In the comments on an article The Passive Voice linked to about automation and if it is what defines humans from non-human creatures, a discussion got started about what separates humans from other critters, if anything.
I stayed out of it because I have some very, very strong thoughts on that topic but don’t have the philosophy and biology chops to argue my case. When someone begins by saying “humans are no different from other animals…” what follows often tends towards either an anti-people statement, or a justification for something that society frowns on for good reason. I would argue that humans are different because we have souls, because we seek for something greater than we are greater than we can be, but keep searching and striving anyway.
“Since we are no different from all other animals” why not practice selective breeding for the good of the species? Why not thin out the unfit and the suffering? Why not act on every impulse that feels right at the time instead of exercising restraint? Why bother telling stories and aiming for eternity, or The Eternal, if we’re just piebald apes.
Please note that I have no difficulty with the idea that we are hominids, and that we are in some way descended from a common ancestor along with gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and the occasional lemur. The Great Author may indeed have used that as a way to create us, for all that I know, and I’m not going to worry about it if He did.
Where I have serious problems is when people discount the differences between humans and other critters, and go the way of “A child is a gorilla is a ferret is a shrew is a mosquito.” Or “Since we’re just animals, and no one expects dogs and bears to not follow their inner desires, why not…” have sex even if the other person is reluctant, take things you desire, beat up someone just because you can, what ever.
As best I can tell, the overarching goal of every culture and civilization is to stop people from doing just that at times and places where it will cause harm to the culture and society. Violence is channeled and directed, other impulses are channeled, and those limits are reinforced by the idea that not just one’s fellow men and women, but also a totem spirit/deity/ one’s ancestors will frown on such things, and even punish certain transgressions. To my knowledge, even the most intelligent other creatures do not exhibit anything we can identify as that. Wolves, whales, ants, and other “social creatures” may have something akin to rules about behavior and getting along, but thus far I do not believe anyone has seen anything comparable to the belief systems generally classified as religion.*
At the next level, we men and women start aiming to be better. Not just so that the jaguar spirit or Al’lah will not punish us, but in order to please the deity and others, and ourselves. We behave better than we “should,” we sacrifice our resources to build cathedrals and endow hospitals and to help people who don’t even know or care that we exist. We aim for the spiritual stars, as well as the literal stars.
If you read the first and second creation stories in Genesis, and the subsequent chapters, you find that there are already other people by the time Adam and Eve have children. But, according to some Jewish commentators, Adam was the first person with a true soul, and he and Eve were made “In the image and likeness of G-d.” There was something different about them. Something special.
What other animals tell stories? What other animals need stories to make sense of the world, whether those stories are about a divine power creating everything and ordering it, or the Big Bang, or Darwin and Wallace’s ideas about evolution and speciation?
I realize that the very fact of following a group that, to take one comment out of context, “has retreated into the Dark Ages of Mysticism,” means I am inherently biased about charges that humans are “just” animals. Too often that “just” seems to justify really, really bad things. Would it not be better to say that we are far more than simply animals, and to strive for even more?
*Elephants… may be different. I just don’t have really trustworthy sources to cite either pro or against elephants having anything as abstract as human religion.