Of course humans have behaviors that are different from other species. Just as birds have behaviors that are different from lizards. Thanks to natural selection, every species has evolved, and continues to evolve, to survive in its own environmental niche.
The problem is when these differences between humans and other animals are presented in a species-ist fashion: that is, when they’re used as "evidence" of human superiority. Take these bulleted “facts” I found—from a quick Google search—at the website of The Good News Magazine, which is similar to what was touted on the Jesus Camp documentary (emphasis mine):
Consider some of the ways mankind differs from the animal kingdom:
Self-consciousness and intelligence. The human mind gives us capacity for reasoned thought. Instinct isn't the driving force that determines our behavior. This ability leads us to search for meaning in our individual lives as well as meaning in human life as a whole.
The capacity for empathy and sharing another's suffering.
The ability to think and plan in time. It's an amazing aspect of the human mind to think in terms of past, present and future. We have aspirations to achieve; we set goals and organize ourselves relative to time. When was the last time you saw a gorilla or chimp open his calendar and make an appointment?
The capacity to conceive of our own death.
The ability to create. Human beings are unlike other creatures in their concepts and development of art, music and literature. Beavers through instinct build the same types of dams generation after generation. There isn't a raging river on the globe that mankind cannot dam and use to create electricity.
The ability to create languages. Human beings comprehend connections between large numbers of words, including the ability to learn languages, even so-called animal languages.
The ability to create economic systems. Humans have the desire to work and be productive, to barter, exchange and set up economic systems.
The capacity for scientific thought. This includes experimentation and development of theories.
The ability to perform mathematics and construct computers.
The desire to find meaning in sex beyond procreation.
The ability to consciously change our environment, personality, character, habits and even physical appearance.
The ability to experience emotions such as happiness, joy, peace and, conversely, depression and despair.
The ability to conceive of morality. Because human beings can conceive of a choice between inherently right and inherently wrong behavior, we have a capacity for a relationship with God.
Most of this is bullshit. Anybody who’s seen the videos of Kanzi at the Great Ape Trust knows that humans don't have a monopoly on language. And even if you only scan the surface of the literature on bonobo sex behavior, you’ll see that those horny 'lil buggers find plenty of fun in sexual activities that don't necessarily lead to making babies. (Readers of Sperm Wars, meanwhile, will wonder if humans find “meaning” in sex beyond procreation.) And every dog or cat owner would take offense to the statement that their Rover or Claw doesn't have “the ability to experience emotions such as happiness, joy, peace and, conversely, depression and despair.”
I won’t argue that other animals have designed computers, or created economic systems—because they don’t need to. Humans, unlike dolphins or brown bats, don't use sonar communication. And humans, unlike most butterflies, can't see the intricate patterns of ultraviolet light on flower petals. By the Good News logic, doesn't this make us the inferior species?
The more I learn about evolution, the less I believe in human specialness. So I love any new study that shows that anatomical details, cultures, or behaviors that theologians, philosophers, anthropologists, or even biologists have labeled as uniquely “human” aren’t so unique after all.
It’s my pleasure to point out two such studies released in the last week:
The first, done by biological anthropologist Antonio Moura of the
The second, presented at the 2007 conference of the International Association of Dental Research, deals with cranial anatomy…Decades ago, the famous archaeologist Richard Leakey wrote that man’s earliest ancestor had a vertical profile and a relatively large brain. But that idea was overturned recently, when NYU paleoanthropologist Timothy Bromage used a computer model to reconstruct the skull of this direct ancestor, 1.9 million year old Homo rudolfensis. Bromage found that rodolfensis had a protruding jaw and a brain less than half the size of a modern human. Moral of the story: Homos were like monkeys.
There is one cultural practice that I hope, for the sake of other species, is uniquely human: religiosity.