Is there anything that makes humans special?

Primatologist Frans de Waal’s latest book The Age of Empathy (2009) argues against the idea that we humans have some special quality that separates us from all the other animals. Some people, especially those who are religious, seem to be very reluctant to accept that idea that other animal species share pretty much all the same basic physical and emotional characteristics that we humans have.

There is an interesting passage in the book (p. 206-208) where he says that this wrong idea in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam originated because the part of the world in which those religions originated were those that did not contain our closest non-human relatives.

For the Darwinist, there is nothing more logical than the assumption of emotional continuity. Ultimately, I believe that the reluctance to talk about animal emotions has less to do with science than religion. And not just any, religion, but particularly religions that arose in isolation from animals that look like us. With monkeys and apes around every corner, no rain forest culture has ever produced a religion that places humans outside of nature. Similarly, in the East-surrounded by native primates in India, China, and Japan-religions don’t draw a sharp line between humans and other animals. Reincarnation occurs in many shapes and forms: A man may become a fish and a fish may become God. Monkey gods, such as Hanuman, are common. Only the Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul. It’s not hard to see how desert nomads might have arrived at this view. Without animals to hold up a mirror to them, the notion that we’re alone came naturally to them. They saw themselves as created in God’s image and as the only intelligent life on earth. Even today, we’re so convinced of this that we search for other such life by training powerful telescopes on distant galaxies.

It’s extremely telling how Westerners reacted when they finally did get to see animals capable of challenging these notions. When the first live apes went on display, people couldn’t believe their eyes. In 1835, a male chimpanzee arrived at London Zoo, clothed in a sailor’s suit. He was followed by a female orangutan, who was put in a dress. Queen Victoria went to see the exhibit, and was appalled. She called the apes “frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human.” This was a widespread sentiment, and even nowadays I occasionally meet people who call apes “disgusting.” How can they feel like this unless apes are telling them something about themselves that they don’t want to hear? When the same apes at the London Zoo were studied by the young Charles Darwin, he shared the queen’s conclusion but without her revulsion. Darwin felt that anyone convinced of man’s superiority ought to go take a look at these apes.

All of this occurred in the not too distant past, long after Western religion had spread its creed of human exceptionalism to all corners of knowledge. Philosophy inherited the creed when it blended with theology, and the social sciences inherited it when they emerged out of philosophy. After all, psychology was named after Psykhe, the Greek goddess of the soul. These religious roots are reflected in continued resistance to the second message of evolutionary theory. The first is that all plants and animals, including ourselves, are the product of a single process. This is now widely accepted: also outside biology. But the second message is that we are continuous with all other life forms, not only in body but also in mind. This remains hard to swallow. Even those who recognize humans as a product of evolution keep searching for that one divine spark, that one “huge anomaly” that sets us apart. The religious connection has long been pushed to the subconscious, yet science keeps looking for something special that we as a species can be proud of.

When it comes to characteristics that we don’t like about ourselves, continuity is rarely an issue. As soon as people kill, abandon, rape, or otherwise mistreat one another we are quick to blame it on our genes. Warfare and aggression are widely recognized as biological traits, and no one thinks twice about pointing at ants or chimps for parallels. It’s only with regard to noble characteristics that continuity is an issue, and empathy is a case in point. Toward the end of a long career, many a scientist cannot resist producing a synopsis of what distinguishes us from the brutes. American psychologist David Premack focused on causal reasoning, culture, and the taking of another’s perspective, while his colleague Jerome Kagan mentioned language, morality, and yes, empathy. Kagan included consolation behavior, such as a child embracing his mother, who has hurt herself. This is indeed a great example, but of course hardly restricted to our species. My main point, however, is not whether the proposed distinctions are real or imagined, but why all of them need to be in our favor. Aren’t humans at least equally special with respect to torture, genocide, deception, exploitation, indoctrination, and environmental destruction? Why does every list of human distinctiveness need to have the flavor of a feel-good note?

This is one of the fundamental reasons that the Abrahamic religions find it so hard to reconcile their beliefs with science. They have locked themselves into a dogma that human beings are special in some discontinuous way from all other animals, when science is increasingly revealing that all species lie on a continuum with no sharp boundaries. These religions simply cannot live with the idea that what makes us human is just that we have different amounts of same things that are possessed by other animal species.

Religious people keep searching for that one spark of divine fire that reassures them that they are unique and that their god really does care for them in a special way. But they keep repeatedly failing in their quest because the ‘soul’ (for want of a better term) is like the rainbow, an illusion that keeps receding. It is kind of sad that they never seem to be able to come to terms with their true place in the universe.

I myself find it enormously uplifting to think that I am part of all of life, that I can connect myself to every single thing that lives and has ever lived by tracing a path through the great tree of life. What could be more magnificent than that?


  1. henry says

    Isn’t the fact that humans have developed writing a pretty serious ‘anomaly’ between us and every other species?

  2. says

    Writing is particularly useful because it provides a “memory” outside the limits of the individual brain.

    Of course, it originates from the complexity of human language and sharing of abstract thoughts.

    Whether that’s a sharp discontinuity from the rest of nature is pretty subjective. One the one hand many other species communicate in some fashion. On the other, none have commandeered their environment to the extent that they engineer automobiles, airplanes, and the like.

  3. says

    If life on this planet is to have any chance of surviving, homo sapiens has got to stop thinking of himself as separate from, and superior to, the rest of nature.

    Having said that, the book extract cited here makes one wonder whether the non-Abrahamic religions -- those which evolved in places where man lived with his closest evolutionary friends -- do more to foster environmental awareness. Are the Japanese, for example, better stewards of their natural heritage than the Europeans? My instinctive answer is that they are not.

    Religion, it seems to me, is only a small part of the problem, and far less important than our systems of economics and law. The manner in which we “use” natural resources must be informed by a deep, intellectual and emotional understanding of our connection to the whole web of life. Science, just like religion, has been harnessed in highly destructive ways; it too needs to be tempered by morality.

    Henry’s question seems to reflect a desire to perpetuate man’s status as superior. (Apologies if I am mistaken.) One could easily retort by asking how many humans can run at 60mph, free dive to 10,000 feet, or smell a drop of blood from a mile away. Yes, we can do some pretty amazing things, but so can countless other creatures. A healthier attitude, perhaps, would be to see ourselves as primus inter pares, with an obligation to use our peculiar talents for the betterment of all forms of life with which we share this jewel in space.

  4. henry says


    Hola friend!

    I am not trying to place humans on a higher level than other species. In fact, I think just the opposite. I believe (and a lot of research shows) that humans and most animals are far more alike than different. I agree that ‘we’ need to find our place in nature.

    That said, we can write and share information through generations. As a result, we can do things far greater than any other animal.

    I believe this makes humans special. Not superior. Just special.

    To your point about how humans can’t run as fast as a cheetah, we can build a car that goes faster than a cheetah. We can do that because we are able to record information for future generations to build upon.

    In time, one has to believe that any trait an animal has naturally humans may be able to replicate. A cheetah will never be able to see in the same way a bat does. But we can. SONAR anyone?

  5. peter says

    de Waal’s book sounds interesting.

    One of the most memorable arguments I was ever involved in was with a woman of Christian evangelical upbringing. She told me she didn’t ‘believe’ in evolution because we don’t see monkeys growing into people. This led to a discussion about what separates us from non-human animals. She hated the idea that all other creatures are equally awesome -- she had to have humans on a pedestal above other creatures.

    This was, I think, the real reason behind her rejection of evolution.

    We were just college kids, but I still remember the dawning realization that there are people out there who can’t be reasoned with.

    For more on the issues raised in Richard Frost’s third paragraph:

  6. Steve LaBonne says

    Our unique feature (as exemplified by Peter’s acquaintance) is clearly our extreme self-regard as a species. Our egos are much too large to have evolved. They must have been specially created. 😉

  7. says

    Whilst not being a religious person, I often wonder where the evidence is for the intermediate stages in the evolution process. I don’t doubt that many of our characteristics are similar to those of animals but then we are all living and breathing organisms so there will be similarities.

  8. says


    Another excellent book is What Evolution Is (2001) by Ernst Mayr, who is considered to have been one of the greatest biologists of all time. This book is a concise summary of all the major features of evolution and the evidence for them.

  9. Tadas says

    I totally love using this as a discussion piece. It makes for a fun conversation and opens so many people’s perception of the other animals AND of themselves. “What’s that? You think humans have a monopoly on tool-making, let me show you this amazing Youtube video of a rook bending a wire (tool-making) and using it (tool-using) to retrieve food down a narrow tube, etc…”. So many ways the discusion can branch from this main point.
    Here is a great passage from Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan who so succinctly and poetically summarize our situation and our perception of ourselves.
    Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are (Pg. 399)
    How thoroughly the chimps and bonobos have erased the list of purported human distinctions! – self-awareness, language, ideas and their association, reason, trade, play, choice, courage, love and altruism, laughter, concealed ovulation, kissing, face-to-face sex, female orgasm, division of labor, cannibalism, art, music, politics, and featherless bipedalism, besides tool using, tool making, and much else. Philosophers and scientists confidently offer up traits said to be uniquely human, and the apes casually knock them down – toppling the pretension that humans constitute some sort of biological aristocracy among the beings of Earth. Instead, we are more like the nouveau riche, incompletely accommodated to our recent exalted state, insecure about who we are, and trying to put as much distance as possible between us and our humble origins. It’s as if our nearest relatives, by their very existence, refute all our explanations and justifications. So as counterweights to human arrogance and pride, it is good for us that there are still apes on Earth.
    While it seems that the differences are a matter of degree and not an absolute difference, I was watching Nova/Nature/National Geographic? (pick one, I don’t remember) and they mentioned that possibly the quality of pro-active teaching may distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom. While, say, apes are more than capable of learning to extract ants from an anthill using a stick, they do so from observing, not because they are being taught. It is this pro-active teaching in our species that has allowed us to build and accumulate knowledge, placing us in this seemingly unique position.

  10. says

    “Our egos are much too large to have evolved. They must have been specially created. ;)”

    Steve -- Nice one! The perfect Onion byline for Governor Rick Perry’s upcoming “prayer and fasting” rally.

    “[W]e are more like the nouveau riche… trying to put as much distance as possible between us and our humble origins.”

    Tadas -- Doesn’t that just hit the nail on the head? Excellent citation there.

    Unfortunately, Johnny-come-lately is distancing himself from his origins by rendering other species extinct at an obscene rate. If he doesn’t learn to control his ego, the only other species left around will be the few he finds useful for food, fuel, and materials -- and none of them will last long without support from all the others deemed useless.

    Mano -- You once mentioned the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Expecting homo sapiens to be incapable of controlling himself, they make a compelling case.

  11. Evan says

    In Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, he spends some time near the beginning discussing what he calls “the sentence”: every psychologist at some point writes the statement that “humans are the only animals that…” and in general they try to make it very late in their lifetimes so they don’t have to see it disproven, which inevitably occurs.

    Incidentally, it is in this book that he reluctantly makes his own claim to that effect, which is that humans are the only animals that think about the future. He seems to believe he will be proven wrong.

    (And on cue, the Onion published “Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die,” the link to which appears to be flagging my comment for questionable content, but is found easily by googling)

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