Ask a group of people what the difference between animals and humans are, and they will probably come up with as many answers as there are individuals in the group. But my guess is that many of them will come up with some variation of this: that it’s our amazing brains–our ability to learn, to think, and to feel in nuanced ways–that makes us different. This week I happened across a couple of things that made me think about this a little harder.
The first of these two stories is a funny, insightful (and at 37 minutes, fairly lengthy) talk given by primatologist Robert Sapolsky. Though the talk is titled “The uniqueness of humans,” the talk is almost as much on the ways in which humans are not unique.
Sapolsky examines various domains, including aggression, empathy, theory of mind, and cultural transmission through learning. His basic premise: Humans and other animals are made up of the same building blocks, and use them in similar ways more often than you might think–but humans also use those building blocks in completely unprecedented ways. (He uses some fascinating and sometimes hilarious examples to illustrate these points, which is why I’m wholeheartedly recommending the 37 minute commitment.)
The part that interested me most, though, was actually about the similarities between animals and humans–partly because I’ve always taken human difference so much for granted. Sapolsky’s examples of these similarities are fascinating because they aren’t focused on how humans are ultimately “primal” and instinctive, but on cases in which animals show they have a lot more learning, thinking, and feeling going on than we used to think. Take, for example, how vampire bats follow the “golden rule” when it comes to feeding their young, or the transmission of unique cultural elements in different baboon groups.
The second story I came across also dealt with learning in the animal world. It’s a BBC article that reports on a new study that shows that wild velvet monkeys learn better from female monkeys than from male monkeys. (Not long ago, the idea that animals could learn a non-instinctive, cultural practice from one another was laughable–and now it seems clear that some do.) And at least in the case of these wild velvet monkeys, who’s teaching matters–and females are somehow more compelling than males. Makes you wonder if this is the same reason that teaching is a female-dominated profession in many parts of the world.
Ultimately, these stories are interesting to me because they engage one of the most human of characteristics…deep philosophical thought on Who We Are, writ large. Or maybe we’ll find out that a bunch of other animals do that, too.