As alike as we are, we know we aren’t identical to fellow animals. But what makes us unique? Some would say our complex communication skills set us apart, but an ape can communicate as well as a small child with sign language, and even perform some math. Rodents also appear to have complex languages: Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University, decoded the sounds of local Gunnison’s prairie dogs and found that what you or I might hear as just a squeak could actually mean, “A fat human is coming and he’s dressed in green!”
The myth that tool usage is for humans only was put to rest when anthropologist Jane Goodall witnessed hungry gorillas probing stems into ant mounds to catch a snack. Elephants, sporting the largest brains of any land animal, are known to use fronds as tools to swat away flies or scratch themselves. Macaques in Thailand are even famous for using dental floss; National Geographic News reports that the primates will pull hairs from the heads of human tourists to clean between their teeth.
Some people claim that only humans show empathy. Why then, does an elephant stop to mourn a dead baby, or a dolphin save a human from drowning? Dutch primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal, Ph.D., of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, notes that given the visceral quality of empathy to humans, the emotion probably spawned long before our separation from ape lineage. Waal cites a study that psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler of the National Institute of Mental Health performed to test how small children respond to their mothers’ cries of pain. Waxler wasn’t trying to include other animals in the experiment, but she found that pets were equally disturbed as children upon hearing the mom’s cries, running to her and placing their head in her lap.
The devout often argue that no other animal has the capacity for spirituality, and that religion separates us from the rest. But just because other animals don’t communicate their spiritual side with people doesn’t mean they don’t have one. Neurology professor Kevin Nelson of the University of Kentucky says that the spiritual part of the human brain is also one of the most primitive, and believes that other animals likely see the same “light at the end of the tunnel” that people describe during near-death experiences. Although we know little of the perceptions of our fellow beings, Jane Goodall and other primatologists have seen chimps dance ecstatically in a seemingly trance-like state.
So what does separate us from other animals? A lot less than most people think. But one thing we alone can do is work toward conscious social evolution. We have the technology and communication skills to steer our own species and create a fair, peaceful and benevolent society—an ability that I hope we don’t squander.
image: Urville Djasim