Humans are among the most successful animals on Earth. We have transitioned from a few hundred thousand hunter-gatherers to billions of people spread across the planet.
However, we recognize in other animals that share our planet many of the same traits that we ourselves have. We see the loyalty of the dog. The tool-using cleverness of the crow. The playfulness of the dolphin. We see so much of ourselves in gorillas and chimpanzees that it suggested we have a common ancestor.
And yet, we seem quite different from any other animal. We have a manual dexterity that is uncommon. Our language is more highly developed than most. We learn about and manipulate our environment in ways that have transformed our lives completely.
There are many ways we can look at the animal kingdom, and draw comparisons or contrasts. Which ones do you find most compelling? Are we more like our animal cousins than we want to believe? Or are we somehow unique, for better or worse?
How are humans like other animals? How are they different?
Related questions: What do we have in common? How have we changed? Is it a cruel world?
4 thoughts on “How Are Humans Like Other Animals? How Are They Different?”
As the context for the question makes clear, we have many similarities to other animals. I’d add that many other animals feel joy and grief, form friendships (with their own kind as well as, in some cases, with humans), and not only use tools (as the question points out), they build basic technology.
While I haven’t put a lot of thought into this, most animals have more honed in instincts to assess the natural environment immediately around them, while humans have more complex cultural norms to live in larger communities. We also, I believe, have much more multi-dimensional, culturally-imposed structures of power — that some humans navigate well and others do not.
A major difference for humans is that we have the ability to see the consequences of our decisions on a much larger scale. While some animals express fear at the destruction of their natural environments (many times because of humans), we have the ability to see our impacts on regional and global levels — and, I’d add, ignore what we are witnessing. We have the ability to see that we are, in fact, destroying large parts of the planet and bringing about truly existential threats for ourselves and the rest of the animal and plant kingdoms. In other words, while we ought to know better, we let our wants from the planet’s resources far outweigh our needs. In the process, we are destroying ways of life for ourselves and the rest of life on this shared sphere.
Humans have many things in common with animals. We have the same basic needs of food, water, and reality TV shows where English people yell at American people. World War 1 and the battle between the little red ants and the big fat black ants in the empty sandlot next to little Billy Myer’s house in the summer of 2015 is another low-hanging commonality here. The ant battle, was, in the immortal words of both little Billy Myer and red ant number 46758, “totally awesome.”
And of course the Internet was invented by both humans and the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle – both are filled with their respective porn and memes and question-asking blogs that these species find so compelling. We all hope that the whales will stop polluting the oceans with their plastic hair dryers, and that the red ants will stop the deforestation and desertification of the empty sandlot next to little Billy Myer’s house, but we may all just have to live with those things.
But to really understand the items that humans have in common with the animal kingdom, one need only watch the Lion King. Or better yet consult with Pontificate P’trRlfxzsss of the Greys, the alien race that circles the globe in their saucer-shaped ships, watching all life closely. “Autopsies. They are all, for whatever reason, obsessed with autopsies. And, of course, their ludicrous anal probing fantasies. I mean that’s uh… that’s really common with all life in the universe. Nothing uh… nothing wrong with that, right? Not that I have them, of course. But even if I did it’s not like I have a probe. Which would be wierd, right? Is that weird?”
Indeed the only trait that seems entirely unique to humans seems to be their obsession with God and that they were made in His almighty image. God, of course, doesn’t like to talk about this. When reached for comment, God’s lawyer stated “look we all know about the restraining order the Almighty had filed, and the alimony payments the Almighty is making. As always, the answer to these things are: ‘No comment. Commenting shall their not be. Nor feedback, nor elucidation, nor mention.’ Yea, though the Almighty sitteth in judgement of all the universe it’s really time to letteth this one go, guys, yeah?”
The animal instinct to react to the environment is much the same, such as the five senses, being alert to loud noises, to feel pain, and the will to preserve their own life are much the same as us. The main difference is our creative need to change the environment in ever greater ways and our ever-increasing reliance on the community at large.
I think that we share similar needs with animals i.e. food, shelter, companionship, but not much else. We tend to anthropomorphize animals but the don’t have the same emotions as us. While animals can, and do, form attachments to other members of their species, and other species as well, that attachment is not equal to human “love”. Though some animals seem to grieve at the loss of a companion, the behavior is not equal to human “grief”. Animals are not self aware in the way humans are. Animals act on instinct, and learned behavior, where humans have the ability to assess, improvise and reason on different situations. There is a paragraph in “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder that illustrates this-
“Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks can build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look out; he’s free and independent. ” That is the biggest difference between humans and animals. We have free will. We can choose what we want to do, what we want to believe and how we want to behave. Animals cannot.