Human Beings Are More Than Animal
Review of The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us From Animals by Thomas Suddendorf
The claim that human beings are animals like any other has become so common that we hardly register it anymore. We dwell so much on what we share with other organisms that we assume, without arguing the point, that any seeming uniqueness in human beings must really be an elaboration of some basically animal feature. The Gap by Thomas Suddendorf shatters this myth. A psychologist in New Zealand researching animals and young children, Suddendorf delivers the body of evidence against the belief in the total convertibility of the human into the animal. As the title implies, a qualitative gulf separates us and our non-human relatives.
In Primates, Nature Seems To Be Tuning Up Her Orchestra
Notwithstanding that gap, Suddendorf gives the impression that whenever we find some animal trait that strikes us as vaguely proto-human, we will more often than not find it in a primate. Before the ascendance of genetics, visitors to European zoos needed no coaching to be a stuck by primates’ resemblance to us; genetics then confirmed chimpanzees to be our closest living relatives—that is, after our genocide and partial absorption of the Neanderthals and Denisovans. (All unattributed examples and quotations in this article are from Suddendorf.)
For example, a commonplace has it that only human beings wage war, that is, organize killings of their own species. Not quite. The truth is that only human beings and chimpanzees wage war. Jane Gooddall observed, in Suddendorf’s words,
how chimpanzees on [patrol] killed chimpanzees from a neighboring group. At that time it was widely believed that only humans had that deplorable trait to cooperate in the murder its own kind. The ferocity of the killing shocked a lot of people. The outnumbered victims were held down while assailants beat and mauled them, dragged them back and forth along the ground, and attacked them long after they had stopped defending themselves. Many examples of chimpanzee raids and violence against neighbors have been recorded since.
As our unique feature we might instead offer tools, which we not only use but depend on for survival. But while primates evince much less tool-obsession than we do, they nevertheless dabble in them on occasion. Suddendorf offers several examples:
“In 2005, a gorilla was observed using a stick to dig up tubers and to check water depths while wading through a swamp.”
“In 2007 chimpanzees in the savannah of southeastern Senegal were reported to sharpen sticks and spear bushbabies—small nocturnal primates—hiding in tree holes.”
“Some groups have been observed digging for tubers. There have even been reports that chimpanzees seek out medicinal plants when sick.”
“In the Tai forest . . . chimpanzees spend considerable time cracking open nuts with stone hammers and anvils, and appear to have done so for a long time in this region. At one site an archeological study indicates that chimpanzees used such stone tools 4,300 years ago—the chimpanzee stone age predates human farming in the area.”
There is a gap between human beings and other animals, but in non-human primates the gap appears to narrow without closing. In primates, nature seems to be tuning up her orchestra. But what precisely is the gap that chimps fail to cross?
Before defining the gap, we should consider a few features truly peculiar to human beings. One is play.
Children spend a considerable amount of their waking life in fantasy play. They conjure up and untiringly repeat scenarios with props such as dolls and toys . . . . Toddlers typically start to display pretend play in the second year of life, and many subsequently spend much of their waking time enacting their fantasies.
Dogs frisk and wrestle, but are they consciously overlaying an imaginary situation, on the order of cowboys and Indians, onto their antics? Do they pretend to be certain eminent border collies from history? That sort of pretend play is what human children do beginning around age two. Crucially, however, we don’t hallucinate a false world during play. We know that we’re playing:
When children pretend that one thing is another, they experience two worlds: in addition to perceiving the world around them, they construct an imaginary scene . . . . Children do not typically confuse the pretend identity of an object with its real nature and properties, however—they are rarely tempted to eat their mud pies. So they must be able to hold in their minds a representation of reality as well as a representation of a parallel pretend situation . . . We continue to learn and remain playful and curious into old age—characteristics that for most mammals are found only in the young.
Johan Huizinga in his celebrated Homo Ludens (approximately “man that plays”) argued that play is the essence of the human; we live our true nature not in practical work but in this imaginative superimposition over the physical—in culture, in art, preeminently in religion. “Play” in this imaginative sense appears to be unique to human beings, at the very least in its deliberation and intensity:
Alas, animal field studies have produced hardly any evidence for pretend play in the wild. You might rightly wonder how one could know whether, say, a wolf bolting into the distance is pretending to chase a rabbit or is simply running. Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish imaginary play from other types of play in the absence of props such as the dolls and toys that human children use (which in itself may hint at differences).
Giving credit where it’s due, however, Suddendorf acknowledges the male chimpanzee Kakama who treated a log as a baby, even making a nest for it. Once again, the almost human is found in a primate.
They Do It With Mirrors
In Jean Piaget’s stages of understanding object permanence, the infant achieves Stage 5 when she finds a ball that she saw hidden in a container. Yet at 12 months, the infant is usually unable to find it if she sees a hand enclosing the ball go into a pocket and emerge empty. Between 18 and 24 months, she begins to understand that the ball must be in the pocket. This is Stage 6. While many species have achieved Stage 5, including cats, chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins, gorillas, magpies, orangutans, parrots, and some monkeys, the great apes alone join human beings in the exalted sixth.
In another experiment, researchers put a colored mark on the face of a child or an animal and then placed the subject in front of a mirror. From the second year on, children typically probe the mark while looking at their reflection, showing that they understand that it is a reflection. Chimpanzees do the same. But other species, even monkeys, fail to behave as though the mirror offered them their image.
And in fact, children’s passing of the task has been found to be associated with the emergence of self-conscious emotions, such as embarrassment, as well as with the use of personal pronouns . . . [C]ognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser argued that only when infants notice that their facial appearance matters to other people do they become interested in learning about their own faces through mirrors.
What do these features—play, understanding invisible displacement, and self-consciousness about one’s appearance—have in common? They seem to “involve a capacity to consider more than what is directly available to the senses.” We are moving closer to the gap. Human beings seem uniquely in touch with what is beyond the physically immediate.
Not only do we dwell in this “world beyond the physically immediate,” but we want to share our experience of it with others. Here our break with primates becomes decisive. Our most potent means for experience-sharing is language, the propensity for which appears to be innate:
Children acquire language rules effortlessly and without explicit instruction. They are not predisposed to learn a particular language—a Japanese infant brought up in an Italian household will become fluent in Italian and vice versa—but they are able to distill the rules that govern their linguistic environment.
Nevertheless, cases of neglected children are both sad and instructive: one Genie was not spoken to during a crucial period of development and never attained fluency in any language. Our speech then is not merely biological but also cultural.
Language is ingredient to what we are—Heidegger called us not the animal possessing language but the animal possessed by language—yet when we try to say what language really is we feel perplexed, despite its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it. We can say that part of language’s power is the making present what isn’t present immediately to the senses. We might also say that this power is in principle endless. As George Steiner put it:
Only language knows no conceptual, no projective finality. We are at liberty to say anything, to say what we will about anything, about everything and about nothing (the latter is a particularly striking and metaphysically intriguing license) . . . .
When Wittgenstein’s Tractatus declares the limits of language to be those of our world(s), it uses ‘limits’ tautologically. Language need halt at no frontier, not even, in respect of conceptual narrative constructs, at that of death.
Do animals speak this way? Their calls and noises seem worlds away. Monkeys, for example, raise alarms tailored to specific predators:
The animals make different alarm calls when they see a snake, an eagle, a leopard, or a human. When played back the monkeys tend to react differentially and appropriately to such calls. That is, they hide under a tree if the call is the eagle alarm, but they run up the tree if it is the leopard alarm . . . .
A monkey may on occasion falsely utter the alarm call for “leopard,” making the rest of the troop run up the tree while he stays behind and eats the food the others discarded. This seems like a pretty clever form of tactical deception, but it also illustrates the lack of reasoning about what the others know. The monkeys up in the tree do not seem troubled by the fact the individual that cried wolf did not flee himself and instead took their food. They do not seem to reflect on (that is, meta-represent) the discrepancy between what the individual’s alarm represents and what his lack of running away represents.
The monkeys seem not to grasp these alarms as the sharing of mental states, separate but analogous to theirs; even when one monkey practices to deceive, the dupes don’t impute treachery to their companion. We might haul the little criminal to courts of justice and feel superior; but should we feel totally superior when this urge to justice also makes possible our witch-hunts and moralistic hysteria? The animal world is clean of those.
Suddendorf also notes the well-publicized sign language taught to apes. But this seems not to show affinity to our linguistic powers sending George Steiner into raptures. Ape signs tend to be requests only:
[T]he apes tend to use a single word, or a string of two or more words, to deal with their present situation: “give apple,” “tickle chase,” and the like. . . . What appears to be lacking, even in great apes, is a motivation to find means to exchange what is on each other’s minds.
Instinct vs. Foresight
The instinctive sign is adherent, the intelligent sign is mobile.
To say that animals exhibit less foresight than human beings sounds slanderous. Don’t they provide in summer for winter, don’t birds migrate stupendous distances? True enough, but the wise and useful instincts of most animals have little flexibility. An animal walks an unchanging path. Rather than contriving their instincts, animals embody them.
The [digger] wasp always inspects the nest before dragging its prey inside to feed its larvae. If in the meantime a mischievous human moves the food a few centimeters, then the wasp will regather the food, and repeat the sequence again by dropping it at the entrance and inspecting the nest. This can be repeated again and again, without the wasp breaking out of its behavioral program. Although provisioning the young appears to be a complex, future-directed behavior, the wasp executes it without any apparent thoughts about seeing them grow up. If the entrance is destroyed, the wasp will not feed its larvae but trample over them in its frantic search for the entrance. Similarly, various animals hoard food for the winter without necessarily understanding why they do it. Young squirrels, for instance, will hoard nuts even if they have never experienced a winter. These behavioral solutions to recurring seasonal changes may not be all that different from physical adaptations to the same problem—such as storing food for winter in body fat.
Animals appear have a narrow focus on certain tasks but don’t “make and pursue shared goals” as we do.
[T]he same animals are often good at learning one thing but not at all good at learning another. Such findings suggest that animals do not simply share an all-purpose learning machinery, as was once imagined by behaviorists . . . According to the primatologists Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, animals show “laser-beam intelligence.” David Premack concurs and points to teaching in cats as an example of a clever but restricted ability that serves one goal: teaching hunting. Human teaching, by contrast, is domain general and can serve many goals[.]
Nevertheless, as expected, apes show a certain slant toward positing and pursuing goals:
“[C]himpanzees were able to find a hidden object in a room after being shown on a photograph or scale model of the room where the object was going to be hidden. The apes appear to be able to interpret these images and models as a source of information about the real thing.”
“[W]hen presented with a treat that is out of reach, great apes can go around the corner, where the treat can no longer be seen, and select a stick of the appropriate length to solve the problem.”
“[C]himpanzees in the Tai forest of the Ivory Coast . . . use stones to crack open nuts and sometimes carry stones for a hundred yards or so to the site of the nuts. Presumably they pick up the rocks as a result of developing an appetite for nuts and a plan of where to get them.”
“[T]hree bonobos and three orangutans were trained to use a tool to obtain a treat from a feeder apparatus. The animals were then ushered into a waiting room, and the experimenter removed all remaining tools left in the experimental room. After an hour’s wait, the apes were allowed back into the experimental room. On almost half of the trials the apes carried a tool with them from one room to the other and back—so they could use it to get more treats. Some apes did a lot better than others, and two animals even succeeded to hang on to their tools when they returned to the experimental room after an overnight delay.”
Nevertheless, the gap remains. In a laboratory, cebus monkeys were observed stuffing themselves with cookies until they were full and then throwing the leftovers out of their cages. Of course, they would get hungry hours later and have no way to retrieve the lost food.
You might wonder why they did not learn to guard their food to satisfy their future hunger. If you cannot imagine being hungry again, then perhaps biscuits’ utility may lie in their quality as fine projectiles. There is no point in acting now to secure a future need you cannot conceive of.
Similarly, an attempt to teach chimpanzees to gather tokens that could be exchanged later for treats failed. The god Mammon will have no ape initiates. Non-human animals seem incapable of the “mental time travel” that is the source of both our greatness and our special kind of depravity. However much certain animal—especially primate—actions seem to resemble our “mental time travel,” the difference yawns as much as the difference between walking ankle-deep through water and actually swimming. We are simply immersed in foresight.
What Others Think
What others believe, feel, and experience interests human beings deeply, even to the point of obsession.
From two months onwards, infants begin to smile when their parents smile at them. Over the next months they learn to follow gaze, at first to objects within their visual field and later to points of interest behind them. Infants and adults begin to attend to the same objects and mutually interact with them—for instance, in give-and-take games . . . . Unlike human toddlers, who constantly want to point out things to their parents and others, primates do not seem to have much inclination to inform others.
Not only do we intuit the mental states of others but we perceive their perceptions of other mental states. Suddendorf calls this “nesting”:
As Robin Dunbar pointed out, only exceptionally clever writers like Shakespeare make our minds stretch with five or six levels of nesting, as he, for instance, intends us to believe that Iago wants Othello to suppose that Desdemona loves Cassio, who actually loves Bianca.
Animals don’t appear to express themselves with the intention of inducing others to grasp their inner life:
Unlike other primates, children sob to attract attention and sympathy . . . Human eyes signal gaze direction. We advertise where we look, and we read where others are looking. The eyes of other primates, if anything, seem to camouflage gaze direction. They do not roll their eyes to express disdain or shed tears to express their sorrow.
Furthermore, we believe that others believe falsely; no animal attacks another for maintaining what they consider a bad opinion. This is thanks not to animals’ restraint but to their evidently weak “theory of mind.” In an experiment, researchers hid treats, and chimpanzees had to beg them to reveal the hiding spots. The chimps failed to discriminate between those people who had seen where the treats had been stowed and those who hadn’t—some experimenters, for example, wore buckets on their heads in full view of the chimps. “Knowing that he doesn’t know” appears to be beyond them.
Without culture, human beings would be the most helpless organisms on earth. Culture is the source of both strength and radical dependance.
Who knows how to build a bicycle, let alone a car, and even if you did, how would you obtain the raw materials to do it? Even growing your own food depends on prior knowledge of principles discovered by your ancestors. Our scenario-building minds draw heavily on the ideas and experience of other minds to guide our own future . . . .
Michael Tomasello argues [culture] is also uniquely human: New forms of cultural learning created the possibility of a kind of ratchet effect in which human beings not only pooled their cognitive resources contemporaneously, they also built on one another’s cognitive inventions over time. This new form of cultural evolution thus created artifacts and social practices with a history, so that each new generation of children grew up in something like the accumulated wisdom of their entire social group, past and present.
Once again, proper respects must be paid to certain animal behaviors:
“[C]himpanzees at Mahale in Tanzania often groom each other while holding hands in the air, whereas chimpanzees at Jane Goodall’s research site at Gombe, only about 150 kilometers away, do not.”
“At Shark Bay in Western Australia . . . dolphins break off sponges and wear them over their snout when probing the sea floor. Such behavior appears to have no genetic basis and is likely maintained socially. Furthermore, there is evidence they learn foraging strategies from their mothers.”
“[T]he [whale] song sung on the east coast of Australia underwent a radical transformation. In 1996, two of eighty-two whales were recorded singing an utterly different song from the other whales. Their song was typical of another population of whales migrating up the western coast of Australia—as if this pair had taken the wrong turn on their way back from the Antarctic. The next year, some 40 percent of males adopted the new song. It was a hit. On the subsequent southward migration, virtually all males sang the new song.”
What is missing in these examples, however, is both the “ratchet effect” that builds on cumulative development going back to the Stone Age, as well as the totalizing character of culture by which everything we do—work, raise young, plan our lives, eat, and even walk—is culturally informed to the point that certain thinkers have embraced total cultural determinism—an unwarranted extrapolation from undeniable data. Though the particulars of any given culture may appear contingent and arbitrary, the state of being a culture is inherent to us. We are imitators who take up patterns and roles that we did not invent. In fact, Suddendorf points to experiments showing that children “overimitate” the actions taught them. In one experiment:
A [human] model demonstrated first poking a stick into a hole at the top part of an artificial fruit and then inserting it in another hole further below. Both chimpanzees and children copied both actions of the model to retrieve the reward. In a second condition, the apparatus was made of transparent material. It became patently obvious that the first action, poking into the top, had no causal role in the opening of the box. You could simply poke the stick into the lower hole to obtain the reward, and this is what the chimpanzees subsequently did. They stopped imitating the first action and instead immediately proceeded with the second. Three-and four-year-old children, on the other hand, continued to copy the superfluous first action before putting the stick into the lower hole. Human children tend to “overimitate,” whereas chimpanzees imitated only to the extent required to achieve their immediate goal.
We out-ape the apes at their own proverbial game. We are not interested in producing only immediate effects but in enacting certain patterns or roles, in doing things comme il fault. Children and chimpanzees, in another experiment, were given the same puzzles to solve. While the chimps “acted to secure rewards for themselves and showed no sign of teaching others,” the children “taught each other through language and gestures, imitated each other, and shared rewards.” Animals teach their young but don’t propose unprecedented projects or adjust their teaching. For example, the very precise tutelage of the meerkat involves bringing killed and later disabled scorpion prey to their pups. Only later do they bring live prey. But:
If the begging calls of old pups are played [in an audio recording] to adults, they bring live prey even if their real pups are far too young to handle them. Conversely, playing back the begging calls of very young pups to a group with old pups increases the number of dead prey brought back.
As Bergson noted, instinct is inflexible.
Glory, Jest, and Riddle
The evidence is overwhelming that humanity possesses a special character transcending, though not extinguishing, our animality. How to encapsulate it? “I dwell in Possibility,” as Emily Dickinson put it. We dwell not simply in a world of immediate decisions guided by instinct but in the idea of possibility itself. Connected with possibility is the idea, not explored by Suddendorf, of a hierarchy of values, i.e., that some possibilities possess more worth than others. Based on notions of worth that we share with others (using language and other symbols, such as art), we realize possibilities (using physical and social tools, provided by a culture that endures and develops).
Some may overemphasize our animal nature out of misanthropy, a state of mind partly justified by wide experience of life. This may usefully engender our admiration for plants and animals and wild places. But only human beings are capable of this contemplative self-hate, so a pure misanthropy is self-overthrowing. Others overemphasizing our animal nature doubtless meant to curb human hubris. Let me gently suggest that falsehoods aren’t a lasting fix. But the concern is well taken. Every miraculous trait of humanity also makes possible uniquely human forms of corruption. Recognizing ourselves in the mirror has lead to a craving for recognition at all costs. Long-term foresight has produced a global technological hypercivilization that no one can control—foresight arguably overthrowing itself. “Play” has been absorbed into seductive fantasy; “theory of mind” into techniques of psychological manipulation. The cure for these is not to subside into our animal nature but to come to grips with what we really are—as Pope put it, “the glory, jest, and riddle of the world” and I would add the perpetrator of crimes no ape could imagine.