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Are We Really That Special?

The following article was written by Lisa Towell, and originally appeared on PETA Prime.

“Humans are the only animals capable of ________.” I’ve seen countless variations on this statement in magazines, in books, and on television. Fill in the blank with anything you like: language, using tools, love, planning for the future, empathy, self-awareness, humor.

These generalizations are often wrong. Sure, it’s pretty hard to argue with “Humans are the only animals who produce reality television shows.” But let’s take a look at the often-made statement that the ability to use language is unique to humans. Koko the gorilla has a vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs in American Sign Language, and she invents new phrases to describe things for which she has not been taught a label, like “finger-bracelet” for ring. And it’s not just primates who are capable of using language meaningfully. Alex, an African gray parrot, learned to use more than 100 different words and exhibited the intelligence of a 5-year-old human. When shown two objects of different sizes, Alex could answer the question “What color bigger?” by stating the color of the larger object. Alex also understood how to count. Looking at a tray of objects of different shapes and colors, he could correctly answer the question “How many green blocks?” even if he had never seen that particular collection of objects before. And that’s just human language; of course animals have their own languages too.

Self-awareness is another favorite distinction between human and nonhuman animals. But elephants have been shown to have a form of self-awareness by passing the mirror test. In this test, the elephant has a mark placed on her face in a location where she can’t see it. When confronted with her reflection in a mirror, she repeatedly touches her trunk to the mark, indicating that she recognizes the reflection as being an image of herself.

Those of us who have lived with animals recognize the absurdity of the assertion that “Humans are the only animals who can feel empathy and love.” The attachment between mated animals, or between mother animals and their babies, is often written off as “just instinct.” Whenever I hear that dismissive statement, I think of Scarlett, the brave mother cat in New York City who rescued her kittens one by one from a fire, almost at the cost of her own life. It’s hard for me to see the difference between Scarlett’s love for her kittens and the attachment between human mothers and their infants.

The “it’s just instinct” argument doesn’t hold up when animals show emotional connections that cross species boundaries. Stories of dog and cat heroism abound, and pigs have also demonstrated courageous compassion when their human companions were in trouble. I love the story of the pig Lulu, who summoned help when her human companion suffered a major heart attack. Lulu ran out to the road and lay down, blocking traffic, until she was able to lead a motorist to the rescue.

I have a theory about why people feel the need to say “Humans are the only animals ….” It’s a way to set us apart, to make our species special, to show a little species pride. Sadly, this distinction is often used to justify inhumane treatment of animals. Some people believe that it’s OK for an animal to suffer since he or she is somehow “less than” a human. Of course there are many differences between human and nonhuman animal species, but not all of those differences are flattering to us: “Humans are the only animals who commit genocide.” Or consider the many talents that humans don’t possess, like a whale’s echolocation, a dog’s exacting sense of smell, or a bird’s ability to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. And here’s one thing that all animals, human and nonhuman, do have in common: We all want to avoid suffering and live happy lives.

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  • RockstarG1000 says:

    yes, God did say that we should eat meat. But society has evolved to not just eating meat but torturing animals for our own gain. It will sad money and space for animals to live uncomfortably but they can still feel pain. Most people think out species is superior but we take more then we should and WE’RE the ones ruining out planet, not the animals. So in reality, animals are smarter in some aspects. Yes, we are more “civilized” but animals don’t torture their prey. So in a sense, we are no worse then animals.

  • Hello says:

    Humans are the only animals that eat other animals’ periods (eggs).
    Humans are the only animals that love torturing other animals.
    Humans are the only animals that can be perverted.
    Humans are the only animals that believe that they are supreme.
    Humans are the only animals that believe in nonsensical religon.

    @Liv: Nobody cares about you.

  • Julie Of The Wolves says:

    I am disgusted by my own species. Humans think that they own the world, and that they are the best. If you REALLY think about it, humans would be considered one of the worst species. They pollute and destroy the earth. Hundreds of animals are either extinct, or endangered because of humans. I am not saying that ALL humans are disgusting beasts, but many off them are. If someone says, “God said that we rule over animals”, or that the bible says that we were “Created by God to eat meat” don’t listen to them. The Bible was written by filthy, sexist MEN. Not some Great Guy in the Sky. There are some things in the Bible that are SICK. Live by your OWN BELIEFS, and hopefully they will help end animal cruelty.

  • Liv says:

    In the Bible, (Genesis 1) it says that humans rule over animals. That we should hunt them and they should be our food. If you dont want to eat animals, go ahead. But there is NOTHING wrong with being a “meat eater”. We were DESIGNED that way by God.

    So, besides that the “Humans are the only animal that can _____” statement is incorrect (We are not animals, we are men and women made in the image of Jesus Christ) , Its just ignorant.

    Humans rule over animals. Eat them if you want, dont eat them if you dont want to.
    Period. The End.

  • chander kumar soni says:

    yes, i am special.
    i am vegan.
    i am human.

  • Heather says:

    humans are the only animals that continue drinking the milk of another species after they are weened fromtheir mothers breast… makes cow milk sound even less appealing when its put that way :)

  • Maryanne says:

    My family and I went to the Seattle Vegfest 2012 today. Thank you PETA, Vegetarians of Washington, vendors and volunteers! I am the only vegetarian/vegan of my family of four. We all learned so much, and the rest of my “gang” may be a bit closer to understanding why we abstain from animal products…

  • Marco says:

    Humans are the only animals capable of becoming vegan when they are made to eat meat.

  • Harvey says:

    As Bentham was famously quoted: it’s not can they speak, or make/use tools, etc. – the crucial question to be asked, and that should inform our decisions and actions, is do they suffer! (paraphrased)

  • Joanna says:

    A good article – but the paragraph on language was a little misleading. While animals are capable of their own form of ‘language’, this is usually termed as ‘communication’, because it’s very different to human language. Despite the many studies done, no matter how advanced a non-human animal’s human vocabulary becomes, they cannot talk about a situation that is not in the present environment – i.e., they never develop any form of a past or future tense, or an ability to discuss something that is somewhere else (although I think I should say at this point that I have heard of two studies involving human children who missed the usual window of speech development – not due to the studies; they were found like that – and never grasped the intricacies of human language either). There is a theory about a specific gene called FOXP2 being responsible for language – there is a good overview about it here: http://www.evolutionpages.com/FOXP2_language.htm . In other words, it’s a genetic ability. Non-human animals can’t develop language on par with humans (although maybe some can evolve to develop it one day) for the same reason that lizards can’t build a skyscraper – they don’t have the right biological equipment.
    I just thought I should put this out there, because if anyone reading the above article starts seriously debating with someone that animals are just as capable of language as humans are, they’re going to lose the debate simply because it’s incorrect.

  • John Paul says:

    In the March 19, 2012 New Yorker magazine, there is a letter which includes the statements: ” ‘Self-sacrifice’ can be used to describe both animal and human behavior, while ‘kindness’ refers to something that is uniquely human. The former trait can be said to have its roots in DNA and species survival, but kindness arises from the most significant trait possessed by Homo sapiens: consciousness.”

    How ridiculous! The writer is reaching for straws, trying desperately to separate himself from non-human animals. But why? It seems that on the average, humans hate other animals.

  • Maria Ulm says:

    Mariana Vieira. I´m Brazilian too. I´m a vegan for years and much older than you. But I want to say that you can help the animals following PETA´s tips. I do it, and like you and me there are thousands of brazilians helping the animals the way we can. Lots of love to you and success in the future.

  • Derek says:

    “Humans are the only animals capable of destroying what they ‘think’ they own.”

  • Sky says:

    I think it is amazing that animals can comprehend things like sign language. I believe that any animal can feel love in the right situation. To say that no animal can feel love is offensive! :(

  • Tracy says:

    “Humans are the only animal capable of…..destroying their own environment, destroying thousands of lives by selfish, unnecessary choices, breeding beyond numbers that the environment can naturally sustain, taking more then they need”, etc….I have always thought animals are smarter then humans. The only reason why I would not want to be an animal is because of humans. I once thought, “I would love to be bird and fly free”, but then I realized a nutty hunter would probably shot me, I then thought, “Wow, I would love to be a whale swimming free in the ocean”, and then I realized that I might be harpooned and I would be living in the humans toxic waste dump. I soon realized I would not want to be ANY animal purely because any animals life is justified by the importance that humane beings put on it and nothing more. How sad is it that we justify the existence of a life by how much they resemble us or what they can do for us and not simply that they are a life and entitled to life as we are? How sad.

  • Blake says:

    Perfectly articulated!!!

  • Mariana Vieira says:

    Hello,PETA!I’ll be 15 years old in the end of the month and I am a brazilian girl. Yes,I speak english fluently,because in the future I wanna live in NY.I also would like to say that I admire so much your job.I’d like to help you,but I don’t know how.I mean,I don’t have money to donate,because I don’t’ work,and I don’t live in U.S., but I think it’s such an incridible thing that you want to help with the animal rights,because just like us,that have the human rights,they have their rights too.I love the animals,so so so much.I just did the pledge to be vegan for 30 days,because I started to realize,like”OH,my God,I’m really eating meat”. I really bealive that the animal should be treated like us. I have a poppy and I wanna adopt a cat in future.
    I wanna,actually, say that anyway I can help you,I’ll do.There is not so many ways,because of the distance,but anyway I can help you I’ll do.Thank you,guys.Contact me for facebook if yoou want something I can make from here,now(I’ll go to NY when i am 20) for facebok,I already put in ”Your Web site”