Are Human Beings Unique or Not?

I recently took a leadership class that talked about ethics. The instructor said something interesting:

Humans are the only animals that rationalize behavior we know is wrong.

I think that’s correct—but I would add the caveat: “The only animals that we know of…”

When I was a kid, people still preached the idea of Man the Rational Animal. The persistent Enlightenment belief that what distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to reason.

Even as a kid, I knew this was a load of crap.

My dog understands logic. Pretty much every animal does (but maybe not koalas [NSFW]). Behavioral conditioning, habituation—it’s all based on a fundamental understanding of cause and effect, the basic building blocks of logic.

  • Do this—get a treat.
  • Do this—get punished.
  • Stick nose in fire—pain—don’t stick nose in fire.

Human science and reason are obviously orders of magnitude more sophisticated, more complex, and more nuanced than the logic a dog understands. But our abilities evolved from that foundation: the perception of cause and effect, the basic building blocks of logic. Which means Man the Rational Animal is fundamentally an expression of a form of intelligence shared by most of the animal kingdom.

Science and reason are highly sophisticated expressions of animal intelligence. So reason isn’t what makes us unique. Unique in scale but not in nature.

There’s a growing belief that humanity’s runaway intelligence can’t just be a product of environmental pressures. It’s more likely the outcome of social pressures—we developed intelligence to navigate increasingly complex social structures. In other words, human intelligence didn’t evolve for us to seek Truth and Reason, but as a way for us to persuade and manipulate each other. A way for us to win allies and arguments. A way to help individuals gain position and safety in our often contentious, competitive, and cooperating groups. As a way for us to pool knowledge and coordinate action so the whole group will be more successful.

Rhetoric and oratory grow from this kind of persuasive social intelligence. Rationalizing behavior we know is wrong expresses this kind of intelligence, as well.

Which means the purest expression of social intelligence in human society is politics.

But even this doesn’t render us completely unique. We see the roots of social intelligence in other species which also boast complex social structures: the great apes, dolphins, elephants, certain species of birds. Social intelligence is less common than animal logic but it’s not unique to us.

So while humans are the only animal that we know of who rationalize behavior we know is wrong, and we’re the only ones that we know of with formal political processes, this behavior expresses a form of social intelligence that other animals share.

For a long time, we’ve pointed to art and language as what makes us unique. Symbolic thought, sophisticated communication, and deep Theory of Mind are far rarer than social or logical intelligence in the animal kingdom. But we’ve discovered in recent years that it’s not unique to us—other animals display aesthetic awareness of their surroundings, an understanding of the Other, and surprisingly sophisticated methods of communication.

So again, our achievements on these fronts are remarkable for the scale and complexity of our intelligence but not in its basic nature. This kind of intelligence also appears to be intimately tied to social intelligence.

More and more, I find myself tending toward the belief that we’re not unique from other animals. That there’s nothing about us which renders us essentially different. We’re animals, too, and everything we are is evolved from antecedent traits found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Our abilities may be more complex and more sophisticated than other animals but nothing truly unique.

But there’s still one thing I see in us that I don’t see in any other animal:

Humans are the only animal that we know of who vilify our own nature.

We’re the only animals who look at who we are—our basic needs and wants and impulses—and concludes there’s something wrong with us. We’re the only animals that we know of to come up with an idea like original sin, or a fall from grace. We’re the only animal that we know of who considers itself inherently flawed.

I know of no evidence to suggest that any other animal vilifies itself.

Human beings appear to be the only animal that sometimes hates itself.

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