This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Six 'uniquely' human traits now found in animals

Six 'uniquely' human traits now found in animals - Comments

Rob Schneider's Avatar Comment 1 by Rob Schneider

When I see my dog "sneak" a ball she is not supposed to be playing with, skulk silently off to hide behind the couch where her transgressions cannot be observed, I understand/suspect that there are many more human characteristics and "mind" traits in animals than some have been willing to observe.

She KNOWS what she is doing is wrong (or at least will have consequences) and she actively chooses to hide to avoid the consequences. Amazing.

Fri, 23 May 2008 10:05:00 UTC | #174635

mordacious1's Avatar Comment 2 by mordacious1

I thought all these traits were given to us by god and that's what makes us unique. I mean other animals with morality, come on. That would mean we're not as special as we think. hmmmm

Fri, 23 May 2008 10:23:00 UTC | #174643

EeekiE's Avatar Comment 3 by EeekiE

Any more info on the Magpie funeral?

Fri, 23 May 2008 10:29:00 UTC | #174647

Robert Maynard's Avatar Comment 4 by Robert Maynard

This is the original article mentioned under the emotions section, containing the story of the magpie funeral and others. The incident is anecdotal, but it's touching anyway. :P

Fri, 23 May 2008 10:47:00 UTC | #174655

Theo's Avatar Comment 5 by Theo

As someone who is very familiar with pets and small farm animals, these facts were known to me for quite a while (and cherished!)

As a theist, I didn't know it was supposed to be a bad thing. Damn you Sparky!

Fri, 23 May 2008 11:07:00 UTC | #174662

Border Collie's Avatar Comment 6 by Border Collie

I fed, watered and otherwise interacted with from two to fourteen urban fox squirrels in Texas almost every day for five years. They each had their own personalities, behaviors, etc. I know this is anecdotal and that they were just squirrels and they had many similar/same behaviors but they were also very different in many ways. I've found it astounding what one can learn from simple observation, without preconceived notions getting in the way. When I would sit on the patio and eat a sandwich, Blanche, the dominant female squirrel, and mother of most of the others, would find a pecan and come sit by me. I'd eat my sandwich, she'd eat her pecan. It was enormous fun.

Fri, 23 May 2008 11:16:00 UTC | #174666

s.k.graham's Avatar Comment 7 by s.k.graham

It is interesting that, despite so much Darwinian Evolution inspired rejection of quaint religious superstition and dogma, that the field of biology has clung to the "humans are special" bias for so long. Claims of animal intelligence, creativity, emotions, and so forth are treated as "extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof". If anything, it should be the other way around (which is not to say that there are not crackpots out there who do make outlandish claims about animal mental abilities). Given our understanding of evolution we should be very suprised if we *don't* find all of our "special" human traits among other species -- it is only a matter of degree.

Adding my own anecdote: my dog shows an extraordinary ability to 'read' me from the most subtle cues. He is generally able to tell that I am about to take him for a walk long before I have done anything to intentionally signal it, like saying "walk" or picking up the leash.

Fri, 23 May 2008 12:18:00 UTC | #174685

mordacious1's Avatar Comment 8 by mordacious1

If I speak German to my dog, she goes nuts. I can say anything in English and she is fine, even if I'm using vocab she hasn't heard before, but one sentence in German and bark bark bark bark bark. I tried it with Russian and Spanish too. bark bark bark Weird.

Fri, 23 May 2008 12:24:00 UTC | #174689

torcant's Avatar Comment 9 by torcant

It's all a matter of degree. Animals have less morals, less personality, less tool use, etc. But they have them to a certain degree.
So, nothing special about humans!

Fri, 23 May 2008 12:30:00 UTC | #174695

robotaholic's Avatar Comment 10 by robotaholic

One trait I wish anamals would have is being embarrased when farting.

Fri, 23 May 2008 13:11:00 UTC | #174718

Mozglubov's Avatar Comment 11 by Mozglubov

I think many of these have been known (although perhaps intuitively and not rigorously like I'm sure they are presented in the research) by pet owners for years...

In regards to comment #184069, perhaps you just haven't met the right non-humans. When I was growing up my dog used to get awfully embarrassed when she stunk up the room (so much so that she'd often slink out of the room... although I think part of that might have just been a search for fresh air).

Fri, 23 May 2008 13:55:00 UTC | #174738

Wosret's Avatar Comment 12 by Wosret

I think that since evolution is a gradual process that it is foolish to think that we have any traits that are completely unique to us, and since evolution in no way has aimed for humanity, it is also foolish to think that all of these traits must be a degree less in other animals than humans. Beyond abstract thought, and intelligent, I do not think it is justified to think off the cuff that all of our traits are more intense than other animals.

More cognitive and intellectual abilities varies within the human species. Does emotioal ability, and personality traits also? I'm not so sure that they are linked. I am not sure if it is justified to assume that all such traits are contingent on ones cognitive abilities.

I am over the opinion that it is far more parsimonious and far more in conformity with evolutionary theory to assume that we have no, or at least very few completely unique traits. Also that all because we have some traits that are more developed does not imply that all of our traits are more developed. I see absolutely no reason why other animals couldn't possess more developed traits than humans. Seems like human narsissism to suppose otherwise.

Fri, 23 May 2008 14:39:00 UTC | #174744

Cyboman's Avatar Comment 13 by Cyboman

"It's all a matter of degree. Animals have less morals, less personality, less tool use, etc. But they have them to a certain degree.
So, nothing special about humans!"

Even still, most people believe it is justifiable to use animals for painful experimentation and to raise them in cruel factory farms where they're treated like farm equipment.

Fri, 23 May 2008 14:47:00 UTC | #174746

Simonw's Avatar Comment 14 by Simonw

Stumbling on Happiness - Daniel Gilbert

Chapter 1, paragraph one, starts with a long disclaimer about psychologists who write sentences starting "The human being is the only animal that....", and how they come to regret it, before he goes on to write one like that himself. Great read.

I think the phrase we need is humans are specialized, not special. We are different from the other great apes, but if we weren't that different we'd probably never have wandered off far enough to become a distinct species.

Fri, 23 May 2008 15:00:00 UTC | #174750

Wosret's Avatar Comment 15 by Wosret

That isn't saying much Simonw, that is true of all distinct species.

Fri, 23 May 2008 15:03:00 UTC | #174751

DavidJGrossman's Avatar Comment 16 by DavidJGrossman

One of my cats is very sneaky and plots to escape when I open the patio door to feed the cats outside. He'll walk casually when I'm looking at him but as soon as I take my eyes off him, he sneaks around the TV entertainment center and waits for the door to open and makes a calculated run for it.

He's been outside a lot in the past but too much trouble with parasites and injuries led me to keep him inside.

Many people like to think of how different humans are from animals but there are many more similarities. Who can honestly say that they find more differences between humans and monkeys than they do similarities?

Let's face it, intelligence is not a good separator between humans and monkeys since there are some monkeys that are more intelligent than some humans. (e.g. Ben Stein) And, better looking! (e.g. Ben Stein)

- Dave

Fri, 23 May 2008 15:08:00 UTC | #174754

Ed-words's Avatar Comment 17 by Ed-words

More on the magpie funerals.

Some magpies become funeral directors,

and charge 10,000 gruntle seeds for their

services. Really!

Fri, 23 May 2008 16:52:00 UTC | #174768

calyx's Avatar Comment 18 by calyx

New Caledonian crow. To extract tasty insects from crevices, they craft a selection of hooks

Does anyone remember that crow video that was posted the other day, showing the crow in the lab making a hook out of a piece of wire and using it to get some food out of a pipe? In the video it was suggested that the crow had figured out that a hook was the instrument that needed to be used and then made one, it seems that these birds have been making hooks in the wild, it's quite a bit less remarkable. (Although the video is pretty cool)

Am I wrong about this?

Fri, 23 May 2008 18:42:00 UTC | #174792

Godless Savage's Avatar Comment 19 by Godless Savage

One trait I wish anamals would have is being embarrased when farting.

They're no different from my husband, actually. ;) And I've always thought horses took an inordinate amount of joy in farting, loudly.

I really like this article. I have no doubt that animals feel and act much they same as we do, in many ways. It's just a matter of recognizing our similarities. I've known many animals over the years, and they enjoy deep emotional and psychological lives just as we do...of that I am sure.

Fri, 23 May 2008 19:15:00 UTC | #174809

King of NH's Avatar Comment 20 by King of NH

I think this connection with other species, that somehow we're not so special, is why B.F. Skinner and behavioralism was so easily dismissed by many psychologists. I am not in this field so I can't back this, but: I think Skinner was dead on.

Fri, 23 May 2008 20:14:00 UTC | #174828

Serdan's Avatar Comment 21 by Serdan


Does anyone remember that crow video that was posted the other day, showing the crow in the lab making a hook out of a piece of wire and using it to get some food out of a pipe? In the video it was suggested that the crow had figured out that a hook was the instrument that needed to be used and then made one, it seems that these birds have been making hooks in the wild, it's quite a bit less remarkable. (Although the video is pretty cool)

Am I wrong about this?

I actually think that it makes it more remarkable that all crows intuitively know how to make such a useful (and quite complex) tool. Most people from the "civilised" world would be absolutely clueless if they were left on some deserted island and would take a long time to figure out even the simplest of things.

EDIT: It would seem that most americans are overweight or obese. They would probably just sit down and whine.

Fri, 23 May 2008 22:54:00 UTC | #174852

HappyPrimate's Avatar Comment 22 by HappyPrimate

Most of what we know about using tools and surviving day to day is taught to us, handed down learning - which also can and does occur in other species. But I found a story told by President Carter and his wife amazing regarding a trip to Africa where the people were plagued by eye disease caused by flies. These people were then taught to simply wash their faces regularly and this was enough to drastically reduce the disease. These people just accepted the flies without coming up with the simple solution of washing. They had to be taught washing. We humans do not have a great number of hard-wired skills for survival, we depend more on being wired post birth. That is the biggest difference I see between us and the other animals.

For myself, I much prefer to live with my 3 cats and 4 dogs than with other humans. I receive much more emotional nurishment from them than from most humans I know. After a day working with humans, coming home to my cats and dogs is such a relief.

Sat, 24 May 2008 05:27:00 UTC | #174887

the great teapot's Avatar Comment 23 by the great teapot

Whatever next.
Blacks and fags have feelings too?

Sat, 24 May 2008 05:51:00 UTC | #174888

MPhil's Avatar Comment 24 by MPhil

Consciousness may be primarily a phenomenon of sociality: While generally we wouldn't say that other people can know what we are thinking without us telling them, we can all agree on what belongs to "consciousness": beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, decisions, remebering etc. Is there anything I can have of which the others cannot agree that such a category of what belongs to consciousness does even exist? I don't think so, deception in animals is cunning - proving representative and intentional information-processing, but does by far not reach the structured plans, hypotheses, predictions - and the logical structure of this. Our capacity for rationality is evidenced for example by our ability to construct formal systems - like set theory, number theory, predicate logic etc. We have metalinguistic capability, we can think about thinking, conceptualize speech, analyse it's logical structure, make rational investigations into the world. I think the level of complexity of mind is certainly mirrored in comlpexity of sociocultural interactions - we have various sciences, philosophy, art of various kinds with exhibitions, planned social events, complex economy and structured politics etc. That this is possible and actual is definitely reflective of the general capabilities of the human mind - morality as in social behaviour following having certain restrictions - with some actions being rewarded and "taught" and others shunned and resulting in negative response from the social group, thus eliciting certain behavioural and emotional reactions in the individual who did the action of the "forbidden" kind - in that sense any group of agents has morality. But morality as something that is conceptually constructed, revised, an explicit belief-system checked against criteria of logic (consistency), rationality and applicability in a group, where even hypothetical models and theories are constructed (the investigations of the ethics branch of philosophy - also political philosophy) and compared - even the explicit morality that is a subject of intellectual discourse - ascribing this to animals would be going beyond the evidence - it would be unparsimoneous as explanations of the data, the evidence we have.

Yes, animals have mentality, some more complex than others, but compared to humanity, all fairly rudimentary - as evidenced by rudimentary (compared to us) culture, tool use, evidence for planning. But people tend to make the wildest comparisons because of this - that the mentality of animals is comparable in level of complexity to ours. If you mean comparable like a 1940s computer is to a modern supercomputer then yes, of course they are comparable - but comparable in the sense of "fairly close/very similar", then no. Through our high-level cognition, our ability to analyze our situations, make predictions about the future consciously and integrate memory, situation analysis and predictions all contribute to the complexity and overall nature of our emotions (emotional situation), our personality, our morality, our society and culture. And the evidence clearly points to the level of complexity being much higher, thus allowing genuinely new phenomena - like science and philosophy, or discussions, debates - social interactions that require and are based upon certain explicit standards of rationality, or methodology in general.

Sat, 24 May 2008 11:16:00 UTC | #174937

gr8hands's Avatar Comment 25 by gr8hands

MPhil, I would say that you appear to have very little experience on a day-to-day basis with animals, based on the erroneous statements you're making.

Clearly animals analyze their situations, make predictions about the future consciously and integrate memory. They have a society, morality and culture (the main point of the article).

While not as developed in some aspects as most humans, I would say that the empathy of any household dog is substantially higher than the empathy of president bush for the dying soldiers and civilians, for those poor people who actually suffer because of his policies, etc. bush, his mother, cheney, and many others come to mind immediately -- not as a political statement, but a statement of factual observation.

By writing "deception in animals is cunning" you've just chosen to use a dismissive word to describe their capabilities so you can ignore how similar they actually are to human capabilities.

We've seen examples of primates who don't know how to swim jump into the water to save another creature from a different species -- and drown in the effort. That altruism exceeds those humans who stand by watching someone drown and do nothing , even if they know how to swim!

No, I would have to say that you are choosing to ignore the obvious, either out of ignorance (and I would suggest you get a rescue dog, which would be instructive), or poor science, or a puffed up sense of humanity's importance.

Sat, 24 May 2008 16:59:00 UTC | #174979

MPhil's Avatar Comment 26 by MPhil


I think your pre-theoretical, emotionally charged postitions on this cloud your scientific judgement. I did not use a dismissive word (at least it wasn't meant dismissive in any way.)

The examples you give are about the strength of certain relations (bounds) between individuals - I was talking about intellectual capacity and mental complexity. And our empathy certainly receives a broader in our mental framework with conceptual cognition, even sometimes expressively formal (constructing arguments, analysing them) cognition, with broad knowledge not only of the know how, but of the "knowing that", the propositional kind.

Propositional knowledge requires propositions, which in turn have both a logical structure of information, the relational rules if you will, and semantic content through intersubjective agreement (tacit and induced through learning of the rules both of construction/analysis and refering) about the conventions of reference. No propositional beliefs without propositions - no propositions without any form of conscious representation of the content of the "it is the case that" statement. ie logical/grammatical language (the logical requirement is the requirement of being able to communicate/describe/express relations and properties) with uniform rules for refering. The being conscious of, the analysis and modelling of descriptions itself (such as what science does)requires a means of representation/expression/description that has a meta-level structure. (This is also what talking about talking, analysis of language is)

We have no scientific or indeed broadly epistemic justification for the assumption that any animal other than humans have any genuinely grammatical language, much less with meta-level structure.

Other animals show great possession of know-how (though still by many orders of magnitude not approaching the complexity of know-how and social interaction in development and realization required to devise and build a particle-accelerator for example), but propositional knowledge? Planning yes - meaning future prediction. Even intensional, self-refering communication (but we know this only of our nearest encephalically-related entities, some small part of the great apes, and only then through the teaching of rudimentary sign-language).
The complexity in and thus the mental complexity required for the rudimentary sign-language not even a handful of study-subject apes could master is light-years away from any complexity (from logical structure alone - for example explicit self-refering in the context of communication) of any communication we observe naturally in animals. But the expressive force and actually realized content of human language-use, including mathematics, physics, philosophy, political language, discussions, rational debates etc - is again light-years away from what these handful of apes who mastered sign-language are able to communicate, express, think. Their language is not expressive enough to even model such things.

Then we have the case of apes being able to press numers displayed on a touch-screen in a grid-matrix in correct numerical progression faster than human subjects. The only thing that can be reasonably extrapolated from this is that these subjects grasp the concept of symbolic representation (which is a huge thing in itself, distinguishing the complexity of the minds of these animal by several orders of magnitude from those of, say, turtles or fish.) and progression.

That is a lot, but it's -again- still light-years away from modern mathematics, or even the maths an normal person learns in school, or even the expressive capacity of the idiolect of the average person, light-years away from the complexity of phsyics or philosophy, of math or drama-plays, of construction (through society) and descriptions of economy, economic processes and states-of-affairs, from the development of and theorizing about politics. The complexity of a human society, with such complex relations as between individuals, certain functional roles they fulfill, certain personal relationships, their relations even to artificial social constructs such as governments and instiutions, conscioulsy constructed and structurally/institutionally regulated artifacts as laws, political parties, companies - their respective connections, the role of the artifact of many in its myriad possible relations to myriads of things - this is a complexity completely unseen in nature - nothing we see outside of human sociality comes close.
Other animals do have such things as roles, as interaction, hierarchical structure (determined by social roles of individuals) and even such things as social reward and punishment - but compared to the above - (political parties, companies, economy, science etc) it is absolutely rudimentary.

Honestly, you're making a fool of yourself by attacking me with such weak arguments. You are furthermore attacking strawmen and failing to bring up any argument against the position I was actually taking.

I actually am informed in the cognitive neurosciences, work with some cognitive neurosceintists and the nature and structure of the mind, its composition, implementation, structure and working is my field of research - I think I can claim to know what I am talking about.

And by this statement:

or a puffed up sense of humanity's importance.
you're displaying exactly the kind of false thinking I was attacking. Yes, we are not different from animals in principle, yes their minds work on the same basis as ours - but what I wrote in my last post about intellectual capacity and mental complexity still remains true. Scientific judgement involves not hypothesizing beyond what the evidence tells us, and using minimal explanations (parsimony). From all the data we have, the conclusions of my last post are absolutely substantiated.

Yes, dogs have strong relations to other individuals (we also bread for that during domestication of wolf to dog), but that does not contradict anything I say.

Want a more direct scientific explanation? You can have it. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the entire cerebral cortex (most decisively the neocortex), and the Broca's and Wernicke's areals are the brain-areals whose structural complexity make complex mentality/intellectual capacities like ours even possible. Among that is the faculty for explicit multi-level conceptual thinking, which is in essence systematic, logically structured representation and manipulation of information (ie grammatical language). Some of these areas are not existent in other animals, and the others are substantially rudimentary compared to ours.

People with a position like yours generally ignore (or don't know) both this and the fact that I mentioned in the above comment - that outer criteria for the complexity of mentality is also the complexity of social artifacts and interaction. And animals just don't have anything as complex as theater plays, computers, programming, particle-accelerators, science in general, philosophy etc, or even just grammatical language capable of expressing and thus communicating meta-level thinking.

To downplay or just (as you seem to do) ignore that there is an amazing, incredible difference of level of complexity between this and anything and everything we see in animals is a) downright wrong and b) quite disrespectful toward the accomplishments of rational thought, of science and philosophy.

It's of course a good thing to show where and how we are similar to animals in behaviour, what we have in common, because for too long (especially due to the three great monotheistic religions) we have thought of ourselves as different in ESSENCE from animals (as having a soul and a "free will") and of animals as enitrely incapable of mentality. But not acknowlidging what I have laid out - that is how far the similarity goes, and where the differences lie, is - overdoing it (in addition to being dismissive of the achievements of science for example)

In light of the above elaboration, I think you ought to retract your last statement (the last two lines specificially), neither is true and both are insulting towards me, among other things because my field of study is actually the mind.

*EDIT: Substantial Additions for clarification and provision of further examples and arguements.

Sat, 24 May 2008 17:44:00 UTC | #174988

Alrischa's Avatar Comment 27 by Alrischa

This is exactly what I thought about this article: Wow. It's wonderful, really, to have interspecies appreciation and communication.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I have a cocker spaniel who is something like a big baby with a distinct personality from rest of the dogs. And dogs aren't even one of the most intelligent animals. My dog isn't allowed upstairs; there was no tangible barrier, but he seemed to have understood when we told him. One night, my family and I were watching movie in the AV room when we heard frantic footsteps on the stairs; the noise of the impact clearly created by claws instead of feet. We opened the door, looked downstairs and saw him looking guiltily at us and rolled on his back. We deduced that he snuck upstairs, but chickened out. He certainly isn't good at being subtle.

Sun, 25 May 2008 01:23:00 UTC | #175034

mjwemdee's Avatar Comment 28 by mjwemdee

One trait I wish anamals would have is being embarrased when farting.

Oh, I do so agree.

Sun, 25 May 2008 01:35:00 UTC | #175036

eofor's Avatar Comment 29 by eofor

Just curious, but is there any evidence to suggest that animals show any signs of religious behaviour? If so what?

Sun, 25 May 2008 02:03:00 UTC | #175038

gr8hands's Avatar Comment 30 by gr8hands

MPhil, you are in error in a number of places. Here are a few:

1. My statements are not "pre-theoretical" but are in fact what the articles referenced by the New Scientist are about. Perhaps you might consider reading them prior to commenting on them.

2. Dismissing my comments as "emotionally charged" is inaccurate, puerile, and does not counter their accuracy.

3. You are clearly ignorant of the research demonstrating that a number of animals have language and grammar (elephants, dolphins, just to name two) -- this is old news.

4. You are also confused about humans and grammar -- it is not innate, but taught. Perhaps you are ignorant of the fact that feral children do not spontaneously develop grammar, and in fact if they are not re-introduced back into human society by a certain age, they are unable to develop or use human grammar correctly.

5. Your information on the prefrontal cortex is (to be kind) not entirely correct. I suggest you study it further.

6. You are clearly confusing all communication with human speech/language/writing -- again demonstrating a puffed up sense of human capability.

7. You are confused about what the results of the ape touch-screen tests convey. Surely there are more interpretations than the single one you gave. The researchers themselves gave more. Unless you didn't really read their research. The fact they do it faster than humans says significantly more than the fact they can do it at all.

8. You're confused about the capability of doing math at the level of some humans (not all humans can do more than simple arithmetic), and the capability of doing any kind of calculation at all -- which a number of animal species have demonstrated time and time again.

9. Your biggest mistake is the use of "but compared to the above" and then conclude that animals don't have it. My statements, and those of the New Scientist article, are that animals do have these capabilities, albeit in most cases quite rudimentary.

10. You need to review what a strawman is, as I have not created one. Perhaps you have my post confused with someone else's post.

11. You are very confused when you claim that animals don't "think about thinking" -- how can you possibly know that? That's like thinking blind deafmutes must not either, since they don't communicate, can't read, etc. (I think Hellen Keller had a thing or two to communicate about that.)

12. I don't doubt that you can "claim" to know what you're talking about, but the evidence shows otherwise -- which is exactly what the New Scientist article was about. Of course, you can "claim" that the article is completely wrong, which, I suppose, is what you're doing, but you'd have to do better than toss around buzzwords that you aren't using very well.

Imagine that instead of animals, you use the the example of feral children, or blind deafmutes. Would that alter your statements? Or would they apply equally, because the subjects wouldn't be able to communicate to you in a way you understood as communication, cognition, etc.?

It doesn't take much effort to see that while you have some points, they do not lead to the conclusions you've written. Your arguments are not persuasive, and clearly you are irritated to be called on it, because you've resorted to name-calling.

No, MPhil, I was not inaccurate in my last two lines, so I will not retract them. Your long-winded and erroneous reply has not changed the errors of your previous post, it has only compounded it.

I am sorry if hearing that truth has insulted you. (It's clear you are unaware of some of what I've pointed out, so that means the "ignorance" comment was accurate. Your confusion about grammar, etc. supports my comment about "poor science". Just because you're working with scientists, doesn't automatically mean you're on the right track. Failing to accept that, is another symptom of "poor science".)

Perhaps you are in the wrong line of work if you have learned so little, and arrive at such wrong conclusions -- I do not write that maliciously. Not everyone is suited to their chosen profession.

Perhaps you might show our interchange to the researchers you work with, without comment, and see what they say about it. That would also be instructive.

Sun, 25 May 2008 12:14:00 UTC | #175100