Humans and Animals: A Differences Debate

A good friend and philosopher chatted me up some time ago. He was working on a theory of an essential difference between humans and animals. I don’t know if I helped him! You be the judge. Here it is:

  • Feb 5

    On Feb 5, LP said the following:

    Hi RN, I hope things have been going well for you in the Valley. I’ve been doing some work and have a question for you. In your opinion, what is the greatest difference between animals and men? Thanks for your ideas, Larry

    8:13 PM

  • Feb 6

    On Feb 6, RN said the following:

    Hi Larry, good to hear from you! For a continuum thinker (if there is such a term), there is little difference between any biological being: plants or animals, we are of the same matter, organized similarly, and function in ways that are very similar too. There are differences, of course: humans stand ‘erect’ (Kangaroos do too), use their other two limbs most ingeniously (opposable thumbs), and have an ‘expanded’ mind (much larger pre-frontal cortex, and brain to body mass ratio). The ‘greatest’ difference…I’d have to say our growing minds, both good, and bad…but this could depend upon perspective (who asks, who answers, etc.). best, -rn

    9:10 AM

  • On Feb 6, LP said the following:

    LP: Thanks for getting back so soon. Are you familiar with Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek and the Big Other argument?

    10:37 AM

  • On Feb 6, RN said the following:

    RN: No…I see it has to do with psychoanalysis, and a ‘return to Freud,’ terms that lend immediate skepticism and caution? 🙂

    12:21 PM

  • On Feb 6, LP said the following:

    LP: Check out The Perverts Guide to Ideology on Netflix. When you scale the argument up you arrive at the only real difference between man and other animals. Man is the only species that can worship, even kill or die for an ideology. Most of the advances and problems you see throughout history were caused by a clash of belief systems.

    5:10 PM

  • On Feb 6, RN said the following:

    RN: Thanks, I will, I see it available in my local library. True, humans were considered the only ‘symbolic’ species, which extends to worship, and some (Terence Deacon) connected the evolution of the human brain with the development of advanced symbol usage (languages, etc.). But as far as killing (violence) for ideology goes, other species have been known to organize attacks on, and even cannibalize, members of another group or tribe. Though that recognition of ‘not-belonging’ is perhaps a very basic level of ideology, it may indicate that there is something intrinsic within that is common to a number of species. Language, and tool-making, tool-use etc. aren’t exactly unique to humans…

    7:47 PM

  • Feb 13

    On Feb 13, RN said the following:

    RN: His film was interesting and entertaining, but he lost me when he began to cast himself as ‘Joseph,’ son of Abraham, interpreter of dreams…too much subjective bias, and too many single-minded interpretations generally. His interpretation of Hollywood’s Titanic was a classic! Wonder if such biases are driven by the politics of film-making, or brazen over-self-confidence. His work reminded me of Jonathan Lear’s “Love, and its place in nature,” which garnered a low rating from many as I recall. There seems to be a common undercurrent in all who delve into psychoanalysis, whatever be their perspectives: strong self-love, of one’s thinking, a narcissistic bias, and far less love for truth and efforts toward its discovery.

    5:50 PM

  • Feb 14

    On Feb 14, LP said the following:

    LP: Is a bias indicate an ideology? My take away from the movie, and research afterwards is the idea of the Big Other. Psychoanalysis does lean to a self absorbed picture. However you can view the “self” as four separate but connected selves each with it’s own constraints and strengths, We live in and with all four after birth. IMO the myth of The Big Other is the separating idea between man and animal. It allows humans to scale up cooperative and competitive efforts way beyond any other species by becoming the fourth “self” so to speak. (Language plays a huge part in this.) Without it we’d still be hunter gatherers concerned with flight, fight, feed and fornicate.

    9:05 AM

  • On Feb 14, RN said the following:

    RN: Indeed, these ‘ideas,’ ‘concepts,’ ‘models,’ ‘patterns,’ etc. all arise in growing human minds that both assist and confound our lives. I do perceive this – our mental capacities – as a difference, as a distinguishing capability. Nevertheless, it is hard for me to think of us as any different from any other biological forms. We are all self-organized, self-organizing, entities, performing this life function at varied levels of complexity and in varied spheres of activity. Some argue, accordingly, that moving away from “natural” hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian ones was a mistake: – and the arguments are compelling! Biases are common, but taking them too far, “falling in love” with them, tends to ideology, perhaps. Change is even more common, in thinking, as in life…


Update Nov. 08, 2016: A BBC Future article – Intelligence


About Rian Nejar

Rian Nejar is an Indian-American author. He trained and worked as an engineer in India, lived briefly in the Middle East, and arrived in America in the early 90's. After a Master’s degree in electrical engineering in America, he worked as an academic instructor, engineer, entrepreneur, and technical writer over the two decades since. Humbling and Humility ( is his first mainstream nonfiction. He lives and writes in the Southwest United States.
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