It’s not tools, culture or communication that make humans unique but our knack for offloading dirty work onto machines
Humans have searched and repeatedly failed to rescue ourselves from this disquieting commonality. Numerous dividers between humans and beasts have been proposed: thought and language, tools and rules, culture, imitation, empathy, morality, hate, even a grasp of ‘folk’ physics. But they’ve all failed, in one way or another. I’d like to put forward a new contender – strangely, the very same tendency that elicits the most dread and excitement among political and economic commentators today.
First, though, to our fall from grace. We lost our exclusive position in the animal kingdom, not because we overestimated ourselves, but because we underestimated our cousins. This new grasp of the capabilities of our fellow creatures is as much a return to a pre-Industrial view as it is a scientific discovery. According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens (2011), it was only with the burgeoning of Enlightenment humanism that we established our metaphysical difference from and instrumental approach to animals, as well as enshrining the supposed superiority of the human mind. ‘Brutes abstract not,’ as John Locke remarked in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). By contrast, religious perspectives in the Middle Ages rendered us a sort of ensouled animal. We were touched by the divine, bearers of the breath of life – but distinctly Earthly, made from dust, metaphysically ‘animals plus’.
Like a snake eating its own tail, it was the later move towards rationalism – built on a belief in man’s transcendence – that eventually toppled our hubristic sensibilities. With the advent of Charles Darwin’s theories, later confirmed through geology, palaeontology and genetics, humans struggled mightily and vainly to erect a scientific blockade between beasts and ourselves. We believed we occupied a glorious perch as a thinking thing. But over time that rarefied category became more and more crowded. Whichever intellectual shibboleth we decide is the ability that sets us apart, it’s inevitably found to be shared with the chimp. One can resent this for the same reason we might baulk at Ivanov’s experiments: they bring the nature of the beast a bit too close.
The chimp is the opener in a relay race that repeats itself time and again in the study of animal behaviour. Scientists concoct a new, intelligent task for the chimps, and they do it – before passing down the baton to other primates, who usually also manage it. Then they hand it on to parrots and crows, rats and pigeons, an octopus or two, even ducklings and bees. Over and over again, the newly minted, human-defining behaviour crops up in the same club of reasonably smart, lab-ready species. We become a bit less unique and a bit more animal with each finding.
Some of these proposed watersheds, such as tool-use, are old suggestions, stretching back to how the Victorians grappled with the consequences of Darwinism. Others, such as imitation or empathy, are still denied to non-humans by certain modern psychologists. In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016), Frans de Waal coined the term ‘anthropodenial’ to describe this latter set of tactics. Faced with a potential example of culture or empathy in animals, the injunction against anthropomorphism gets trotted out to assert that such labels are inappropriate. Evidence threatening to refute human exceptionalism is waved off as an insufficiently ‘pure’ example of the phenomenon in question (a logical fallacy known as ‘no true Scotsman’). Yet nearly all these traits have run the relay from the ape down – a process de Waal calls ‘cognitive ripples’, as researchers find a particular species characteristic that breaks down the barriers to finding it somewhere else.