Contemporary thought would hold that the difference between man and animals is, as Darwin said, a matter of degree, not of kind. We are simply animals that happen to be more intelligent than other creatures. However, it would seem difficult to explain the obvious differences between humans and animals simply as resulting from a difference in degree in intelligence. Indeed, scientific research is constantly finding that certain animals, and not just the obvious ones like dolphins and chimps, but also crows and the humble sheep are far more intelligent than previously supposed, yet they clearly lack that essential ‘human’ quality. On the other hand supercomputers are obviously far more intelligent than us – they have the ability to process info far more quickly and efficiently than humans yet it is preposterous (not excepting Dennet’s attempts) to state that we are a poor cousin of the computer. Human achievements are driven more by a desire for meaning rather than purely survival; we do not need to explore space in order to help us survive on earth better but it is part of our drive to do this; our desire to understand which has haunted us ever since Eve plucked the apple from the tree of knowledge.
There are several phenomena that are uniquely human and are not explained by the superior level of intelligence that we might possess. The first is art. No other living thing seeks to express itself through the medium of art; possibly because they have no soul which constantly rebels against its carnal prison and so seeks this expression of self consciousness. Again, there is no right or wrong in animals kingdom – there is killing but no murder. Animals do not seem to have created an equivalent moral code . There is, of course, the idea that being super intelligent animals, humans have rationally evolved a moral code as a result of seeing the effects of ‘bad’ actions. This idea is a touching faith in human rationality to overcome impulses, desires etc which is sadly lacking in evidence in history. Intelligence does not lead to morality; Germany in the 20th Century was, according to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most civilized and cultured places on earth; yet it gave rise to National Socialism and the Holocaust. The most intelligent person, if left in a moral vacuum, would not choose good over evil. In fact, often doing the right thing makes little rational sense and those acts of self sacrifice which characterise world’s religions clearly do not, from a purely materialist and rational point of view, make sense. Societies with a moral code would not necessarily be at an evolutionary advantage anyway – being honest, peaceful and poor does not seem to offer any material advantage than being cheating, violent and rich.Poor morality tends to give rise to more poor morality, as we can see in those areas of the world which are afflicted by war and suffering.
No animal is guilty (or otherwise) of altruism and/or evil. The act of giving to charity is an act of altruism – and this happens every day, and as a cursory glance through the news headlines demonstrates, so does pure, gratuitous evil. People such as Dawkins, Hamilton and Wilson have attempted to explain altruism in evolutionary terms. I have not the time or space to go into the deep flaws of these arguments but will quote biologist James C. King of the University of New York who describes these as ‘a shocking attempt to ensnare us all in a pseudo scientific set of rules compounded of obsolete genetics and a cynical interpretation of social relations.’
No other animal has been observed to have a religion, yet evidence of human religion, from Stonehenge to Gaudi’s cathedral are a constant feature of civilization. This search for meaning has got to be unique to humans. Beyond the activities humans and animals have in common (eating, sleeping, mating, and defending), human beings have a fifth faculty: the intelligence to inquire into the truth of our existence:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence?
- Why am I suffering?
- How can I liberate myself from this suffering condition?
It is this introspection—to question the meaning and purpose of our existence and endeavour to find a solution to human suffering—that sets humans apart from animals. As such, human language is recursive, a faculty that animal ‘langauge’ seems to lack. This is because humans are aware of ‘self.’ We think about ourselves. The gap between humans and animals is so obvious it is hard to deny, and this gap is not a matter of degree but of kind, and this quality cannot be explained through a materialistic approach. As James Le Fanu has pointed out in his book, ‘Why Us’, materialism cannot solve those mysteries that make each of us uniquely human, whether we like it or not. These are the mystery of subjective awareness, the mystery of free will, the mystery of the richness of the memories we encode, the mystery of human reason, and the mystery of self. These are what make us truly unique.