How Much Alike?

“The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” (Mark Twain)

Back in the early 90s of the last century Carl Sagan co-wrote a book with Ann  Druyan (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) that bears directly on what Mark Twain had said nearly a century before. In that book the authors stress the similarities between humans and other animal species, perhaps with the object of letting some of the air out of human puffery.

Aristotle insisted that humans are “rational animals,” thereby seeking to differentiate our species from the rest because of our abilities to reason, our use of tools and also our use of language. Subsequent studies have shown that many other animal species can not only reason, and even use tools, but also many of them do so remarkably quickly; some even use language. There have been studies of chimpanzees that have not only learned several hundred words but have shown and  ability to teach that language to their young! Jane Goodall studied the amazing Lucy, a chimpanzee brought up by humans who showed many of the signs of being human herself:

“No longer pure chimp but yet eons away form humanity, she was man-made, some other kind of being. I watched, amazed, as she opened the refrigerator and various cupboards, found bottles and a glass, then poured herself a gin and tonic. She took the drink to the TV, turned on the set, flipped from one channel to another then, as though in disgust, turned it off again. She selected a glossy magazine from the table and, still carrying her drink, settled in a comfortable chair. Occasionally, as she leafed through the magazine, she identified [in Ameslan] something she saw. . . .”

This doesn’t sound, to my ear, much different from the description of a great many humans we can observe pretty much any day, a condition that has been worsened by the addition of mind-numbing electronic toys that are putting our minds to sleep and causing even greater Lucy-like behavior. But the one thing that Sagan and Druyan missed when trying to make the case for the similarity between humans and other animal species, was the presence in humans of the capacity to act morally.

In saying this I am aware of the studies that have shown macaque monkeys, for example, that are unable to inflict pain on others of their species, refusing treats when asked to turn a dial that will increase an electronic charge connected with another monkey and causing him to scream in pain. They simply will not do this. This would appear to be evidence of a moral sense, a determination to do the right thing. And it is in sharp contrast with studies of humans put in the same, or similar, situations who are perfectly willing to turn the dial and inflict pain on other humans when asked to do so by another human in a white coat.

However, the behavior of the monkeys does not show the presence of anything more than an instinct to act, or refuse to act, in a certain way. It provides no evidence that there is a reasoning process involved. On the other hand, humans have a reasoning capacity and, as Kant insisted, also the capacity to ask the pivotal ethical question “what ought I to do?” And yet many of them will turn the dial. This would seem to prove Twain’s thesis stated at the outset of this post: we are inferior to other creatures. But does it?

What the experiment shows is that some humans are simply unable or unwilling to do the right thing — not that they could not do so under different conditions. Kant does not say that humans always do the right thing, he says we have the capacity to do the right thing. Often we do not do it. And this does help Twain make his case. Moreover, as Sagan and Druyan note at the conclusion of their careful study:

“The many sorrows of our recent history suggest that we humans have a learning disability.”

And yet we are the species who now have nuclear arsenals at our disposal, weapons numerous and powerful enough to end all life on earth. In addition, in this country any certified moron can walk into a gun shop with a credit card and ten minutes later walk away with an automatic weapon with the capacity to kill dozens of other humans in a matter of seconds. And our only solution to this situation is to insist that more morons arm themselves against the possibility that they might be the next target. This seems to be the best we have been able to come up with so far, though if this plan were to be realized it would surely mark the end of any pretense that we are a civilized society and announce to the world that we have once again returned to a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I do agree with Kant that humans have the capacity to act morally and that this is what separates us from the other animals on earth. But the evidence is overwhelming that increasing numbers of us tend not to exercise that capacity and are becoming less and less inclined to do so as our species becomes more numerous, more self-absorbed and disinterested in others. However, if we fail to exercise our inborn capacity to do the right thing we have no instinct to fall back on, as do the macaque monkeys. This is a difference that makes a real difference.



Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Perhaps.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 🙂

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂