The concept that humans are different to animals is one of the most captivating topics that scientists and psychologists have studied through the ages. Humans have long thought that they were distinctive, but modern scientists and psychologists have found so many humans traits in animals that it could be suggested that humans are merely more advanced than other animals (Hollway et al, 2002).
Understanding whether there is a significant difference between humans and other animals is important for psychologists as they strive to endeavour whether animal behaviour should be studied to appreciate the complexities of the human mind. When considering whether humans are different to other animals, it is first necessary to reflect on how humans and other animals are similar and then to contemplate the unique characteristics of humans (Cooper and Kaye, 2002). The aim of the current essay is to evaluate the extent to which humans are dissimilar and comparable to other animals, and from this to assess whether humans are unique or merely a more sophisticated type of animal (Wood et al, 2002).
Genetic and fossil evidence reveal that chimpanzees, other primates and humans have a common ancestor (Clegg, 2002). Comparative animal psychology studies between chimps and humans often indicate shared characteristics in our common ancestors (Clegg, 2002). Whiten (1997) compared the cognitive abilities of humans and non-human primates to evaluate whether the two groups had different thought process abilities.
He used Maxi tests to examine whether non-human primates possessed theory of the mind. Theory of the mind is a concept which involves improved survival and reproductive success due to an ability to interact effectively in social situations. It absorbs the capacity to attend to, empathise with, and understand others (Clegg, 2002). Studies carried out on modern human children using false-belief tests such as the Maxi test indicated that theory of the mind is present in most 6 year olds (Wimmer and Perner, 1983). Whiten (1997) found that apes can also act deceptively which indicates that they have some theory of the mind ability.
He found that monkeys did not possess theory of the mind. Baron-Cohen (1999) found that as most people with autism fail theory of the mind tests such as the Maxi test, it can be concluded that they do not possess theory of the mind. This suggests that the social-cognitive ability to empathically understand others and predict events and behaviour is not an exclusively human trait. Its absence in autistic people also implies that it is not an attribute that is necessary to be human. Therefore, evolutionary psychologists have found that non-human primates cannot be differentiated from humans based on this cognitive-communicative capacity. Both groups are agents and form part of a structure as they function in a context and they are influenced by social interactions (Wood et al, 2002).
This essay has already proposed that humans are social beings. Humans develop attachments to other humans. Bowlby (1998) proposed an attachment theory which suggested that humans possess a psychological tendency to seek closeness to others, to feel secure when that person is present, and to experience anxiety in their absence. Harlow and Harlow (1969) conducted attachment theory experiments on monkeys. Young monkeys were given two dolls to act as surrogate mothers.
The monkeys explored more when the soft-cloth doll was near, suggesting that the doll gave them a sense of security. Similarly, infant children explored more when they felt secure (Bowlby, 1998). Lifespan development theory proposed an intimate relationship between human individual development and social experiences (Wood et al, 2002). Correspondingly, Harlow and Harlow (1969) found the infant monkeys isolated from other monkeys showed deviant behaviour in social situations.
They were overly aggressive or fearful when they met other monkeys and had unusual sexual responses. Female monkeys raised in isolation often mistreated or neglected their offspring. This abnormal behaviour was thought to demonstrate that a bond with the mother is necessary for further social development (Harlow and Harlow, 1969). Freud’s (1923) research on humans also indicated that there were connections between the experiences one has as a child and one has as an adult, and that a positive relationship with one’s mother is necessary for normal future development. This suggests that humans and monkeys are shaped by experiences, social interactions and the structure of society which they experience throughout their lifespan, and that both groups require a healthy relationship with their mother in order to develop normally. It also implies that both groups feel fixity, in that their early relationships correspond to their adult relationships (Wood et al, 2002). The presence of attachment in non-human primates also implies that animals communicate.
Humans feel that intricate communication skills differentiate them from other animals. However, there may not be a great deal of difference between the method by which we communicate and the manner that other animals connect. Humans think and create meaning on a constant basis while they communicate (Cooper and Kaye, 2002). Honeybees are social creatures who also communicate with their group members. They use a round dance if they have found food within 50 meters of the hive and a waggle dance if the location is more remote. They convey information about the distance and direction of the food (Kirschner and Towne 1994).
Likewise, vervet monkeys perform alarm-calls when they detect a predator. They can communicate whether the predator is a leopard, eagle or snake, and the group escapes accordingly (Seyfarth et al, 1980). This suggests that there is two-way communication, as the respondents can be seen to take action, think, problem-solve and plan when they react to the dance and alarm-call (Cooper and Kaye, 2002). These abilities could be perceived as human traits but psychologists have performed empirical tests to conclude that they co-exist in other animals. However, humans communicate in a more sophisticated manner to other animals as, by contrast, they do not rely on physical movements to communicate ideas and information. Humans have the unique ability to interact using language. The next paragraph will explore whether this is a distinct human capacity, or merely a more advanced form of communication.