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Lecture 4. Why aren't animals human?

How do human beings fit into the wider picture of animal life on earth? More specifically, why is it that despite having remarkably similar genes, humans are so fundamentally different from apes, their closest evolutionary relatives?

This lecture will look at some answers that have been proposed to these questions and suggest that none are completely satisfactory.

However, it’s clear that human beings are the social species par excellence. While other species have complex ways of communicating, none have anything as powerful as human languages. Social animals have simple cultures, but none are as enduring, flexible and productive as human culture.

We will use evolutionary theory and comparative psychology to explore these issues and hence to sharpen the questions that need to be answered in order to say if, and if so, where, a border might be drawn between the human and the non-human worlds.

The lecture will finish by asking: "How close can the human-animal relationship become?" Our answers will depend on what we think the mental lives of animals are like and on how much we think we can know about them.

The lecture slides are here

If you have any problems with the lecture or with using the resources on this page, then email me :

Basic readings:

Tomasello, M. (2000) The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard University Press. (You can download it here). This article is actually a precis of the book, but it is written by Tomasello himself.

Smuts, B. (2001) Encounters with animal minds. Journal of consciousness studies, Vol. 8, No. 5 - 7, pages 293 - 309. (You can download it here)

Optional readings:

Don't be worried that there are so many readings. Optional means what it says. Just follow up what interests you. The readings relate to names mentioned in the lecture, roughly in the order that they appeared. Click on the name to get the reading.

Oyama A number of talks about evolution by Susan Oyama are on YouTube. This is one of them -

Nagel This is well-known paper is on "What is it like to be a bat?

Savage-Rumbaugh This is not a paper but a talk about her work with Bonobo chimpanzees.

Suddendorf & Corballis. They claim animals have no episodic memory but Clayton and Dickinson claim they do.

Whiten and Biro Show that chimpanzees have simple cultures.

Byrne and Whiten Discuss Machiavellian behaviour in apes.

Povinelli suggests animals have a 'Theory of Mind' but Tomasello doubts this.

Gallup says animals recognise themselves in mirrors, Heyes they don't, and Humphreys suggests why self awareness might have evolved.

Donald makes a bold surmise about the evolution of the human mind.

Other online resources.

There's an enormous amount of material on the internet relevant to the lecture. The problem is quality control. Far too much of what's out there is innacurate, out-of-date or exaggerated, so be critical about what you find. Some sites are good though, for example, this one,about whether animals can learn language: 

Video clips of the researchers themselves giving talks can be a very good way into their work. For example here's one by Jane Goodall entitled "What separates us from chimpanzees?"

Here’s a video about Temple Grandin, entitled, unflatteringly, “The Woman who thinks like a cow."