“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”
– Frans de Waal
What is different about us is the degree of our awareness of causality, due to our relatively large frontal cortex.
We humans tend to think that we’re somehow superior to all the other animals. Surely, the argument goes, a mere beast cannot experience the breadth of emotion we can? Or understand the moral duties we feel towards each other. Not to mention our linguistic capabilities or self-awareness.
However this approach gets in the way of us understanding how we evolved to be like we are. If we are the pinnacle of evolution then why don’t we have the sense of smell of a dog, the eyesight of an eagle, and the ability to regrow limbs like a spider? We have survived partly due to our adaptability and partly due to blind chance.
Pigeons have been shown to be superstitious, bees can be emotional, elephants mourn their dead and are self-aware and vampire bats are surprisingly altruistic, yet we persist in maintaining a sense of superiority.
This human-centred thinking has held us back in our understanding (we insisted for too long that the sun and other stars go round the earth). Our egotistical tendencies are key to our survival so they do serve a good purpose, but we need to be aware of the side-effects.
Carl Sagan said (in a very silly voice): “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”