So there’s this story in the New York Times about a dog that can respond differentially to over a thousand distinct English nouns. Results like these tend to elicit two mistaken responses. First, there is the “something essential is missing here” response, which looks for signs of the Clever Hans phenomenon, unintelligent mimicry, and the like, failing to appreciate the fact that these disappointing reductive explanations almost surely play some role in human abilities as well. The second is the “animals are people, let’s give them the vote and for God’s sake let’s not eat them” response. No, I’m not going to address the eating, not today. But the question of human specialness is sufficiently interesting for us to reflect on a bit.
There are several sources of difficulty in seeing this matter clearly. The first is vanity: many of us would like to believe that we are special, and so tend to view the empirical questions through that lens. The problem is that this vanity tends to connect with those things that our culture tends to especially value at the moment, whether moral or cognitive. So for example, if we value highly certain forms of self-sacrifice for family or country for moral reasons, noting that resistance to the sacrifice is usually for self-oriented reasons (or that resistance to making sacrifices for the larger group is rooted in attachment to the interests of family members), then we are prone to identify the self-oriented reasons (at bottom, survival) as shared with animals, but the self-sacrificing tendency as distinctively human. Here, the focus is as much on our disdain for the animal as it is on our own vanity, for having identified something we morally disapprove of (refusal to sacrifice oneself) we simply assume that that is an “animal” thing, because the inferiority of animals is presupposed. Empiricism to the rescue: “self-sacrifice” is rampant among non-human animals, and with good reason, since it usually promotes the survival and reproductive success of someone the sacrificer is related to (offspring, kin, group members, species). But as Proudhon noted ages ago, cooperation is as salient a feature of non-human life as screw your neighbor is a feature of the human.
This error dovetails with a tendency to identify the animal with the passionate. So when we feel hunger, sexual attraction or strong emotion, that’s “animal” and the distinctively human involves their regulation and control. Both the experience of self-control and the experience of training children into self-control reinforce this idea. The fact that many animals cannot be as readily trained by human beings as other human beings also reinforces this idea. But anyone who has ever watched a cat stalk can be in no doubt about at least the existence of animal care and caution.
Both of these misunderstandings are partially explained by what I suppose we will have to call “speciesism” since they presuppose identifying the disvalued aspect of the human with the animal in the first place, but they can be dispelled by closer empirical attention to the animals themselves.
Other mistakes stem from how we frame or model of the human abilities in question. Descartes thought plausibly enough that nonhuman animals tend not to make important mathematical discoveries, and as far as I can tell, he’s right about that. He also noted (I’m speculating somewhat about his thought processes here) that there is something which is the experience of mathematical insight. From this he seems to have concluded that only human beings have experiences at all. Religious background assumptions in turn facilitate the identification of both the cognizer and the experiencer with the religious component, such that all of this gets attributed to the soul. Then the animal, the passionate, the non-rational, gets identified with matter, with physicality, as if there were a special connection between these skills and noncorporeality. But setting that aside, there is little warrant for thinking that animals which lack the ability to do math also lack the ability to feel pain. There are plenty of reasons to think animals feel pain, and that computers far better at math than I do not.
Because of the link once established to the religious notion of soul, the ante got upped considerably, with the result that far more seems at stake to us in these discussions, even when the defenders of human specialness are not themselves trying promote anything religious. Language ability has become our proxy for an immortal soul. Consequently, we tend to view animal language behavior through the lens of a specious dichotomy “genuine (soulful) use of language” vs. “mimicry” as if humans didn’t engage in linguistic mimicry incessantly. (There is a parallel obtuse discussion in anthropology about the possession or lack of something called “culture”).
Descartes is probably responsible, if indirectly, for another confusion here, one which can be illustrated by hearing someone say “we don’t know that dogs aren’t thinking about analytic geometry; who’s to say?” This is to fail to grasp the fact that part of what we mean by these concepts is hooked to the ability to act, observably, in certain ways, and so, no, absent the hidden camera video tape of dogs retrieving their copies of Descartes’ Geometry from under the bed and poring over them while we sleep, no, we do know that.
Yet clearly there is something about human beings. We know this because we never read in the New York Times about some dog teaching a human a thousand dog nouns, do we. You can’t make an appointment for next week with a cat. We didn’t race to beat the dolphins to the moon. We don’t beg other species to be more considerate toward members of species they prey upon, or at least do so less cruelly. We are not ourselves endangered. Now I think this also introduces a new, different bias. The fact that we are the top predator and not only dominate this globe but have traveled to another can lead some to minimize the differences between human and animal cognition, not because these results are not manifestly distinguishing, but because some people disapprove of them. But it is a fact that we are the only species capable of nuking two cities of conspecifics within the space of a week, and that this is remarkable, whatever else it may be. And there is a world of difference between saying that this is a difference that does not make us better than the gentle beasts, and saying that we are not so different after all because we are so similar, but only in the ways some approve of. This is just reverse speciesism which replaces vanity with indignation. If we view these facts objectively, one can only conclude that there is something about the greater complexity of human cognition, and the way it interacts with sociality, both in terms of division of cognitive labor and the “standing on the shoulders of giants” phenomenon that makes us, like it or not, special.
I think we can only conclude that humans and some animals share all sorts of qualities we value and disvalue, including various cognitive, emotional and moral qualities. Our vanity may induce us to misunderstand these qualities so that the valued ones fall on the human side and the disvalued ones fall on the animal side. Our self-hatred may induce us to the opposite prejudice. The truth will be determined, here as always, by empirical evidence.