One day, a few anthropomorphized liquid water molecules got together for some coffee and started debating the Exceptionality Hypothesis: that liquid water was fundamentally different from other types of water.
“This is ridiculous,” one exclaimed. “Scientists have shown that water vapor and water ice are made of the same atoms that we are, structured in the same way, and follow the same physical rules that we do. Sure, we stay on the ground but so does water ice! And water vapor may be in the air but it moves around freely – just like us! There’s nothing special about being a liquid water molecule.”
A second rolled their (fictional) eyes. “I can’t believe we’re talking about this. I don’t feel like a gas or a solid. I suppose I agree that we share some things in common with those other two – but we’re fundamentally different!”
The first snorted. “Sure. How?”
Obviously, liquids, gases, and solids behave differently; despite being made of the same molecules following the same rules, if you vary the temperature you get fundamental changes in behavior due to phase transitions. Even if things are made up of the same constituent parts that vary in proportion, you can get fundamentally different behaviors.
OK, so this is a silly little parable. But there’s an article going around the tweetersphere by Annalee Newitz titled “Yes, Humans Are Animals — So Just Get Over Yourselves, Homo sapiens“. I’m sure you get the point:
Yet we have many other behaviors that we share with our fellow animals. Darwin wrote about this in one of his lesser-known works, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Today, hundreds of scientific studies have offered solid evidence that animals from chimps to rats share the same kinds of emotions and motivations that we do.
Many animals also make tools the way humans do too. We’ve long known about tool-making among other primates, but recently scientists have found evidence of tool-use among dolphins, crows, and even sea otters.
Humans may not use tools and express emotions exactly like other animals, but that doesn’t exempt us from animal status. No two species share exactly the same sets of behavior. But we also share far too much in common to pretend that we are some form of life that transcends animal status.
Humans are animals, clearly. We are mammals with an evolutionary lineage that can be traced back just like any other animal on Earth. But there’s a double-use of the word going on: animals as biological entities and animals as moral entities.
It seems what may – may – separate us from other animals is along a moral and cognitive axis. We certainly do have neural structures for decision-making and learning about value that are the same as rats and monkeys, but so do bees and other insects. Yet if you were to tell me that insects are able to master the same cognitive tasks as most mammals I’d wonder about you. You see this implicitly in how we treat other classes of animals: insects are not fish are not mammals. We are fundamentally different.
So we should think about what makes us distinct from other animals. Let’s take a few of the examples in the article. Ants build massive cities, milk (and raise!) aphids for food, and tend fungus gardens. But besides us, ants are unique in this; and as far as I’m aware, these were most likely done on a longer evolutionary timescale and was not done consciously. Yes other animals use tools, but prodding something with a stick is a little different from a using jackhammer or even a mass-produced screwdriver (let alone building and designing these tools to begin with). Other animals may share the same kind of motivations and decision-making, but I have yet to see another animal read a mass-produced text on the other side of a planet in order to guide their decisions. More, there is no other animal that has consciously launched itself into space with dreams of living there.
Even if the biological and neurological components required to, say, design and build a computer are present in bits and pieces of other animals, it is their confluence that is found in us. Perhaps every animal is different in its own way, but let’s be clear: as a species, we can do things that other animals could never even dream of. We have the ability to liberate ourselves from our biology and change our environment in conscious ways that all other animals cannot. We may be animals, but we’re not animals.