What is The Difference Between Human and Non-Human Animals?

Posted: September 6, 2013 at 10:26 am

So what causes a non-human animal to empathize? I’ve been thinking a lot about how humans and non-human animals differ. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two major differences:

  1. I believe humans have an unparalleled ability to abstract, that is build hierarchies of mental representations where details are thrown away to encapsulate larger concepts that can be broadly applied. This is what allows us to convince ourselves of untruths, to mistake our expectations for reality, to exploit others by defining away their suffering and to imagine and build technologies that extend our cognition.
  2. Many of us are not in a day-to-day struggle for survival. I presume that much of the morality, empathy and free will that we consider crucial to our human identity would melt away under constant threats to survival. Consider cannibalism and infanticide amongst chimps, who are genetically closer to us than they are to any other apes.

This seal in the video certainly has little empathy for the penguins, so why the empathy for the photographer? Perhaps all animals have lines that define “us” and “them” where we choose to empathize or to exploit. I further expect that these lines arise from biological survival: If you are below me on the food chain, then you are “them”, if you are equal on the chain then you are “us”.

Clearly this is a little more complex in humans, but I expect only because of our ability to abstract. We create a concept (say, race or gender) and then use that to move where our line of “us” and “them” is.