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Liah Greenfeld Ph.D.

Is Homo Sapiens The Only Human Species?

If we define humanity logically, turns out dogs are human too.

In the previous post, among others, I pointed out that what distinguishes humans from other animals is that only humans transmit their ways of life predominately through symbolic (that is, cultural) means, including indirect learning, while all the other animals transmit their ways of life predominately through genetic means and direct learning. It is this symbolic (cultural) transmission, in other words, that makes us human, not any of the biological characteristics of the homo sapiens species, as is usually assumed. The characteristics of the species define the characteristics of our organisms, but our lives beyond that, are defined culturally. It follows that humanity is a cultural phenomenon and that we, humans, are both biological and cultural beings. Born as animals, we live in a cultural environment. The necessity to adjust to the cultural environment creates in each animal living in such an environment the individualized cultural process to which we refer as “the mind.” The mind is culture in the brain. A member of the biological species homo sapiens is not necessarily human (as was logically concluded in the previous post, a newborn baby, for instance, is not human), but anyone who must adjust to the cultural environment and, as a result, develops a mind is human.

The understanding that humanity—the quality of being human—is not a natural quality of the animal species homo sapiens, but is something acquired, quite by accident, by this species, and that human life begins significantly later than animal life, and only with the acquisition of the mind and culture, the internalization of the principle of the intentionality of signs and figuring out the organizing principle(s) of one or more symbolic systems, changes how one thinks of human life in yet another way. It strongly suggests that members of species other than homo sapiens may be human as well. That remarkable bird, Alex, the African Gray parrot, who did not know the word for cake, and therefore called it “yummy bread,” could not pronounce the letter “p,” and therefore referred to an apple as “banerry”—part banana part cherry, and who, parting from his featherless teacher and companion the night before he died, told her: “I love you,” certainly was human. Literally, not metaphorically, human.

This has been long acknowledged however tongue in cheek, by many, including some famous professional philosophers, in regard to dogs. Now we can put the tongue back in its proper place, for, upon logical consideration, this is nothing to laugh at. Descendants of the wolf—the superbly intelligent wild animal, the only animal species besides homo sapiens able to adapt to life everywhere on the planet—dogs have been living with us, in a “domesticated state,” we say, almost since we ourselves have become human. As we, in return for many services, have thrown them scraps of our food (which they, more often than not, helped us to secure), we have thrown them scraps of culture and, therefore, have given them nascent minds. In their necessarily limited, unsophisticated and unthinking because speechless, way, they have been able to communicate and cooperate with us, often more efficiently than we communicate and cooperate amongst ourselves, and have adapted to our every society. In recent centuries they have become our pets, members of our families, assuming ever more complex and mentally involved roles in our lives. Like the overwhelming majority of hominid humans, they do not have the ability to write War and Peace, but they make excellent companions and, very reliable nurses, general assistants for the disabled, emotional healers, and police officers. The fact that they lack the mechanical equipment for speaking severely limits their ability to use language internally. Apparently, congenitally deaf-mute people have a similar limitation: although deaf sign-language provides an adequate system of communication, no such person has ever been known to become a great—or even mediocre—writer. An early deployment of the mechanical ability to use language seems to be essential in its successful acquisition, even when one‘s larynx is in order. This is demonstrated by the virtual inability of feral children of seven or eight years of age to learn more than a couple of words. (A famous example is that of “the boy from Aveyron,” studied and treated in the early 19th century by the French physician at an institution for deaf-mute, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard. The boy of about seven was found wondering, naked, dirty, and insensitive to heat and cold, in the woods of Aveyron. His only means of expression were inarticulate grunts. Itard took the child into his home, where, after about two years, the boy became affectionate and obedient, sensitive to comforts of a human home and to temperatures outside, very attached to Itard, and obviously capable of understanding human speech directed at him. In all these respects, he became like a dog. The only thing that distinguished the boy from a dog in terms of behavior was that he learned to articulate two words: “milk” and “God.” Clearly, as humans, dogs are severely handicapped by their physique. But should their physical disabilities, in our eyes, deny them humanity?

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

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About the Author

Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University.