How humans are (not) unique

Robert Sapolsky

Beat me, said the masochist.

No, said the sadist.

We, Homo sapiens sapiens, are the only species that can understand the humor (ie, the meaning) of this conversation. It involves advanced versions of simpler concepts such as Theory of Mind and tit-for-tat. But the simple versions of those and other concepts are not unique to humans. So the definition of human really rests on marginal complexity.

Take 37 minutes of your time to watch Robert Sapolsky, a brilliant and hilarious neuroscientist at Stanford, as he analyzes what makes humans “uniquiest”. It is a prime example of making science accessible through storytelling.

The short of it: Almost all of the things that we used to think made us humans unique in the wild kingdom can in fact be observed in other species. Such as:

  • Intra-species aggression (including genocide)
  • Theory of Mind
  • The Golden Rule
  • Empathy
  • Pleasure in anticipation & gratification-postponement
  • Culture

However, we humans exhibit these facilities with a twist — with an added layer of complexity.

(By the way, he refers to the same baboon study that I mentioned in this post, but could not locate. Does anybody have a lead?)


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80 thoughts on “How humans are (not) unique

  1. Thanks for posting this–fascinating and entertaining.

    I came across a quote recently that I thought was arrogant and hubristic and this video helps explain why. Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles was quoted as saying “The scientific research suggests that dolphins are ‘nonhuman persons’ who qualify for moral standing as individuals.”

    I don’t know what it means but I think Prof White should have a look at this video!

    • I don’t know what it means either, but isn’t it possible that White was saying that dolphins are close enough to us in some capacities to have moral rights from us?

    • Hard to say. He doesn’t specifically mention ‘rights’ and if he did, he would open the door to saying that the closer an animal is to us, according to some measure, entitles them to better treatment from us. Implicitly this is already occurring–that’s why we have save the whales people but very few save the sea slug people.

  2. Challenging and enlightening, Andreas, and delivered with such a sense of continuity and amusement at ourselves.

    It is undeniable that the mere existence of a challenge is what impels us to meet that challenge and if successful to seek another. Thus, for example, as humans we struggle to construct a moral code and, having done so, seek out those who transgress that code and punish them. Having succeeded here we then go on to question the morality of what we have done and compare it to the morality of the transgressor, with painful contradictory results. The high point of humanity, whether religious or atheist and whatever our walk of life is to tackle the inherent contradiction of forgiveness. If we are able to come to some accommodation with ourselves on this abstract question, we then begin to ask ourselves what we do about forgiveness. If it is to be absolute, we abandon punishment. If we are to set limits, where are those limits to be?

    As with all questions of this kind, we are faced with the overarching mystery of consciousness, and we are unable to say whether this is unique to us as individuals and by extension unique to us as human beings.

    I once raised the question ofconsciousness with a neurologist friend of mine and he wrote:
    “Consciousness is a very difficult issue physiologically. We understand so much about how the individual neurones work but so little of how a galaxy of neurones manages to speak with one voice! Crick, once he had gone as far as he could with DNA and genetics, turned his attention to consciousness but with less success. I saw him once in California giving a speech. I wanted to hear all about how he and Watson sat on the banks of the Cam thinking things over and how inspiration came to them but he gave a completely incomprehensible talk on vision. He was too clever for most of us.”

    Crick’s lecture appears here (I’m sorry but I don’t know how to create a hyperlink in a comment):

    Even here, Crick discusses only the neural constructs of consciousness, and at the end of the lecture readily admits that we do not know what we actually perceive.

    I’m sorry to drift from the central theme of this post, Andreas, but so much attention has been given to unconscious imperatives over the last 100 to 150 years that consciousness itself has been somewhat neglected, and yet it is what defines us. How is it that an act of apparently conscious will can draw upon all the resources of the universe to achieve its object? The family man who is a drone operator in Sapolski’s lecture is a simple example with moral overtones. Questions of determinism arise, but still we are left with the experience of consciousness itself.

    The inaccessibility of the mystery derives from the fact that our only means of investigating consciousness is by using consciousness itself: an impossible self-reference. We watch our consciousness and watch ourselves watching our consciousness and watch ourselves watching our consciousness…

    Or is it just a game of ping-pong between different parts of our brain? I have heard neuroscientists say that consciousness is simply a product of the brain’s complexity. That sounds to me rather unscientific. Rather like: and God said ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.

    One small lesson we may perhaps learn from all this is that when we use that precious gift, conscious language, we should use it directly and avoid allusion or implication as far as possible, because of the risk of misunderstanding. At school I was taught that metaphor was superior to simile. As I approach old age, I prefer the simile because it tells you what it is doing. That said, language itself develops by way of the sophisticated, almost unconscious, use of metaphor.

    Oh dear! I have strayed so far from what I originally intended to say.

    • thanks for these deep thoughts, Richard.

      I suppose the trouble with consciousness starts with deciding who even has it.

      We seem to agree that most of “us” do. How about chimps and baboons? Now we have to define consciousness, and are finding it harder than we expected. Next we move “down” from primates. Somewhere between us and, say, trees, we probably agree that consciousness is not the same as life. (I won’t even bring up the pro-choice/pro-life angle).

      Personally, I am probably conscious only part of the time. 😉 But I couldn’t say what makes me so. I am aware that I am. (“Cogito ergo sum,” by the way, is as daft as “let there by light” in my opinion.)

      When your friends say the word “complexity” what they mean is that consciousness is probably an “emergent” property. That is, the individual components of the phenomenon (neurons) cannot explain what happens when those components interact in a complex system.

      It’s not satisfying, but I cannot disagree with it either.

      The truly stunning possibility this raises is that there might indeed by a “Jungian” collective consciousness, as we as individuals become part of another complex system.

    • @ andreas,

      “Cogito ergo sum” start with the reverse and see how far that gets you, it makes sense to me, why daft? is there some middle philosophy i am not aware of?

      also the phrase “let there be light” holds great meaning for many people (NOT only creationists). some trace it back to it’s original language and link it to the separation of light from darkness, rather scientific, metaphoric even simile if you like BUT poetic. the Big Bang Theory perhaps, so why daft? think binomial code. one being light zero being dark.

      is everyone on this blog an atheist? how is it any more daft to believe in “the teleological argument”(from the Greek divine design) than to believe or relish in stories that this blog retells. stories of what we now consider Greek Mythology but were once Greek Religion?

      is Hubris a uniquely homo sapient quality?

      o.k this is a tangent, but one introduced by the blog. i liked the greek stories the first time when i studied them and i like them again in the retelling, but i am officially insulted when someone summarily dismisses the stories of others as daft.

    • Oh dear. I’m not sure I can officially un-insult you, so insulted you shall stay.

      that said,

      a) you should remember the cavalier tone of the blog, meaning: most things are said in a more frivolous/less serious tone that you seem to imagine. In this case, I was merely responding to Richard’s stipulation that “let there be light” sound “unscientific”. (I doubt Richard is an atheist, btw.). If you interpret it to be an metaphor for the Big Bang and the original light (ie, energy) then of course it is a great metaphor.

      b) no “stories or others” are “dismissed as daft” on this blog. Au contraire: this blog celebrates all stories.

      c) however, Descartes was not a storyteller, and IMHO among the more boring philsophers. he took the conventional wisdom of the day (when it was politically dangerous to disagree with it, admittedly) and reversed, through some semantic gymnastics, into the outcome he wanted. Not wrong, just banal. Boring. You notice he is not in my pantheon of great thinkers.

    • thank goodness i made my sentence clear 🙂 i respect all philosophies including g atheism which i only learned through this blog was more reviled than religion.

      what makes the “stories of ancient greece’ which were once religious more worthy of respect/retelling than the stories of current religions? you know not how people choose to interpret them.

    • @Dafna, sounds quite logical but we don’t dwell much on Baal or the ancient Egyptian gods, most of favorite mythology seems to revolve around Greek, Roman, and to some extent, Norse. We ignore far eastern legends and myths of their gods (rare exceptions being made for Buddha who, ironically, was not a god). I think it has more to do with the direct (vs indirect) influence these god myths had on civilization. Just a thought.

    • Actually, I’m not claiming that the stories of ancient Greece are “more worthy of retelling” than any other stories. I’m very explicitly intending to retell them ALL, here on The Hannibal Blog.

      But: Surely, you’re not expecting me to retell ALL stories of ALL humanity and ALL times in … ONE blog post?

      My thread on heroism is very young. We’ll soon get into Eastern, Nordic, medieval and modern stories. Also, female and male heroes. But, ahem, patience, please. I got a day job to keep.

    • @ Richard,

      i do not think you drifted from the point. but so much attention has been given to unconscious imperatives over the last 100 to 150 years that consciousness itself has been somewhat neglected, and yet it is what defines us.

      it seems to be exactly the point. it is usually what is least mentioned that seems to interest me also. the last 60 secs. were the most interesting… “the complexity of a moral imperative.”

      i think you are the only one who posted about this point, it’s the property that makes us “uniquiest.”

    • The connection between religious belief and morality is a vexed one, isn’t it, Dafna?

      Atheists like Douglas rightly separate amorality and non-belief. Yet St Paul dissociates morality and redemption – a very comforting thought ( for me, at least)!

      In the end, I suppose it’s subjective experience, or the products of consciousness, which determines belief or non-belief, and that proves nothing. Announcement of one’s atheism, faith or agnosticism can be such a conversation-stopper.

      As for a collective conscious, Andreas, I find crowds scary. Yes, “Emergent” is the word, and the concept I have difficulty with – I was trying to say I felt neuroscientists unscientific in this regard. Btw I have only one neuroscientist friend.

      Sorry to be so long responding. It’s a bit like yesterday’s meat. It’s just that I’m a slow thinker.

    • @ richard,

      i am so glad to have your response. i envy your concise responses and your ability to get to the heart of the matter.

      the speaker is an atheist and yet i believe the heart of the matter was exactly what you said, a conscious choice to make use of moral imperative.

      oh yes, sharing a religious belief system or lack-of is a conversation killer. perhaps because we don’t spend enough time learning about belief systems outside our own.

      lucky for the jews there is little talk of afterlife, we must make our amends on earth. when we die there is “something or nothing”. with luck the something is pleasant. ( i am guessing you are referring to redemption in respect to both life and afterlife)

      what i find vexing is reconciling my organized religion with science. it is entirely subjective experience that keeps me a “practicing jew”, and maybe a little fear that if i am not reminded at least perennially (during our two big holy-days) of where my values were first acquired i might abandon these values.

      the idea of a collective conscious gives me the willies also. for some reason it brings to mind a herd mentality. it is uncanny, however, how people with whom i am particularly close sometimes say what i am thinking in such a specific manner and with out prelude that i can see how some minds connect.

      my posts are a mental exercise for me,very laborious and sometimes nonsensical, i have aphasia.

      but i learn so much about how people interact, it is worth the exercise.

      i am breaking my post in two to make it easier to form my thoughts.

    • @ richard,

      again, it takes such a great effort to write this that i have abandoned any hope of being concise.

      you response was timely in that i just read an old article in the doctors office today about neurology and a project to create an “atlas of the human brain”. paul allen, co-founder of miscrosoft and the king of applied binomial theory conceived and funds the project.

      why ? because neuroscience is most definitely an emerging science, in its infancy. despite the experiments with artificial intelligence, mr. allen has decided that “the human operating system could run on only one particular kind of computer”… the human brain!

      ah… there it goes, the thought has vanished. i do find the speakers storytelling in relation to neuroscience interesting in that it reminds me of Proust who also had a fascination with neurology – in the end he may also have suffered from aphasia.

    • @Richard

      Atheists like Douglas rightly separate amorality and non-belief.

      Actually, I have no idea what other atheists do (or think) and though I tend to separate any number of things I am not sure I do the above or, if I do, do it “rightly.”

      I would say I separate “morality” from “belief” for myself and facetiously claim that atheists are, by definition, amoral if morality is, by definition, “owned” by religion. And, if amoral, are “innocent.”

      That also causes me much vexation because, since I choose to be atheist, I am (if morality is only found in religion) , therefore, immoral by my disassociation with religion.

      All of which brings me back to the premise that humans are unique because they have a concept of sanity and its antithesis.

    • I like to think that morality is individual and subjective, Douglas, and that collective morality is law. If I’m correct, then you may not be amoral!

    • I like to think that morality is individual and subjective, Douglas, and that collective morality is law.

      Sounds like situational ethics to me. I certainly agree with the “collective morality is law” position.

      Darn! I was kind of hoping for the “amoral and innocent”.

  3. The uniqueness of humans is that we are the only animals to recognize our insanity… some of the time. As a species, we have taken that insanity and built civilization upon it.

    • Very Nietzschean, Douglas. He said something to the effect of: Man is but an animal become perverse.

      But yes, I like the implied sense of irony that humans seem to be capable of. It’s much more civilized to be aware of being insane than simply to be insane.

  4. Fascinating lecture. Is this a perm or does he have naturally wavy hair like that? There was a biology professor in my high school who had exactly the same beard. He was ultimately fired for showing porn movies in class. It may be uniquely human to make such connections based on a beard.

    I’m not sure I completely understand the example about Nellis Air Force base in Nevada and why it demonstrates human uniqueness. After all, Mr. Sapolsky had already stated that humans are (a) not the only species that kills and (b) not the only species that uses tools. A flight simulator which remote-controls drone strikes in the Middle East may be a more sophisticated tool than a stick, but it’s a tool nonetheless. And what these drone operators are doing, in their minds, is to protect their homeland and their families by neutralizing the bad guys before they get a chance to do damage over here, i.e., they are defending their territory, no different from the chimp border patrol Sapolsky mentioned.

    As an alternative explanation, these drone operators, on a neurological level, may not even perceive their activities as “killing.” They may just get a dopamine surge from doing what they’re good at (i.e., operating certain machines) knowing there’s a 100% chance of getting a reward (i.e., a pay check) later.

    So no matter which way you look at it, operating these remote drones is just typical primate behavior. I don’t see how this is uniquely human.

    • Yes, you’re right in that in each of his examples the human “difference” is a one of degree not kind. Specifically, the degree of abstraction.

      To me this is powerful: We are animals who (sometimes) think abstractly. Go beyond the readership of the Hannibal Blog and you would discover that this is a controversial statement.

      regarding the hair: Once you’ve decided that we are like other primates in most respects, you might as well go hirsute to, you know, blend in.

    • It seems to me that the only two qualitys that set humans apart from animals in kind, not merely in degree, are:

      (1) Our capacity for humor. Although many animals (especially young ones) like to play and have fun, I can’t imagine–and have never heard of–animals making anything that might be considered “jokes,” i.e., communicating things they don’t really mean just to be “funny.”

      (2) The desire for artistic expression appears to be uniquely human, and I guess one could argue that humor even falls into that category.

    • @ peter G

      search m. gladwell, he readily discloses that he was taken more seriously with the afro than without. coincidence, i think not.

  5. Years ago I would have agreed with Peter G, however Koko (that gorilla that knows sign language) makes jokes. She signs untruths in answer to some questions, then reacts with amusement if called on it.

    I’ve also seen cats, dogs, chimps and an elephant that paint, and even my own cat likes hitting the piano keys in the same repeated pattern.

    I think our only unique quality is our interest in self-delusion, in preferring to see ourselves and the world not as it is, but as we would prefer it to be.

    The other animals believe their senses.

    (I posted about love, Valentines, and an odd, unknown profession lately.)

    • Well, there’s Nora, the piano-playing kitty, and I’ve seen pics of Chetah (the little chimp from the original Tarzan movies, who’s still alive and resides in some sort of retirement home for animal stars) painting. I’m not familiar with Koko the comedian. Hard to tell whether these animals are, in fact, doing “the same thing” as humans, or if they’re doing something completely different that simply happens to resemble human behavior (just like a parrot mouthing a few words in English has nothing to do with talking).

      Anyway, I like the idea of quadripeds playing music and painting and kidding around. Fine with me. The anthropocentric world-view is clearly man-made, and I’ve always believed that by eating meat–given that we can do just fine without it–constitutes an act of gratuitous cannibalism of sorts.

    • Most interesting. I cannot agree with you on almost anything you’ve said here. Not that you do not articulate your argument well, you do. But you may have done the best job of expressing The anthropocentric world-view through your argument that I have ever seen.

      That animals can be trained to mimic human behaviors is common knowledge. That all incidents of these trained behaviors are merely mimicry is no longer accepted and is likely not proof of human intellectual superiority. One might look at how children are taught to speak… and how they learn… and see if mimicry is not at the heart of it.

      I hold one hypothesis that says that “baby talk” is merely the infant’s attempt to mimic the sounds the baby hears the parents utter… it is a bit more complex than that but that is its basis.

      We eat meat because of our ability to readily use animal protein in that form as opposed to converting vegetable protein into a form we can use. We are omnivores, not herbivores, not carnivores.

      But there are some things you implied with that last paragraph that I agree with.

      Animals, at one time in my own youth, were thought not capable of abstract thought. Anyone who has had a pet has seen evidence that animals can, and do, dream. And dreams are clear evidence of abstract thought (at least in my view). If I was not atheist, I might wonder if animals possess souls. It’s true that we have a tendency to anthropomorphize our pets but I think there is more to it.

      I had, at one time, three cats. One of them clearly developed a means of communicating a desire to me. When Bimbo wanted a treat, she would jump up on the coffee table, make a noise (a “meow”), and bat the container of Pounce treats. If I ignored her request. She would repeat it. She would repeat it no more than 3 times before she would knock the container off the table at my feet and then leave the room (if the container was empty, she would not do any of this). I did not teach her this, the other two cats never did anything close to this. It was unique to her.

      She had learned that the treats were in kept in that container. That I would feed her some by the time she had repeated it three times or not at all.

      We are different in that we are possibly more intellectually centered than the other animals. If I may take that cogito ergo sum is a slightly different way, we are what we are because we think in the way that we do. Or, on an even more simple level, we are what we think we are.

    • We eat meat because of our ability to readily use animal protein in that form as opposed to converting vegetable protein into a form we can use. We are omnivores, not herbivores, not carnivores.

      @Douglas: Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can rape, steal, or enslave doesn’t make these behaviors morally justifiable.

      Recall the line of Kathrine Hepburn’s character in African Queen:

      Nature, Mr. Alnutt, is what we are put on this planet to rise above.

    • If you wish to believe we were put on this planet rather than being here as a result of complex biological evolution then I am afraid I could not possibly explain why we are omnivores and why we, therefore, have a biological need for animal protein in a way you might understand.

      The African Queen Is a very good movie but I wouldn’t consider a great philosophical work.

    • If you wish to believe we have a biological need for animal protein, then I am afraid I could not possibly explain why I’m still alive and kicking in a way you might understand.

    • It is not so much that we have a biological need (perhaps I could have used a better term) that we could not consciously ignore (something that also might indicate our uniqueness as a species) but a biological adaptation to derive protein more easily from meat than from vegetation. That is not to say that we cannot survive without meat, we obviously can, but that it is our biological nature to “prefer” it. As I said, we are omnivores. This means we are not exclusively one or the other. That we have biological “needs” that we individually ignore (think of vows of chastity, for example, which are in opposition to the biological need to reproduce) does not deny their existence in our make-up. It may be part of why we find meat tasty.

      Were we to choose, as a species, to become exclusively herbivore would be amazing. Not impossible, mind you, just fantastically improbable.

    • I agree that humans have a biological adaptation to derive protein from meat, although I’m not so sure about the “more easily” part. There seems to be some dispute among experts, and without a scientific background in biochemistry it is difficult to figure out who’s right or wrong without resorting to one’s own personal biases. Debates about diet tend to get very emotional very quickly.

      Using myself as a long-term guinea pig and judging from the state of my musculature, however, the human body appears to absorb plant proteins just fine.

      My objection to eating meat is simply that, while certainly “tasty,” it doesn’t seem to be necessary. A lot of gratuituous cruelty to animals could be avoided by switiching over to a vegetarian diet, plus humanity would be better off. Too much arable land is squandered for growing corn and soybeans to feed the dopey chickens and cattle.

      In other words, we’re putting a lot more nutrition and calories into our lifestock than we get out of it by consuming the meat.

      In other words, and perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, the practice of eating meat wastes way too much food to sustain an ever-growing human population.

      So given that we can do quite well without meat, I believe we should.

    • In other words, and perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, the practice of eating meat wastes way too much food to sustain an ever-growing human population.

      A valid argument for converting to herbivore. But not exactly accurate, I am afraid, because we grow crops that are not intended for human consumption to feed livestock (not to mention the other wasted “slop” fed to pigs). Yes, not growing that feed might free up land for agricultural use for growing food for humans. Not having large herds might also free up land for other things. The livestock, however, produce materials for fertilizers which we then use to increase food production. Not to mention a number of non-dietary by-products we use in our daily lives.

      It’s all about the “circle of life”, perhaps. The sciences of animal husbandry and agriculture have advanced somewhat over the years and we waste few things that can bring higher prices if sold directly.

      So given that we can do quite well without meat, I believe we should.

      This I may take issue with on a personal level but have no problem with your advocating it. Isn’t it a good thing that we can each choose for ourselves?

    • I recall, once when I was in Thailand, watching a group of elephants paint pictures. They had brushes in their trunks, dipped them into colors, and so forth. All this was later sold, for good prices, as “art”. And indeed, you could tell which elephant produced which paintings. there were styles and genres. The elephants really seemed to be expressing themselves.

      Perhaps there is some way of fiddling with the semantics in order NOT to call this art, but if Jackson Pollock counts, these elephants must.

  6. Dr Sapolsky seemed to say that humans are unique because we are the only species to show empathy for one of another species. I believe he is wrong. I have seen dogs and cats show empathy for another species. As an example, I brought two donkeys home from Wisconsin and as they became accustomed to their new surroundings, they began to play and romp in their paddock. My dog, who had never seen donkeys before, exhibited play behaviour in response to theirs. Does this not reflect an ability to be empathic? How else could he have recognized play that does not closely resemble that of his own species? I am not a scientist but have observed similar behaviours in other domestic species.

  7. “It’s much more civilized to be aware of being insane than simply to be insane.”

    I get an inkling from the preview the upcoming new scorsese film, shutter island, is on this theme

    insanity is sometimes a result of imprinted behavior and other times a deviation from it.

    one theory (myth) goes: god created the animals as playthings to amuse his wife

    now thee japanese use microchips to pilot robotic animals as toys

    thus we haven’t come full circle

    yet

    “god’s” dilemma right now seems to be: civilization becoming more insane than the law of the jungle

    incurable, yet… the film “all about steve” contained one hint of a solution (?)

  8. I now understand why a former female hamster of mine devoured all of her newborn babies after I attempted to pet her little head.

    • Do you mean, is there any other species that has advanced technology?

      “Tools”, yes. “Technology”, no. Although dolphins have been tweeting and social-networking for aeons.

    • I am of the opinion that any created/modified tool is technology. Using a rock to pound grain for food is not technological. Taking a rock, flattening one side in some way, fixing it to a strong stick to provide leverage, and then using that to pound the grain is technological. Using a sharp piece of flint or shale to cut the skin from the animal your tribe brought down isn’t technology but using a piece of flint to shape a blade, an edge, on another piece of flint (i.e. making a “knife”) would be.

      In other words, I define “advanced tools” as one we make rather than simply find in nature.

  9. @ Peter G

    “If you wish to believe we have a biological need for animal protein, then I am afraid I could not possibly explain why I’m still alive and kicking in a way you might understand.”

    A pleasing piece of logic.

    • @exuvia

      “If you wish to believe we have a biological need for animal protein, then I am afraid I could not possibly explain why I’m still alive and kicking in a way you might understand.” [Peter G]

      A pleasing piece of logic.

      Yes, it is. But it is incomplete. We might not get the proper levels of certain amino acids required for the conversion of proteins in our bodies from vegetable proteins that we do get from animal proteins.

      For one explanation, see:
      http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/N/Nutrition.html#protein

      @Peter G
      It’s a good thing that people can choose. I just wish they’d choose more wisely.

      Ah yes, “wisely” a useful, if subjective, value.

      I, too, think I choose wisely. I also think others may do so… from their particular perspective.

  10. @ Douglas

    “We might not get the proper levels of certain amino acids required for the conversion of proteins in our bodies from vegetable proteins that we do get from animal proteins.”

    True.
    If you live on a mono diet, or close to something like that, then I am sure you won’t.

    But my diet, in terms of amino acids from the vegetable kingdom, is incredibly varied. Thirty years and doing very well. Blood works, muscles; it’s all there.

    I deposit aminos from the plant kingdom three times a day and my blood bank seems to save them up and combine them during my anabolic cycle to everything my body needs.

    The longest longitudinal study of vegetarians can be deduced from the numerous Hindu population. I believe they have thousands of years on the chow. Take away their poverty and they have done exceedingly well in terms of proper levels of the essential amino acids you mention without which their bodies would have vanished into thin air.

    We like what we eat, meat or veg. That is where the particular and personal point of view comes into play. Nutritional science is a different story, it has a lot to tell and it hasn’t told me off yet.

    Need of meat… Holy cow! I not only do not think so, I know we don’t. Need of essential amino acids. Sure thing.

    Be well

    PS. I just put on my Wikipedia glasses to refresh.
    ANABOLISM: “the set of metabolic pathways that construct molecules from smaller units”

    I’m sorry I didn’t get to roam with Flipper, Babe, Lassie and…

    • I am very happy for you. But I am beginning to wonder… where did I say that vegetarianism is bad? Please, show me that passage and I will apologize. I don’t believe I ever did. I merely pointed out that a number of biological factors show that human beings are omnivores. That we more easily process animal protein because we are built to be that way. That does not say you are wrong to be a vegetarian, it just says that human beings are not herbivores by nature. That’s all.

      I would, however, ask you not to look down your nose at me because I choose to remain an omnivore.

  11. @ Douglas

    “In other words, I define “advanced tools” as one we make rather than simply find in nature.”

    A clarifying definition.

    I enjoy the differentiation between a simple tool found in nature and nature improved upon to advance my purpose.

    I believe the baseline for establishing the continuum between animal and human consciousness is the primitive use of a tool, a long with a few other overlapping activities, which demonstrate cognitive skills in animals we used to consider distinctly human.

    On a personal level I am fascinated with our kinship with mammals and what such nearness might entail in terms of moral issues for people with a sensitive and philosophical bent of mind.

    • First, science found that some birds that use simple tools found in nature to access nourishment. Then they found that some other animals also did so.

      I don’t believe there is any major difference between humans and the so called “lower animals” except in degree of an arbitrarily defined intelligence.

      But that’s just me.

    • @douglas,

      hi, i was following this blog and its posts fine until this last post. please clarify? if you really believe there are only “arbitrary defined differences” between the human species and all other animals than wouldn’t eating meat be a little like eating a stupid cousin?

      i’m an omnivore BTW, my decision based in part on the belief that there are non-arbitrary differences between myself and who i eat.

      i admire vegetarians as i believe, to use your metaphor it’s a less parasitic way to treat our host planet and its fellow inhabitants 🙂

    • Hi, Dafna.

      Sometimes what I write doesn’t seem to make much sense except to myself.

      But you do understand some of what I wrote. This remark makes that clear:

      i admire vegetarians as i believe, to use your metaphor it’s a less parasitic way to treat our host planet and its fellow inhabitants.

      Which I see as a way of assigning some understanding to a behavior I do not practice. It seems to be Peter G’s motivation, for example, or at least part of it. I am sure he has several reasons for being a vegetarian and all are likely valid and admirable.

      It is this one which reveals why I might puzzle you:

      i’m an omnivore BTW, my decision based in part on the belief that there are non-arbitrary differences between myself and who i eat.

      I am an omnivore because it is comfortable to me. I do not consider my own food intake in moral terms. Rather, I consider it terms of necessity or, put another way, as a matter of survival and as a source of pleasure. It’s a personal view.

      Think of how a person might look at alcohol consumption. Perfectly acceptable for himself but not for his child or for the drunken sot sprawled in the doorway. The person in question might say he drinks for the pleasure and taste of the beverage and the moral considerations are not part of the decision. If he viewed it, alcohol consumption, in a strictly moral sense, he would deny himself even a sip of wine, mightn’t he?

    • @ douglas,

      i got your meaning, thanks for the reply. the vegetarian issue is an interesting tangent to this blog, since the speech was a commencement speech with the concluding message being “go forth and be the uniquiest” 🙂

      ehhhhh, i can’t even begin to fathom the “moral implications” of eating something that is just “a little bit less complex” than i am. as my son said this morning, “mommy if that were true that would make us cannibals”.

      so i choose to believe otherwise and eat meat. even though cannibalism exists in nature and in human history – i do agree with the quote “nature is what we were put on this planet to rise above”, perhaps one day i’ll be strong enough to go vegetarian.

    • @Dafna
      @Exuvia
      @Peter G

      I address this to you all because you are the, to me, known vegetarians here.

      Vegans appear to be the epitome of vegetarian adherents. They eschew even products derived from animals.

      For a (I am sure incomplete) list of such products, see:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veganism#Animal_products

      My question would be:

      Under the concept of moral arguments for vegetarianism, are vegans the most moral?

      I ask only because I am curious, I am not being judgmental. I actually do have a lot of respect for anyone who has formed a clear moral principle and lives by it.

    • huh? i eat meat.

      i don’t know much about vegans. but if i were not going to eat a cow i would probably also think it immoral to use its skin. on the other hand not using any animal products, such as milk. dairy, eggs seems rather extreme.

    • @Dafna
      Sorry, I should have qualified you as “vegetarian-leaning”.

      You might want to look into the treatment of dairy animals. And eggs, of course, would become chickens if they had been fertilized so they might be considered a kind of “pre-meat” and qualify as an animal protein source.

      And then there’s fish…

    • I ask only because I am curious, I am not being judgmental. I actually do have a lot of respect for anyone who has formed a clear moral principle and lives by it.

      Just remember that even if somebody has formed a clear moral principle and does not live by it 100% says nothing about the validity of the principle itself.

      I say this because attempting to expose vegetarians and especially vegans as “hypocrites” is a national sport. The moment a person announces their opposition to unnecessary cruelty against animals, they’re immediately being scoured for leather items on their body (shoes, belts, etc.) or questioned if perhaps the ink toner in their printer contains animal products. If the scouring party finds any such inconsistency, the h-word follows gleefully afoot and they find themselves royally confirmed in their omnivorism.

    • @Peter G

      You are quite right. None of us lives up to any principle 100% of the time. And you are also correct that there are those that seem to live to expose those times when one fails to adhere (or at least seems to). And I would not do that. I think just making a strong effort is admirable. The only people who might be 100% on principle are automatically qualified for sainthood.

      My question was whether you consider vegans to be more moral than those who are not such strict adherents. A bit like the difference between those a practicing Catholic and Mother Teresa, I guess.

      Would you, as a vegetarian aspire to be a vegan if you are not one at the moment? And would it be for moral reasons rather than health reasons?

      I guess I am trying to understand if vegetarianism is driven more by morality or by health beliefs.

    • Different people choose vegetarianism/veganism for different reasons. Some only because they don’t want animals to get hurt. They’ll eat any junk as long as it’s vegetarian, hence the term “junk vegetarian.”

      Yes, I aspire to be a vegan, and I am 99% of the time, and yes, I do find avoiding unnecessary cruelty to be more moral. Given that we can live without eating animal products, and quite well I might add, forgoing them is the moral thing to do, although I do find the not-eating-honey thing a bit silly.

      Not sure if being vegan is necessarily the healthiest diet, but if done correctly, there appear to be no drawbacks over any other diet. Yes, junk vegetarians and junk vegans will become anemic and suffer all manner of nutritional deficiencies.

      Regarding morality, the leather issue is a fascinating one. American Indians, for instance, used the entire animal. They didn’t just take the meat and throw the rest away. They used the hide, the bones, etc. to fashion useful objects.

      Given that, realistically speaking, slaughtering animals for food isn’t going to stop anytime soon, wouldn’t it be more respectful towards the animal to use all of it instead of just taking the meat and throwing the rest away?

      I don’t know. As long as animals aren’t being slaughtered specifially for their leather and their fur, I’m not 100% sure if I find it “immmoral” to use leather items. Of course, the leather industry and the meat industry reinforce each other.

      It’s complicated.

    • Thanks for the answer. Yes, I imagine it would be complicated, morality codes often are. Every time you might think you’ve covered all the bases, a new wrinkle pops up. Sometimes, I think people go a little crazy (I agree with you about the honey, for example, I don’t think the bees actually care so long as they have sufficient amount for their purposes).

      I am pretty much amoral about eating. I eat what I like, what tastes good to me, as balanced as I can make it without getting obsessive about it. But, pun intended, you’ve given me food for thought.

  12. @ Douglas
    No looking down at all.
    Sorry if I gave that impression.

    I suddenly just had fun with the story I weave around my own choice.

    ‘Being’, singular and plural, is way above any style of life in my book.

    My bad.

    Crows are found to have a very high ratio of brain to body.
    No wonder they became favorites of the wizards. Their inclination to sequester anything shiny and conceal the gold made them symbols of the black arts; of those willing to bring light or understanding into darkness for gain and personal power.

    Close ties to the “lower animals”…absolutely. They got the basic model we got the luxury edition. Fully equipped with chrome and white wash tires.

    • Close ties to the “lower animals”…absolutely. They got the basic model we got the luxury edition. Fully equipped with chrome and white wash tires.

      Sometimes I wonder if it is us who got that “luxury edition” or just the more shiny model with the flashy add-ons that are more for show than for function.

      Did you ever consider that we, our species, pretty much fit our own definition of “parasite”? On the other hand, biologists are beginning to realize that that particular term is not accurate and only meant we did not yet understand the purpose that creature (or those creatures) in the overall environment.

      But I digress…

  13. @ Douglas
    “the drunken sot sprawled in the doorway” Hi, hi, hi…

    But why would alcohol consumption be morally unacceptable to the unfortunate guy? He had his fun and thought no shame of it.

    The child – our icon of innocence – would of course think differently. The emotional pain, if they are related, would dominate the garden of his neurons. If they are not related he might just feel estranged and repulsed, maybe even frightened, by the show of human frailty.

    @ Douglas
    “more for show than for function.” With some exceptions, it does look that way, doesn’t it.

    Oh, the irony of it all… Referring to life.
    Crows are more functional than a drunken sot. An image of an absurd reversal of fortune.

    • I am afraid you misunderstood me. The “drunken sot” and the “child”, for that matter (I certainly did at age 14 or so), might (or might not) have a different moral outlook and find it acceptable to imbibe. It was the first person to whose moral acceptance I was referring. He finds it acceptable for him but would not find it acceptable for certain others (my examples) to do so. People like this, we often label hypocritical. I would prefer judgmental because I think there are times where this judgmentalism is acceptable (the father and the child, for example,… “do as I say, not as I do”).

      I often have difficulty in expressing my thoughts clearly.

      Tis a pity that crows get such bad press, it seems. They are such interesting creatures. I might feel differently as a farmer raising corn, however. I suspect it is their blackness (all too often associated with evil) coupled with their propensity for shiny objects (like small pieces of jewelry) and small grain crops that got them coupled with the greedier segment of humanity.

      Some interesting stuff here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crow#In_culture_and_mythology

      No wonder Poe seemed fascinated with the raven.

  14. @ Douglas
    “Tis a pity that crows get such bad press”

    I love how recent scientific study has rendered due homage to the inherent intelligence of crows. The bird does in fact have an amazing capacity to learn and to use tools.

    In the movie Il Postino, 1994, Mario Ruopolo, the simple Italian mail man, suggests to Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet in exile, that everything in this world is a metaphor for something else.

    The crow, as a part of this world, is, thus, also a metaphor for something else.

    For what now?

    The fact that they hang around the cemetery, steal shiny things, and thrive on carrion must be only a few of the things that made people associate the dark bird with the spirit or angel of evil.

    “they have been known to imitate the human voice”
    Wikipedia. I clicked on your link. Thanks.

    Now someone has hung out with crows and ravens. In medieval times you could not allow yourself to be seen with a dark bird on your shoulder.

    Todays scientists can get away with it.

  15. “Today’s scientists can get away with it.”
    Sadly enough, if I may take that as an ironic metaphor.

    I’m referring to some of them keeping a ‘black raven’ on their shoulders, as in practicing science towards Death.

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