The Essential Difference Between Animals and Humans

The thing that most clearly differentiates humans from animals is the capacity to self-reflect.  Although chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative, can be taught to do almost everything humans can, albeit at a more primitive level, they cannot self-reflect.  They cannot take that mental leap of stepping outside of themselves and studying themselves from an alternate perspective, even having a relationship with themselves—of dialoguing with their internal self that they are alive, that their heart is beating, that their life has purpose and meaning, that they will die someday, and, ultimately, that they can make creative, conscious changes in their internal and external environment based on what they learn on their life’s journey.  This is the realm of humanity—and perhaps of dolphins and whales too, though if this is the case then I would agree with John Lilly, the famous dolphin researcher, who called dolphins “the humans of the sea.”

Yet so many humans do so little self-reflecting.  This includes many of the most intellectually sophisticated people.  They work complex jobs, have profound memories, learn numerous languages, yet rarely stop to contemplate their existence in any sustained way.  They live as highly intelligent animals—smart and functional in their pursuit of private goals, but not very wise.  And of course this also applies to Homo sapiens en masse:  as a species we are certainly not very self-reflective—we who are in the process of ruining our habitat and driving ourselves and a lot of our fellow species into extinction.  In this way we are the least wise animal, perhaps uniquely so—supremely self-destructive parasites.
I see this as a reflection of psychological trauma.  Although as individuals we were each created with the capacity to develop into beings who know ourselves and our minds intimately, we get blocked, hurt, overwhelmed, shut down, sometimes even broken and shattered.  Unresolved trauma can cloud our inward-looking lens and even crush our self-reflective capacity entirely.  Often this protects our traumatizers, parents included, who are terrified of the heightened awareness and truth-telling that goes hand-in-hand with self-reflection.  They sense, know even, that the gift of too much self-reflection in their personal spheres can topple their self-deception and force them to wake up to all their inner pain—and to the ugly reality of how far they have strayed from their buried humanity.  So they try to snuff it out.

Yet in some, a rare few souls, self-reflection is stronger than trauma.  These people, children even, refuse to give up that which is most special in them and nurture it despite all odds.  As the result they grow internally stronger and better able to see truth, both the heartbreaking truth and the beautiful truth.  These people are the most human, and I see them as our future leaders as we evolve toward the next, higher level of humanity.

30 thoughts on “The Essential Difference Between Animals and Humans

  1. The primary (main) difference between humans and animals (earthly creatures that are not human) is that humans are accountable for their actions. Animals are not accountable for their actions.

  2. I’m trying to write a paper for my literature class and my topic is the difference between humans and all other organisms and I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who wrote something on here, it definitely helped push me in the right direction. I was also thinking that technically humans are still considered animals but the question I’m really considering right now is if we are our own separate class of organisms or are we just the smartest ones in our class? Any ideas?

    • Yes I believe we are higher animals but what makes us to be higher animals is a LAW , we the humans we are guided by the law since the existing of this world. Either you are Muslim, Christian or non of the above as humans what ever you are doing it most be ampit of the law which are Religious law, Constitutional law or tyrannical Law that was then which is not applicable in whole. Refer back when God created this world the first human on earth was Adam and Eve. The first thing thing God gives them the Law that, they should not do that or this if you do this is the punishment, if there is no law there will be no offence and if they is no offence, the will be no punishment, the will be no judgement and if there is no punishment. That is how we are seeing our self as higher animals.

      • Many intelligent animals have laws – basic rules/practices by which they order their social groups. It is not something unique to humans by any means.

        I can’t agree with Abdullah that there is any law created by a supernatural being for the benefit and obedience of humans – there is simply no evidence to suggest that this is true.

        Humans can either use evidence as the foundation of their beliefs – or faith (which means believing things despite the absence of evidence). If you have faith, you need no evidence…and if there is evidence, then faith is unnecessary. They are mutually exclusive.

        So as far as the humans/animals discussion is concerned, you need to decide whether you want to find out what the scientific evidence suggests…or you need to be honest with yourself and say that you have already decided what you believe based on your faith, and evidence is therefore not part of the equation.

      • I a being of this earth have physical takin the steps to relinquish man made law, i believe the only law we are bound to is natural law. The definition of law is something that cant be changed, so based on that principal our man made law is actually a theory, due to the fact that we can drive 85 km on a posted 80km highway although we are “breakin the law” nothing happens unless caught. Thus a theory, not law. So in my opinion natural law is the only “law” in which we can truely follow. Thank you to everyone post on this blog the knowledge is beautiful. Peece

    • I think your question edges towards a religious perspective, Ash. Historically, human societies have flattered themselves by considering themselves the species chosen and favoured by their god (whichever one it was). To suggest that humans are just an evolved variety of primate challenges fundamental assumptions people made about why we are here. If we are just a type of ape, the answer (which I suspect to be true) may be that we are not here for any reason at all. If we are our own special category, then you have the foundation to argue any number of purposes for our species depending on your religious persuasion. So I think your question is one that is really only of value if you enjoy categorisation as a subject in its own right, (in which case you need to get out more) or if you are looking to make a religious point. (each to their own). As for being the smartest organism – well I guess so, unless you believe that systematically destroying the global environment that sustains all life on Earth is the dumbest thing a species could do.

      • The Difference between a human and an animal ACCORDING to me is that animals are given a directive when they enter the mortal plane but on the other hand humans have no such directive. Animals in general have one directive: “SURVIVE AND REPRODUCE”. Humans whereas have no directive or a directive that goes: “WHATEVER” and this where our INTELLIGENCE comes in and turns “WHATEVER” to “KILL YOUR PLANET” well that’s all i can think of being one of the HUMANS here btw with all the religion and guide talk going around what about my kinda people *atheist* we don’t have any supernatural guiding us so we can do “WHATEVER” we want that takes me back to my Directive…..In the end we all are atheists in someway. xD peace out

    • We are of a separate class higher than the class of other organisms. However, we are yet to find out and unlock the potential inside of us. We are spirit beings, living inside bodies to enable us experience this current reality. In order words, we are gods with limitless power possessing natural elements we call bodies. Without our bodies, we still exist. When our bodies are tired and sleeping to get rest, we sneak out and experience a higher reality and return with traces of our experiences in the form of dreams. Every sleep comes with a dream, but our physical mind doesn’t remember much and discards what it doesn’t understand.
      We can heal our bodies just by thinking, we can create anything in this reality just by thinking. But it will take a very long time for our physical mind to learn, understand and apply these.
      A handful of humans have delved deep within themselves and have unlocked some capabilities.

      Lastly, i’ll like to liken us to a spoon full of uranium which is harmless, yet capable of releasing enough energy to spin the earth if exploited.

  3. what differentiate human and animal is a Law that guide us, Because animals are guided by Nature while humans are guided by Laws refer back when God created the world he created mankind ADAMS and EVE he give them his law by instructing them on what they should do that is how it continue exist in mankind, before the Tyrannical laws and constitutional laws. so ii you look at this, Language is for communication which animal also have their means of communication to themselves, Creativity of shelters technology and others intangible are by no means unique to human being, animal don’t need it. Animals need or do what is favorable to them.

    • I have to disagree Abdullahi. For me, this question has nothing to do with religion, partly because I see no reason to believe there in God, or any other supernatural force, so I don’t accept that there are (or should be) any laws that are not man-made. But that opens a very different debate.

      On the differences between men and (other animals) I see nothing fndamental that sets us apart – our capabilities are just more developed in areas we consider important. With greater intellect though does seem to come greater cruelty. Few species kill merely for enjoyment, but we do and with the possible exception of Neanderthals, killing for conceptual belief seems to be a Homo Sapien trait too, and nothing to be proud of.

      You say that animals need to do what is favourable for them. I would argue that humans are no different – it is just that our reasoning is so developed that we recognise that a favourable outcome for us in the future may come from activities like sharing, or charity, which don’t give us an immediate benefit.

  4. i think the basic difference between animal and human is animal fight and enjoy with word and body, where human fight and enjoy with machine, human live in virtual world, animal live in real world, human are pioneer in falsehood where as animal do not know what lie is,

    few human can die for other human by love, no animal can die for other out of love……

    • I think the self-reflecting point is key…though it is difficult to prove that an animal doesn’t self reflect (some recognise and consider their images in mirrors for example)

      Some animals do lie …various monkeys for example will make deliberate distress calls to lure higher status individuals away from their meal – then steal it. And love – there are plenty of examples of self-sacrificial behaviour in the animal kingdom.

      Sadly it does seem to be true that the more clever the animal the more cruel and violent they are. Orca’s will play with their victims rather than killing them swiftly. Chimps engage in tribal war with kidnapping and rape as part of their tactics. They use tools too in their wars – though I can’t think of an example where an animal has invented a tool that has the sole purpose of killing another of its own species.

  5. How can we prove that man is not an animal? Evolution is all about change, if man evolves from apes then man should have changed into something else over the millenium or centuries. Please I need answers to my whatsapp number on +2348188208874.

    • I have just begun my considering of this very thing. And i also am curious. Here’s some ideas. Curiosity for one, and ability to communicate aswell as miscommunicate. Mainly the second one. We think too much and too hard and lack acceptance of others and of ourselves. Animals know what they need. And do what they must. We have an ever growing need to “evolve” and expand and over power. Animals are good man thinks his reasons are good enough. We lack balance and acceptance and I hate that I took the time to try to understand myself better. In doing that I realized how petty, conflicted and contradictive we all are.

      Furthermore I should not list my opinion as others seem to judge me, themselves and others in their attempt to understand. Blah I think therefore I am… wrong.

  6. Really interesting thoughts. Many of the attributes considered to be exclusively human (Reason, language, inquiry, wonder, longing, religion, morality, aesthetics, creativity, imagination, aspiration and humour) are present to some extent in some other animals – but the self reflection point is difficult to argue with.

    However it is difficult to imagine a test that could prove whether or not an animal is self-reflective. Does a dog that places itself at risk to save a human show that capacity?

    I would suggest that it is uniquely human to express abstract concepts…such as honour, which are the product of self-reflection.

    Why is it important? Because now that humanity has accepted that all homo sapiens are endowed with the same rights …how do we know that we have now drawn the line in the right place between ourselves and other species? If neanderthals were still on the planet would we allow them the same rights of citizenship – and if so why?

    • i’ve actually never interacted with a chimp directly (one on one, that is), but from all i’ve read and observed they don’t self-reflect, not at least in the human sense of the word. for that matter, a lot of humans don’t even self-reflect (or at least much).

      • How do we know if we self reflect? There might be a “consensus” on the definition of (self) consciousness but we have to rely on what definition the tester is using to determine whether another life form is self-aware, self conscious and therefore reflect on itself. How do we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that other life forms cannot or do not reflect on themselves? Perhaps our tests aren’t good enough. I really don’t think that only humans can reflect on themselves but I do believe that when we do, we do it on a different (higher?) level than other animals. Like we do many other things on a different (lower or higher) level or intensity. We are just a different kind of animal of all the species on the planet. We are not special or unique, we are just on top of the food chain that makes us stand out from the rest.

        • Intersting views. For me the essential question (which you allude to) is whether humans just do various cognitive things (reasoning, communications, abstract thought, self awareness) better than other animals – in which case we are just animals with higher capabilities in certain areas. Alternatively is there something distinctly different which makes us ‘not animal’. Those of strong religious conviction address this point all over the web by arguing human exceptionalism from a creationist standpoint. However I find it difficult to identify anything fundamental that you can conculsively say humans do, and animals do not. As you say, the self-reflection point is arguable. I would suggest perhaps the ability to think in , and express abstract concepts such as ‘honour’ might be distinctive but even that is difficult to prove.

          Why is this important? Well we share the planet with other creatures and historically we have taken upon ourselves a right to do as we please with the others because they are a different order/level of being. We used to draw the line through the homo sapiens species based on race and gender but now we struggle with the question of rights for other species – and if they have rights, do they have responsibilities?

          I have been interested to read about the advanced capability of Neanderthals, who were not so different to Homo Sapiens. If the species was still around today, how would we view them in terms of the animal/human debate and what place would we give them socially?

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