Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animal Nature

We are not unique in many different ways.

Posted May 04, 2016

Molecular biologist Nathan Lents' new book called ​Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals is a most interesting and wide-ranging book that focuses on similarities in the behavior and cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals (animals) and human animals (humans). I read it in draft form and truly enjoyed it. The book's description reads as follows.

With permission
Source: With permission

Animals fall in love, establish rules for fair play, exchange valued goods and services, hold "funerals" for fallen comrades, deploy sex as a weapon, and communicate with one another using rich vocabularies. Animals also get jealous and violent or greedy and callous and develop irrational phobias and prejudices, just like us. Monkeys address inequality, wolves miss each other, elephants grieve for their dead, and prairie dogs name the humans they encounter. Human and animal behavior is not as different as once believed.

In Not So Different, the biologist Nathan H. Lents argues that the same evolutionary forces of cooperation and competition have shaped both humans and animals. Identical emotional and instinctual drives govern our actions. By acknowledging this shared programming, the human experience no longer seems unique, but in that loss we gain a fuller understanding of such phenomena as sibling rivalry and the biological basis of grief, helping us lead more grounded, moral lives among animals, our closest kin. Through a mix of colorful reporting and rigorous scientific research, Lents describes the exciting strides scientists have made in decoding animal behavior and bringing the evolutionary paths of humans and animals closer together. He marshals evidence from psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, anthropology, and ethology to further advance this work and to drive home the truth that we are distinguished from animals only in degree, not in kind.

Why did you write Not So Different?

I wrote Not So Different because, outside of the specialists in animal emotion and cognition, most people know little or nothing about the inner experience of animals. Most people imagine a vast gulf between the behavior of humans and that of other animals, when in reality, our behaviors spring from the same basic programming that manifests as drives and instincts. This goes for the vast majority of scientists as well -- even biologists and psychologists rarely appreciate how human behaviors are really just more culturally complex versions of behaviors seen in other animals.

What's your major take-home message?

The big take-home message is that the emotional drives and instincts of humans and other animals are remarkably similar. Where things become very different -- and we have to admit that modern humans live very differently than other animals -- is when those drives and instincts interact with the social environment to create behavior. Since humans have an exceedingly complex cultural history that is additive over the generations, that is a very different social milieu in which our drives give rise to behaviors. But the drives themselves are not so different.

Why is this topic so important in what some call the anthropocene -- "the age of humanity" -- that I call "the rage of humanity"?

I deliberately shied away from pushing an agenda with my book because I wanted readers of all persuasions to read it so that, hopefully, the data speak for themselves. Many excellent books have been written with the express purpose of waking people up to certain things that we now know about animals, whether it is about their suffering, the destruction of their habitat, or their imminent extinction. Because those books don’t always end up in the hands of the people who most need to read them, I am hoping that a book like mine might be a first step in convincing the people that don’t already know it, that animals have richer inner lives. I am humble about any role my book might actually play, but if I convince just one person to think about animals differently, then I’ll consider this a success.

What are your future writing plans?

I am already two-thirds through with the first draft of my next book called Not So Perfect: Big Design Flaws in the Human Form. This is the second part of what I hope will be a series of books that examines modern humanity through the lens of biology. When I’m not working on that book, I blog at The Human Evolution Blog and will soon join the contributors at Psychology Today as a blogger on human evolution. I am most excited about this fall when I will work with bright young students in the Macaulay Honors College at John Jay College to cultivate their skills in analyzing and writing about science. We’re going to focus on human evolution and I plan to host some of their work on my blog.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell your audience?

Even though Not So Different appears to be all about animals, it’s really all about us. Of course I believe that animals should be appreciated and understood on their own terms, something that you, Marc, are terrific at doing. However, this book is about seeing the humanity in animals, and seeing ourselves as animals. In my view, the best way to understand why we behave as we do is to appreciate our evolutionary history as social animals. As I write in the introduction to the book, "Understanding where sibling rivalry comes from can help us disarm it and thus get along with our siblings better. Understanding the biological basis of grief can help us recover from our own grief as well as help others to do so. Understanding that humans have a moral foundation built into us through our history as social mammals can help us discover ways to build a more moral society, regardless of religious, national, and ethnic differences. In short, there is a lot to gain by understanding where our behaviors come from.” I guess I would say, the truth that I hope comes out of this book is that, perhaps ironically, seeing ourselves as animals can allow us to be better people. 

I highly recommend Not So Different for a broad audience. It's an easy read absent a lot of disciplinary jargon. In my endorsement for this book I wrote, "As someone who has studied animal behavior and cognitive ethology and animal emotions for many decades, I've always been fascinated by the similarities and differences between humans and other animals. In Not So Different, Nathan Lents focuses on the similarities and readers will discover that humans and nonhumans share numerous traits, some of which might seem rather surprising, but the existence of which can be readily explained by well-accepted evolutionary arguments and considerations of the social worlds of the animals involved, something Dr. Lents does very well."

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff) 

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