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Thread: Humans as Non-Animal: Can any inferences be drawn?

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    Humans as Non-Animal: Can any inferences be drawn?

    I came across this New York Times op-ed a few days ago: Humans Are Animals. Let's Get Over It, and thought it was an interesting view. I haven't read the article in depth and am not that interested in it's contents, but it does raise an interesting question: over the idea that humans don't see themselves as animals, and believe themselves distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom.

    Even looking at something as fundamental as our scientific name, sapiens, we've framed ourselves as particularly more capable than other species, and not under some other context. This idea that we are special permeates much of our history.

    So that's a starting point for discussion. I don't have any firm opinions about this, but I wonder what kind of inferences we could draw from this fact?

    - is it true that all cultures view themselves as non-animal? If not, which cultures deviate?
    - was there any historical delineation when some of us started seeing ourselves as distinct from nature?
    - what can this artifact of our culture tell us about our collective psyche and human nature?

    Looking forward to responses!

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    A goodly question! "Animal" is not a culturally universal category; the natural world is divided up in different ways in different cultures, so some cultures/languages will draw a sharp distinction between birds, fish, and land animals, for instance, not using a single term that would refer to all three at once. I'm not aware offhand of any cultures that don't apply some sort of special significance to humans as a category. Animist cultures in general are less likely to see humans as innately superior to humans, and may consider other spirits to be on a higher order than ourselves. It goes without saying that theistic cultures when they came along, saw gods and possibly other spirits as beings superior to humans. But all groups I know of recognize humanity as a distinct and special category one way or another, that has some responsibility to protect our own from other species for instance.

    There are some disagreements about boundaries. Many groups would consider Homo sapiens belonging to other ethnic and racial groups to be nonhuman, or quasi-human. This habit is so commonplace that many people refer to their ethnic group simply by their word for "man"; the many groups bearing a name akin to "Dene" or "Dine" in Athabaskan-speaking North America, for instance. On the other side, some "animals" by western cultures have been considered human in some cultures. The orangutan in pre-colonial Borneo for instance was commonly regarded as a sort of primitive human tribe rather than an animal per se. In the Pacific Northwest, many cultures regarded bears as belonging to the same general family as ourselves.

    There are some interesting exception cases one might explore. In Central America to this day, especially in rural Mixteca Alta, some "animals" are considered to be "human animals" by reason of their connection to a kiti nuvi, a sort of sorcerer whose soul is dyadically placed in both a human and an animal body. Hunters are therefore watchful for animals that bear certain signs of humanness that they know to look for, out of fear of the disastrous supernatural consequences of murdering a kiti nuvi.

    Phillipe Descola's modern classic "Beyond Nature and Culture", might be a good one to add to your ever expanding book recommendations list, as it explores the general concept (and non-concepts) of nature from both ethnographic and philosophical perspectives. Eduardo Kohn's "How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human", likewise.

    If by "we" you mean Eurasian culture, sharp distinctions are drawn between humans and other animals in even the earliest works (this a major theme of both the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance), so I don't know if we have any means to place a time stamp on that idea.

    In terms of interpretation, I'd say that the common perception of human distinctiveness is partly empirical observation (we are unique in some important ways), partly instinctive action on the part of the superior temporal sulcus, and partly trained hubris.
    "Banish me from Eden when you will, but first let me eat of the tree of knowledge."

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    I read that opinion piece a couple of days ago, but I've never thought of humans as anything other than animals. I mean....come on...We share most of our DNA with other apes. We look and act like animals. WTF are we if we aren't animals?

    I was a bit surprised and entertained by some of the things written in the comment section. Apparently a lot of evangelicals read the article and made the claim that we aren't animals. We are special beings created by God. I had forgotten that some people don't realize that they are animals, the most destructive animals on the planet.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    In terms of interpretation, I'd say that the common perception of human distinctiveness is partly empirical observation (we are unique in some important ways), partly instinctive action on the part of the superior temporal sulcus, and partly trained hubris.
    Thanks for the reply, I enjoyed the read.

    This seems a good way of putting it, I think there is a risk of moving too far in the other direction and forgetting that we actually are quite distinct from other species, which maybe accounts for this part of our culture. For a species that is able to notice what is immediately obvious, but struggle to go beyond initial perceptions, it's no surprise that we'd get a non-animal interpretation.

    And maybe when one's family, friends, and associations are predominantly within same species, while other species are more important for their utility, it should be natural for us to view ourselves as central within our own culture. Since we are the only species with a propensity for complex language, maybe we're just seeing this predisposition expressed into cultural elements.

    I've been thinking a lot about this lately too, the ways in which we are similar to other animals, and it seems like there is a broad, cognitive benefit to the belief that we're dissimilar. If humans are special, intelligent, God given, or whatever your interpretation is, then it follows that we're able to overcome any inherent problems in nature, which resolves uncertainty. Where the base reality: I'm an animal and if I don't continually find food I'll starve to death is a lot scarier.

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    Veteran Member James Brown's Avatar
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    Growing up in a conservative Young-Earth creationist household, I can attest that there are reasons why a person might not want to think of themselves as "just another animal." There needs to be a huge gap between humanity and the animal kingdom. This justifies many things, like how we treat animals. Also, we don't need to worry about their eternal spirits since they don't have any.

    If humans are just "smart apes" then much religious dogma finds itself without a foundation. Either Jesus died to save earthworms from their sins, or humans don't need to worry about spending eternity in Hell. We're not special, just slightly differentiated, just like every other animal species. And if we're not specially created by God to share in his eternal blessings. . . . well, the alternative is just too horrible to think about.

    This camel's nose in the tent is part of the huge pushback against Darwin. People didn't deny his research because they thought his scientific methodology was lacking in rigor, or his sample sizes were too small to provide significance. They denied because he was removing humanity from the pedestal that the Bible and our own egos had placed us upon.

    The same denialism was employed against Copernicus, and Galileo. If we're not the 'center' of the universe, then what's all the fuss about?

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    Formerly Joedad
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    Another way to look at the subject is to ask if a dog knows it's an animal. Does an elephant know it's an animal? Does a porpoise know its an animal? Which animals actually know that they are animals?

    I think it safe to claim that all the above animals, and all animals, don't know that they are animals. They are simply not conscious of this fact. So if there are humans who do not know that they are animals that would seem to make them just like all the other species of animals.

    Further, if there be humans that know they are animals that would seem to distinguish them from dogs, cats, elephants and all the other animals, including other human animals. So even though they are animals, that would in fact make them something separate from all the other animals, animal-denying humans included.

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    Veteran Member Lumpenproletariat's Avatar
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    humans vs. other animals

    Quote Originally Posted by James Brown View Post
    Growing up in a conservative Young-Earth creationist household, I can attest that there are reasons why a person might not want to think of themselves as "just another animal." There needs to be a huge gap between humanity and the animal kingdom.
    There is such a gap: we have thinking minds, which ask questions and form beliefs about the world, seeking truth. Other animals do not ask questions and search for the truth.


    This justifies many things, like how we treat animals. Also, we don't need to worry about their eternal spirits since they don't have any.
    They don't have a desire for eternal life, because they cannot think of such a possibility. Thinking of it and wanting it makes humans different.


    If humans are just "smart apes" then much religious dogma finds itself without a foundation. Either Jesus died to save earthworms from their sins, or humans don't need to worry about spending eternity in Hell.
    But humans do worry about it, while earthworms have no ability to worry about it. That we worry about it makes us different and superior to them.


    We're not special, just slightly differentiated, just like every other animal species.
    No, we're special, because of our thinking and questioning and truth-seeking ability. This feature probably evolved in our ancestors, over millions of years, but it's a fact now which sets us apart from other animals, and makes us superior to them.


    And if we're not specially created by God to share in his eternal blessings. . . . well, the alternative is just too horrible to think about.
    A better way to put it is that it's "horrible" if death has to be the end of us individually, by annihilating us. Hopefully there is something more, so we're not permanently annihilated. If this annihilation is not something bad, then life now is also not good, and there's no reason to live another day. Anyone who hopes to live another day, another year, another 10 or 50 or 100 years, has to hope that total individual annihilation is not inevitable.


    This camel's nose in the tent is part of the huge pushback against Darwin. People didn't deny his research because they thought his scientific methodology was lacking in rigor, or his sample sizes were too small to provide significance. They denied because he was removing humanity from the pedestal that the Bible and our own egos had placed us upon.
    We were already on that pedestal, when our ancestors acquired the ability to affirm and deny and question and make judgments about what the truth is, and seek knowledge of what happened a million or billion years ago, and knowledge of how things, including ourselves, originated.


    The same denialism was employed against Copernicus, and Galileo. If we're not the 'center' of the universe, then what's all the fuss about?
    That's a different question -- the position of planet earth in the universe -- than the question if humans are distinct from other animals, or special.

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    I think that a lot of the other animals are a lot smarter than we dumb ass, ecocentric humans tend to think. We don't know what other animals think because they don't speak like we do, but I have no doubt that many mammal and bird species do think and there is plenty of evidence if you read enough books on the topic that animals feel emotions, they experience grief, they love, and some understand fairness.

    In some ways humans are among the dumbest animals on the planet. We destroy the habitat of other species and throughout history we've destroyed our own habitats repetitively, due to our stupid lack of foresight, our greed and unwillingness to accept that we aren't all that special. Just look at what we're doing now? We are a lot dumber than we are willing to acknowledge, despite our large brains and ability to do abstract thinking. We are big brained apes who have done a great job of fucking up the planet.

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    It is the Abrahamic idea that we are above the natural world when we are part of it.

    If you side with evolution then a long chain of events led to the development of our brain and articulate speech.

    Chimps are generically close. They make tools. We are just better at tool making.

    Culture and religion serve to put a thin veneer on our genetic tendencies.

    One of our fundamental problems is the Christian Genesis idea god gave Earth to humans to exploit. We only recently are staring to understand we are part of and dependent on the ecosystem.

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen suggested that we should replace the seriously humility deficient name Homo sapiens with the more appropriate Pan narrans, "the storytelling chimpanzee", which is a member of the same genus as Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus. This has the advantage of far better reflecting our genetic similarity; There's zero biochemical or genetic reason why Homo should exist as a separate genus from Pan.

    The differences between humans and other animal species are no larger nor more significant than those between non-human species. It's certainly true that we are far from the only species to use tools, for example: Both other chimpanzee species do so, as do some cetaceans and some avians, amongst others.

    Every species has some niche in which it excels - that's pretty much the defining feature of a species - and the only reason we see human excellence in our generalist intelligence and massive use of tools as unique is that we lack perspective. Dolphins would take one look at that 'superiority' and say "Yeah, but they are shit at swimming".

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