I was talking to my pet dog Sammy the other day, and he made the following observation:

No offense, mate, but human beings don’t seem too bright ...On the one hand, they treat us like members of the family.  On the other hand, most of them don’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution!”

*(As an aside, you may remember the Taco Bell chihuahua, a well-known marketing genius. Sammy is an Australian relative, who does not eat tacos, but who has consumed a lot of literature)

More seriously, Sammy's off-hand comment actually raises a set of important questions: About the similarities between humans and animals, and about our inconsistent beliefs on these matters.

Are animals like humans?

There is a substantial literature on the extent to which animals have consciousness (e.g., Griffin, 2001), and also a large body of research on animal communication.  In fact, Psychology Today has several thoughtful and scholarly bloggers who ponder these issues regularly, including ethologist Marc Bekoff asking “do animals think and feel?” naturalist Virginia Morell writing about “the thoughts and emotions of our fellow creatures,” comparative psychologist Hal Herzog writing about “the psychology of human-animal interactions,” and cognitive psychologist Stanley Coren pondering humans relationships with dogs like Sammy.

Hal Herzog conducted a study in which he asked 109 psychology students whether they believed that various species, including humans, go to heaven or not.  And get this: Of his respondents, 57 percent thought dogs went to heaven!

Are humans like animals?

I found the dogs-in-heaven statistics particularly thought-provoking in light of the results of another finding reported in Science in 2006: That paper reported a study in which people in 34 different countries were asked whether they agreed with the statement: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”  The figure shows something shocking: Only 40 percent of Americans believed that this statement was definitely “true.”  Another 21 percent were unsure, whereas fully 39 percent thought it was “false.” 

Do humans need to be logically consistent?

What is the overlap between the people who believe dogs go to heaven, and those who deny evolution?  We can’t be sure, but I’m willing to bet there is a reasonable degree of commonality.  I’d make that bet because there tends to be a negative relationship between religiosity and education, and a positive relationship between education and belief in evolution.  For example, an article in Nature in 1998 reported that the majority of leading scientists did not believe in God.  Biologists, who are most familiar with the evidence of evolution, were particularly likely to be nonbelievers. 

Atheists are fond of talking up the findings that religious believers are less intelligent than nonbelievers.  When I wrote a blog titled: Atheistic Liberals ARE Smarter, But for a Funny Reason, it got more hits than anything else I’ve written about, including sex, murder, prejudice, or the meaning of life. 

In my recent book, and in earlier blog postings, I have argued that people are “deeply rational.”  In fact, just a few weeks ago, I wrote about The evolved wisdom behind our seemingly stupid decisions.  But it’s important to point out that the assumption of “deep rationality” does not imply that people are intelligent in the sense defined by the ability to pass a class in logic, computer science, or evolutionary biology.  

In fact, our ancestors’ decisions did not need to be logically consistent in order for them to survive and reproduce successfully.  Sure, given the massive evidence in support of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it is illogical not to believe in evolution.  But that belief is probably completely independent of reproductive success.  Indeed, as my colleague Jason Weeden has pointed out, believers in fundamental religious tenets start having children earlier, and probably have more over their lifespan.  In a recent Edge essay, I pondered the possibility of a future world resembling the one depicted in the movie Idiocracy (in which dumber people have so successfully outreproduced the intellectuals that the world is populated by morons, see Is idiocracy looming?).  Nevertheless, psychologists interested in religion have observed a number of potential benefits of religiosity, including social support networks, mutual defense, and support for strong families (e.g., Graham & Haidt, 2010; Weeden, Cohen & Kenrick, 20108). 

So, even if people express beliefs that appear foolish to biologists, their actual life choices may reflect a deeper wisdom, at least when it comes to solving the adaptive of everyday human life.  Sammy agrees, and he even composed a little song about it, which you can hear if you click on his handsome mug.

Related links:

Humans: They’re smarter than you think.  Sammy the Australian cattle dog ponders the mysteries of human decision making (and plugs our new book, he wants dog food, after all).

Atheistic Liberals ARE Smarter, But for a Funny Reason.

What YouTube clips reveal about animal behavior. Hal Herzog


Graham, J., & Haidt, J. (2010). Beyond beliefs: Religions bind individuals into moral communities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 140-150.

Griffin, D.R. (2001).  Animal minds: Beyond cognition to consciousness.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kenrick, D.T. (2014).  Is idiocracy looming.  In J. Brockman (ed.) What should we be worried about? New York: HarperCollins.

Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013).  The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  New York: Basic Books.

Larson, E.J., & Whitham, L. (1998).  Leading scientists still reject God.  Nature, 394, 313.

Miller, J. D., Scott, E. C., & Okamoto, S. (2006). Public acceptance of evolution. SCIENCE-, 313, 765.

Weeden, J., Cohen, A.B., & Kenrick, D.T. (2008).  Religious attendance as reproductive support. Evolution & Human Behavior, 29, 327-334.

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