would be a great loss to give up the unique powers, values, and experiences of being human. As John Stuart Mill famously says, “It’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” It’s a bitter truth to accept, but it’s better to have access to certain values, even if the price of those values is steep, than to flatten the dimensions of experience.
Of course, with the power of rationality come special responsibilities. Just as teachers have a responsibility to be good teachers, and generals to be good generals, humans have a responsibility to be good humans: to use our power over the earth and our fellow humans wisely, and to cultivate the gift of rationality that we’ve been given, not just because it benefits humanity in the long run (though that’s part of it), but because, as I originally learned reading Spider-Man comics, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Nature has hazarded humanity; the least we can do is to try to show that rationality and its attendant values are worth the risk.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s no firm wall between us and the other animals. We have an evolutionary past and are clearly shaped by powerful instincts. Conversely, our fellow animals clearly have an inner life. We are animals, and we see in them the germ of tool-use, image-making, and language. But what is a germ in them is the full-blown essence of us. We’re not “just” animals, in the same way that a general isn’t “just” a soldier.
Those who attack the idea of “humaniqueness” invariably say it’s hubris to believe that we’re above the other animals. No doubt people on both sides of almost every debate are motivated by hubris. But it isn’t necessarily hubris to declare that one is above others. In fact, it’s irresponsible not to admit to one’s position of power in a hierarchy. So why is our age desperate to reject age-old traditions that regard us as animals with a special place on the earth?
First of all, a toxic tradition in philosophy, starting with René Descartes, holds that animals are mere physical machines, whereas humans are souls that happen to be plugged into physical machines. I think that the “we’re-just-animals” meme is part of this tradition. Practically speaking, we have become minds that spend most of their time plugged into mechanical devices! The pathos of Jane Goodall reaching out to the chimps, or any of us asserting our oneness with our dogs and cats, derives in part from the rejection of our soul’s lonely separation from the animal world.
But I don’t think that our intuitive rejection of Cartesian dualism is alone sufficient to explain why there’s such insistence on our being simply animals. I wonder if the current economic order doesn’t also unconsciously influence us. From cradle to grave we’re bombarded with ads that insist on our being consumers above all else. It’s the drive toward consumption – in the literal sense – that we associate with an animal’s essence. If we’re simply animals, what point is there in resisting the allure of consumption?
I wonder if the dominance of biotechnology doesn’t also have something to do with our current self-image. Descartes was interested in using our understanding of the physical machinery of nature in order to manipulate it for our own ends. Turning that quasi-divine understanding on our own bodies, we increasingly dictate the terms and logistics of what were once considered unalterable natural limits. We dictate the terms of death through medical interventions like organ transplantation. We dictate the terms of birth through birth control, genetic testing, and even genetic manipulation. We spend much of our time navigating the virtual worlds that we have created for our amusement. We also have the power, through nuclear weapons, to destroy life as we know it. Could it be that part of why we’re inclined to think of us as simply animals is that only by treating ourselves as biological machines, from top to toe, can we continue to advance the project of reshaping nature through technology? Only by insisting on ourselves as “just” animals can we become more like gods.
In short, my view is that the commonplace belief that we’re “just” animals partially comes out of a healthy desire to reconnect us to the animal world, but it also derives from – and contributes to – an ideology of consumerism and technological domination.
Since consumerism is shallow, and our technological domination needs to be checked for the survival and flourishing of our planet, the question of our status as animals has more than an academic significance. We should step back from our biotechnological mastery and consumerism – at least sometimes – and cultivate the rationality we’ve been given. If we remember how we’re animals above the other animals, unique rational animals, maybe we can make a genuinely persuasive case for using our technologies not just as a way of gratifying our immediate desires but in a way appropriate to our status as stewards of the earth, and for regarding education not just as a way of advancing our earning power but as a process of cultivating wisdom, ethics, and the arts.