What separates us from…the ants?

WNYC’s Radiolab is an NPR program that tries to explain the science behind peculiar and unusual phenomena. While a very interesting program, the two hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, have antiquated attitudes towards animals, in my humble opinion, and are annoyingly fixated on the question of “What makes us human?”

Today I was listening to their Emergence episode in which they discuss ant behavior. The conversation later turned to people trying to trick Google into giving their websites a higher rating and Jad pointed out in a serious voice, “See this is what separates us from the ants right here…”

Really? We are so insecure that we need to point out what makes humans different from ants?

Back in 1988, I read an article in Psychology Today that ran down the list of the different traits that people have traditionally thought separates humans from other animals, and one by one showed that some animals also possess each of those traits. They concluded, tongue in cheek, that what separates us from other animals is that we are the only species that tries to find things that separates us from the other animals.

It’s not much, but hopefully will provide some comfort for those who are searching.

5 Responses to “What separates us from…the ants?”

  1. Marsha Says:

    Hey, Jack,

    Thanks for this post. Do you happen to have the full citation for that article? It sounds like a great resource. (PT doesn’t archive back that far on their website.)

  2. Jack Norris RD Says:

    The citation is: “We’re Only Human, Apart from the Animals: There must be something about us that makes us unique”, by Paul Chance. Psychology Today, January 1988. p. 18-19.

    Here is the final paragraph:

    We have overlooked the obvious. The answer to the riddle “What makes humans different from the other animals?” lies buried in the question. We are, so far as anyone can tell, the only creature on Earth that tries to prove that it is different from, and preferably superior to, other species. No ape has ever used its new language skills to ask, “How am I different from all other creatures?” No porpoise, so far as we know, has ever interrupted its acrobatic gyrations to ponder whether it is the only species that breathes through the top of its head. Only we humans ask such questions or, for that matter, show any interest in the answers. As unique qualities go, ours leaves much to be desired. But when you’re looking for unique characteristics, you can’t be too choosy.

  3. Pearl Says:

    Can you post the link of original article?

  4. Laura Says:

    It makes a lot of sense that people search for an answer as to what separates humans from other animals, because a clear distinction can be the only argument to discredit speciesism, right? And if speciesism is as valid as racism or any other ism then it has major implications for our society as a whole, implications that most people don’t even want to consider. (Or, as Michael Pollan did, we can just accept that we’re speciesist and finish our steak.) What I see most often lately is the argument that humans are the only animals with the ability to reason, or be “moral” beings. What do the authors of the article you mentioned say about that?

  5. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Laura,

    They argued that chimpanzees can reason. They did not address acting morally, but there are plenty of examples of animals doing that.

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