This weekend I received a few emails about a recent essay written for Psychology Today titled "The Seven Things That Only Human Beings Can Do". People were concerned, in some cases deeply troubled, by the erroneous claims of the author concerning the total absence of some cognitive and emotional capacities in nonhuman animals (animals). One well-known author wrote, "you would need a front-end loader to dig a path through this." The word "only" in the title of this essay without a modifier such as "supposedly" surely is a warning flag given what we actually know about other animals and given what we're continually discovering about who they are. Indeed, although we've known it for a long time, a group of distinguished scientists felt comfortable enough to recently formally declare that animals are indeed conscious.
So, given my long-standing interests in animal behavior and the cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals, I eagerly searched out this essay expecting to be enlightened. Rather, I was floored by the utter naivete of the author who clearly felt comfortable making hard and fast claims about the lack of cognitive and emotional capacites that have been well documented by those scientists who actually study animal behavior. I also noted that the author of this essay had written a book called Hide & Seek:The Psychology of Self-Deception, so I thought his essay was a joke and some sort of veiled attempt to show how easy it is to deceive his readers. I was wrong. I wonder why people who don't know much if anything about animals feel free to write about them as if they're experts in the field. (I've also wondered why so many essays posted on Psychology Today use animals as the teaser image when the essay itself has nothing to do with animals. Clearly, animals are "in".)
So, getting back to the seven things that supposedly only human beings can do, I fully realize we are exceptional in various ways as are other animals. I figured I'd read about things such as building computers, driving cars, flying airplanes, cooking food, wantonly waging war, worrying about taxes, and searching for extraterrestrial life among other behaviors that are distinctly human. However, I read that only humans speak, laugh, cry, think, suffer from mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, fall in love, and believe in God.
Here I just want to consider these preposterous and uninformed claims in varying degrees of depth and provide some references for those who would like to see what we actually know. My own essays for Psychology Today along with those of John Marzluff and Tony Angell, Lee Dugatkin, Gay Bradshaw, Jessica Pierce, Hal Herzog, Mary Bates, and Agustin Fuentes among others, show just how misleading the essay "The Seven Things That Only Human Beings Can Do" truly is.
Speaking: Here, the author writes: "Language is not necessary for communication, and many animals communicate effectively by using more primitive forms of communication. However, language is able to give rise to symbolism, and thereby to emotionalism and to creative activity. These unique (my emphasis) assets not only make us by far the most adaptable of all animals, but also enable us to engage in pursuits such as art, music, and religion, and so define us as human beings." While there are on-going debates about whether or not other animals actually have linguistic skills, there's a wealth of data that clearly show that animals have "emotionallism" and are extremely creative. One down, six to go.
Laughing: The author tells us "no one has ever seen a laughing dog". Well, this is simply not so. They've been seen and heard. Consider, for example, the research of the late Patricia Simonet whose work on dog laughter has been well accepted (and was discussed by Stanley Coren for Psychyology Today). Consider also that Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, and others have described laughter in nonhuman animals. Laughter has also been documented by the renowned neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and his research has been published in prestigious journals including Science.
Crying: Here the author contradicts himself. He writes: "All animals shed basal and reflex tears, but only human beings shed emotional tears. There are those who believe that some animals, in particular elephants and chimpanzees, can also shed emotional tears, but this is difficult to verify. On the other hand, we can be pretty sure that crocodiles do not cry." Just because something is "difficult to verify" doesn't mean it doesn't occur, so the claim that only humans shed emotional tears is vacuous.
Thinking: The claim that other animals can't think is so ludicrous it's laughable. Here, the author's text is a simply irrelevant garble in which he cites Aristotle's claim that humans have the unique capacity to reason. Well, Aristotle might have thought this but clearly he didn't have access to the wealth of information that shows clearly that animals are well able to think and to behave rationally.
Suffering from mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia: Once again, this claim in which Aristotle is also cited, is incredibly misleading. Researchers such as physician Hope Ferdowsian and psychologist Gay Bradshaw (see also and and), for example, have shown that captive animals do indeed suffer a wide range of psychological disorders including PTSD, and I've written about psychological disorders in wild animals. This is one of the hottest areas of research because of the ways in which countless animals are used and abused in a wide range of human venues. And indeed, researchers continue to use animal models of depression and other psychological conditions to try to learn more about similar disorders in humans.
Falling in love: I'm not sure where to begin here because there are so many examples of animals falling in love and remaining in love for long periods of time. Individuals of many different species form long-term and extremely close social bonds characterized by clear affection and attachment that we call love in human animals. They clearly miss one another when they are separated and suffer from the absence of individuals with whom they're closely bonded. We see love among mated pairs and also between parents and their children and among members of a group. Of course, one can pitch a definition of love so high so as to exclude many humans but accepted definitions of the word "love" clearly apply to other animals.
Believing in God: I really don't know if animals believe in God and I expect no one else does either, so perhaps this is something only humans do. However, there is evidence that suggests that animals have spiritual experiences. Based on her observations of waterfall dances in chimpanzees, Jane Goodall wonders "If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion? Would they worship the falls, the deluge from the sky, the thunder and lightning — the gods of the elements? So all-powerful; so incomprehensible."
If we have something, "they" (other animals) have it too
So, it's simply and utterly misleading to make some of the claims that are made in the essay with which I'm concerned. This sort of speciesist thinking doesn't have much support. Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity that stress that differences among species are differences in degree rather than kind - shades of gray rather than stark black and white differences - argue that we need to keep an open mind about the cognitive capacties of other animals. The bumpersticker for continuty is "If we have something, 'they' (other animals) have it too"
The time has come to debunk the myth of human exceptionalism once and for all (for further discussion see, for example, Lori Gruen's Ethics and Animals). It's a hollow, shallow, misleading, and self-serving anthropomorphic perspective on who we are and who other animals are. It egregiously misrepresents other animals and of course there are severe consequences for these beings who depend on us for their well-being.
Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species exceptionalism or individual exceptionalism, moves that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.
The teaser image of Frodo can be seen here.