Faroe stamp 430 The First Human Beings
Faroe stamp 430 The First Human Beings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditions of Western and Eastern philosophy have long puzzled over the question of what makes human beings different from other living beings. Religious doctrines offer up concepts of the soul and capacities for moral choice as distinguishing features. Rationality, the capacity to choose one’s ends, language, social complexity, the ability to make art from poetry to music, the ability to grieve – philosophers have offered all of these and more as evidence of a qualitative difference between the kinds of beings that humans are, and all other living things. But scientific research on the one hand, and technological advances on the other, have undermined these kinds of distinctions. Elephants that appear to mourn their dead; gorillas that learn sign language and paint; birds that create sculptures; complex social structures among primates, cetaceans and other creatures; artificial intelligences from Deep Blue to Siri.

Our understanding of our place in the world has changed significantly over the last couple of centuries. So can we be confident any more about what makes us distinctively human?

Join Dr Chris Groves from Cardiff University to debate these issues next Tuesday, 19 January 2016, at the Gate from 8pm.

This Cafe introduces a new programme of events for this year, looking at a range of topics: genetically modified food and food security, existentialism, love, mindfulness with/without Buddhism, empathy, equality, assisted dying, art and urban regeneration, and authenticity. Sign up for our mailing list to stay up to date!

Ahead of this month’s topic, why not take a look at this TED talk from zeFrank…

…this film from Yann-Arthus Bertrand….

…and respond to our poll below. Are there really significant differences between humans and animals? Which of these viewpoints is closest to your own? You can add comments below explaining your choice.

4 thoughts on “Next Cafe: What makes us human?”

  1. “hugely important: humans have capacities or abilities that make them special” I don’t agree with this. I think all species are sophisticated within their own realms, there are many aspects of the natural world we can only dream of, eg how whales can communicate across miles of distance, how foxes don’t reproduce if food is scarce, how birds navigate their migrations, the agility of big cats, the amazing hearing of canines. It’s all relative. It’s the wonder of nature and evolution adapting to environments. I think saying humans are superior is an over-simplification. Yes we can be intelligent but we can only measure it within our own social constructs. It is impossible to go beyond. We have our limitations. All of our interpretations and understandings are based on our own social constructs and conceptualisations. We don’t know so much, and a lot of what this world holds is based on an assumption we are a superior species who seems to think we own the planet. It actually belongs to every living species that has been created by nature. We are part of nature not separate to it. The big difference between us and animals is the ego, whether that makes us ‘special’ could be seen as a fundamental flaw. We all breathe, see and feel in the ways our species dictate whatever form that may take, we are all sentient beings.

  2. I don’t wish to use the poll because I cannot agree at all with either option. Much too crude and simple, especially for Philosophy!

    The differences between human and animal are trivial in the sense that we ARE animals. Yet we are animals that dominate more than any other.
    Our capacities are not special or distinctive other than the ability to mimic other animals. Our clever stuff is all about copying what we see.

    We have a strong lust to dominate arising from being prey animals. Predators have built in limits to their aggression. Compare research on overcrowding in doves, mice.

    Like most prey animals we are herd beasts so we have good cooperation capacities. Our products are the result of team work. Sometimes massive team work. But that is not distinctive, just larger scale.

    What is important about this topic is how dangerously influential the Judeo-Christian theology still is with its concept of human superiority. Divine commands to dominate and exploit have been enormously destructive.

    The gap with the more complex animals is not that great if we drop our arrogance and look at ways of thinking which are not like ours. That is not something most humans are good at.

  3. “Traditions of Western and Eastern philosophy have long puzzled over the question of what makes human beings different from other living beings.”

    I don’t see a justification for puzzlement here. We should each base our estimate of how different we humans are from other living beings squarely on the physical, behavioural etc. differences, as we each observe them, with due regard for any scientific findings. Then there will be nothing to puzzle over. If in contrast we make a priori judgements of the magnitude and significance of the differences, based on wishful thinking, delusions of grandeur (or indeed humility) etc., then these may well clash with observations. It’s tempting but mistaken to set our hearts on some degrees/kinds of difference, then try to find justifying evidence.
    Every species is ‘special’ – I’m guessing there’s a clue in the etymology. Maybe we’re the only one that puzzles needlessly over whether it’s somehow extra special.

  4. I think animals are ‘persons’ in their own right and more so than humans like to acknowledge, and although their capacities may be different they are not ‘lesser’ creatures, and are worthy of the same respect, fair treatment and protection from harm as human people think we deserve. Being ‘clever’ does not make us superior or give us the right to use, abuse and exploit our fellow animals in the way that we do. We have become far too disconnected from nature than is good for us as a species or for the rest of life on this planet. We would be wise to wake up to the reality of our interdependence with the whole web of life which it seems our species in its arrogance and ignorance is hell bent on destroying. Not so clever really.

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