To What Extent Can Humans Be Considered Distinct from Other Animals?

To what extent can humans be considered distinct from other animals? What makes humans differ to other animals? Are humans in fact different at all? And if they are what makes them different? There are many different perspectives and viewpoints in research in psychology that helps distinguish whether humans are in fact distinct from other animals. At initial glance it would be argued that there is a distinct difference in the use of language and its interpreted meaning between one human and another this as well as differences in sexual reproduction relationships humans have in comparison to other animals.

These two areas will be explored in more detail to show the distinctiveness humans have. Humans use language everyday to communicate with each other, express how they’re feeling, what their thoughts are and also how they are making sense. Cooper & Kaye (2007) stated that language is in fact one of the most important aspects of being human and arguably our most distinctive and interesting characteristic as a species. However, this doesn’t mean that communication between other animals doesn’t happen but what is it about human language that is clearly distinct from just communication?

Harley (1995 as cited in Cooper & Kaye, 2007 pg. 76-77) described human language as ‘associating a finite number of words with particular meanings or concepts, and using finite number of rules to combine those words into a potentially infinite number of sentences’. Aitchison (1983 as cited in Cooper & Kaye, 2007) considered four main criteria of language design features unique to human language. These were ‘semanticity’ which is how a word reflects aspects of the world. Secondly ‘displacement’ which is the ability to refer to events and items that are not currently perceived. Structure dependence’ which refers to that language is characterised by a series of symbols that don’t look like the given object. Lastly, the fourth main unique criterion is ‘creativity’ allowing flexibility in human communication, each sentence produced can convey a different meaning (Cooper & Kaye, 2007). However, Seyfarth et al. (1980 as cited in Cooper & Kaye, 2007) reported that vervet monkeys, who live in social groups, give different alarm calls for different predators to warn the others in the group. For example a particular call from an adult monkey who had spotted an eagle caused the others to look up.

This would therefore offer evidence of a semantic response as the monkeys respond to particular signs. But it cannot be definitely inferred that they actually know what the call means and that it could in fact be stimulus-response learning. Further evidence does suggest that animals do not simply learn stimulus-response relationships though but actually form internal representations conflicting with what Aitchison (1983 s cited in Cooper & Kaye, 2007) inferred within the four criteria of language design features that were unique to humans.

Further studies by Gardner & Gardner (1969), Premack (1971) and Terrace (1979) have looked to see whether apes can be taught human language using sign language and artificial languages that involve manipulating plastic tokens (as cited in Cooper & Kaye, 2007). Most have been successful in enabling communication between the ape and the trainer but problems interpreting the results have been shown. In the case of Kanzi, the pygmy chimpanzee, he displayed obvious learning in his ability to respond appropriately to verbal commands (Cooper & Kaye, 2007) but similar to the vervet monkeys this could potentailly be due to a learned stimulus-response.

However, Kanzi’s behaviour demonstrated his ability to form specific representations in response to the words he hears like when asked to retrieve something specific he will ignore similar visible objects and retrieve the particular one asked for (Cooper & Kaye, 2007). Savage-Rumbaugh (as cited in Cooper & Kaye, 2007) argued that in fact Kanzi was demonstrating behaviour similar to that of a 2 ? year old human in terms of their linguistic competence and understanding.

This was argued against by others as children’s vocabulary develops into adult speech and no studies of apes have shown this progression in language concluding that language is therefore a distinct and unique characteristic of humans in comparison to other animals (Pinker, 1994 as cited in Cooper & Kaye, 2007). Evolutionary psychology has looked to explain sex differences and has looked at both humans and animals to do so focusing particularly on the processes involved in sexual selection (Hollway, Cooper, Johnston & Stevens, 2007).

Both humans and animals are similar in that they both don’t consciously and deliberately use strategies to achieve a particular type in order to maximise their reproductive success (Hollway et al. 2007) but that the behaviour used successfully will have been selected for by evolutionary pressures precisely because of the reproductive advantage that it conferred. Within human evolution the full development of the brain, which is much larger than that of other animals, could only take place after birth.

This and the need for sophisticated socialisation that the development of language and culture made necessary, meant a longer period of dependency for human infants than for those in primates (Hollway et al. 2007 p. 145). Another distinct difference in humans and animals is that of human sexual behaviour. Female humans have no obvious signs of ovulation and can mate with males at any time during the menstrual cycle unlike other animals. This encourages male and female relationships, where mating can happen at a whim, displaying signs of love and affection towards each other and not just that of reproduction.

In animals, there are signs when the female is fertile, Rose & Rose (2000 as cited in Hollway et al. , 2007) pointed out that forced sex within animals is only with these fertile females for reproduction purposes solely, this is unlike male and female reproduction in humans. Hollway et al. (2007) advise that within human sexual reproduction and relationships males have become particularly sensitive to female sexual infidelity as there is a greater paternal investment made. Females can be sure the child is theirs but male paternity can’t. Similarities found in humans and animals have been shown in studies of sex differences and the brain.

There is a recognition that women and men behave differently and that this is due to differences in the parts of the brain that are involved in processing different tasks in which men or women excel (Hollway et al. , 2007). By studying male and female rats and their different sexual behaviours it was shown that the behaviours were dependent on the balance of hormones (Young, 1964; Beach 1938 as cited in Hollway et al. , 2007 p. 138). Fitch & Denenberg (1998 as cited in Hollway et al. 2007) later found that there was a difference in brain structure that correlated with a difference in sexual behaviour in the rats.

Although this experimental study cannot be conducted to humans due to ethical reasons biologists have conducted comparable examinations on human brain areas to investigate whether this is the case in humans. It was concluded however that these studies suggest it is much harder to consistently describe the difference in hormonal balance in humans that it is in animals (Hollway et al. , 2007). As you can see from above there is evidence to suggest that humans are in fact distinct from other animals in the areas of the use and meaning of language and that of sex differences and sexual behaviour.

There are also similarities than have been found but seems that these cannot be conclusive due to the complexities of not just human behaviour but also that of animals. However, humans display a form of communication between each other that infers a higher level than those displayed by other animals which seems to be for survival purposes. Of course humans have a survival instinct as well but the thought processes and emotional responses that are demonstrated amongst one another and the recall of past events to plan future goals is distinctly different to that demonstrated by any other animal.

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