Non-Human and Human Animals: More Similarities Than Differences

It’s common to read books about issues related to human psychology, sociology, behavior and history and find references to and comments about the essential differences between humans and other animals (more often referred to as just “animals”). It’s as if in every era and from every author, a new fundamental difference must be named. I generally find these irritating.

I realize that humans are, in a very obvious way, quite different from all other species currently residing on Earth (but imagine if we still shared this planet with Neandertals!). Our built world is a far cry from a termite nest. Our ability to adapt to every clime by creating and wearing clothes, building elaborate structures, and harnessing energy sources for warmth and light certainly stands out. The complexity of our languages and our ability to use representational symbols to convey information through writing (and now computing) doesn’t have a counterpart among other species; and yet, these lie along a spectrum, and what essential quality do humans really have that does not lie on a continuum with other species?

There are other animals who communicate. Who build structures and create homes. Who have emotions. Who can plan for the future and remember the past. And who have ethical codes of conduct. This last quality has been debated, of course, (as have many of the others), but in a recent essay in Live Science, “Do Animals Know Right from Wrong? New Clues Point to ‘Yes,’” the belief that other animals don’t possess moral codes is finally being debunked.

Highlighting our differences aids and abets our society’s exploitation and abuse of other animals, so it’s probably no surprise that we hear and read such persistent refrains about humanity’s fundamental uniqueness. But what such a belief system seemingly affords us (license to wantonly exploit and kill) is now dangerous to our own species.

Our relentless destruction of habitat, sea life and climate stability may lead to our own demise as we face the possible extinction of half of all species on Earth by century’s end and the inevitable consequences on the biosphere that sustains us all.

Would it matter if we perceived other species as fundamentally like us instead of fundamentally different, recognizing clear distinctions between our capacities to modify our environment, communicate and learn through complex languages, and adapt, but without drawing lines in the sand between “us” and “them” that permit our turning other animals simply into means toward our own ends?

I don’t know, but debunking essential differences is one place to start.


Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.

Image courtesy of braindamaged217 via Creative Commons.


William C
William Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

W. C
W. Cabout a year ago


Christopher M.
Christopher M.5 years ago

We used to say "cat alert" when a cat was misbehaving.
When Oprah said she would announce when she was getting married "Alert Alert Alert" the cat didn't know what she had done wrong....

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Aimee A.
Aimee A5 years ago

This is 100% true! I have observed my cats for many years, and I can say with absolute certainty that they DO know right from wrong. They understand what we say to them even though they don't speak our languages. My Cat Capone is a rambunctious little big guy and he loves to pounce (and terrify) my other cats when ever they eat, drink, and use the litter box. My other cats are approximately 7 years older than him, so they don't want to play rough with him. To teach Capone, I give him "time out" in a room with food, water, and litter box for a half hour by himself to calm him down when he's naughty. When I catch him getting ready to stalk the other cats, I say to him: "Capone! Do you need a time out?" and he looks at me, looks at the cat, looks at me, looks at the cat and literally makes his decision. Some times he decides that the time out is worth it, and he goes for the other cat. Some times he decides that he doesn't want the time out and walks away. When Taylor arrived from our local no kill shelter, Capone got his play mate. She's about his age and she loves to play with him. He rarely gets time out any more, but every now and then, when he gets the urge to stalk the other cats, I'll ask him if he needs a time out, and he makes it perfectly clear that he remembers exactly what that means.

Eddie C.
Past Member 5 years ago

We will all be dead before the ignorant part of humanity learns that we need them alive much more than we need them dead.

Suzanne Loewen
Suzanne L5 years ago

Other living creatures need not be identical to us for us to respect them and behave humanely toward them. They are beings. They have an inner life. Perhaps not exactly the same as ours but the lights are on and someone is there.

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

i am wondering. if a speciese lacks parts of the brain we have, or they are under developed. how do they match up with us? I think we have some areas that a reptile don't. I forget what they are.

I am not saying toads cannot feel pain. thinks feel pain to avoid damage. If someone is born with the disorder where you cannot feel pain. then they are less? all you can do is hurt their feelings.
If I insult a turtle, will it be heart broken?

Yeshna B.
Yeshna B6 years ago

Tell me something that I do not know! ;)