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Are We All Animals?

June 22, 2014

I recently noticed two articles, reporting on scientific discoveries, that demonstrated that simpler animals displayed subtle emotions of the sort that seem restricted to humans.  Once again the old question arises “How are we different from animals?”.  There’s a long history of researchers using scientific methods to show that we are different.  All of these attempts have failed, but still people keep on trying.  They do so in spite of overwhelming evidence that we are the same as other animals.

In the 1800s there was a great debate over the shape of a tiny cavity in the brain called the hippocampus minor.  It was something that appeared to be unique to humans.  I read about it in one of Stephen Jay Gould’s books, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of WormsWikipedia has a good article on this debate.  Needless to say, the hippocampus minor turned out to be present in other animals as well as in humans.

Perhaps learning and memory are something only humans have?  Anyone who has a pet dog knows the falsehood of that statement.  My parents had a dog that would periodically stop at the base of a tall cabinet, looking upward and whining.  Years before, my father had hidden the dog’s toy way up there.  The dog never forgot.  Even simple creatures like insects have the ability to learn.  When you think about it, you realize that memory must go along with learning.  After all, the only way to profit from learning is to remember the result of learning so that you can use it again and again.

Then there’s those two articles I mentioned earlier.  Regret certainly seems to be an emotion that only humans could experience.  Yet, this article demonstrates quite clearly that rats can feel regret when they make wrong decisions.  Anxiety is another emotion that seems limited to humans.  Anxiety is the anticipation of something threatening or frightening.  According to this article, even crayfish can experience anxiety.  Even more surprising, the same drugs that diminish anxiety in humans do the same thing in crayfish.  Now, the arthropod line, which includes crayfish, separated from the vertebrate line, which includes us, about 600 million years ago.  In all that time, the function of the nervous system, and the emotions associated with it, have remained the same.  This is indeed remarkable.

There’s no doubt that we are animals, like all the other animals.  We are built of the same stuff, according to the same plan.  Animals are physically different, of course, and have different strategies for living.  The search for something that differentiates us from other animals has been a failure.  All of the differences are matters of degree.  Everything we have, physical or emotional, occurs to some degree in other animals.  It’s time to stop this futile searching and admit that we are the same.


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