Of Dolphins and Man: The Vast Difference between Animals and Humans

dolphin-203875_640Those of you who read my posts regularly know that I have often expressed great fascination with and affection for the pets I have had over the years. I am in awe of the whole of the created order, which proclaims God’s glory.

However, there are important distinctions between the human person and the created order that sometimes get lost in modern movements such as environmentalism, animal rights, and even in the realms of philosophy and science.

Consider a recent article on CNN.com that reported on the quest to communicate with dolphins, a species that the article calls “the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet.”

In his paper, Ryabov calls for humans to create a device by which human beings can communicate with dolphins. “Humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of … communications between dolphins and people,” he said. … “As this language exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins,” he said in the paper, which was published in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics last month. “Their language can be ostensibly considered a high developed spoken language.”
(The full article can be read here: Dolphins may have a spoken language, new research suggests)

Such lazy wording in a published scientific paper is disturbing on its face. Though admitting we do not really know what the dolphins are saying, the scientist concludes that their language exhibits all the “design features” in human spoken language. Really? How does he know that? For example, human language can exhibit the use of the future perfect tense (e.g., “By tomorrow I will have finished.”). Can the scientist show me that dolphins use such a tense? Do they use gerunds? How do they conjugate verbs? Can he show me how dolphins make use of higher rhetorical concepts such as prolepsis?

The scientist goes on to say, “Their language can be ostensibly considered a high developed spoken language.” The use of the word “ostensibly” buys him a lot of room for later denials, but still, such a statement seems incredibly rash.

I would argue that such conclusions are stunningly out of proportion to the evidence. One can only hope that this is a case of a journalist reporting too simplistically, rather than that the scientist himself is drawing such conclusions with so little basis.

This CNN report showcases many of troubles common today in discourse about human beings and animals. There seems to be a fundamental assumption that there is little difference between humans and animals, particularly the higher primates. Dolphins, too, seem to have been given a rather high place in the animal kingdom hierarchy.

But I would argue that the distance between man and even the highest forms of animal life is by no means small; it is a distance so large as to indicate a difference not merely in degree but in kind. This is demonstrable from straightforward observation. A thing can be known by its effects. Apple trees do not bear oranges nor do they bring forth baby pandas. As we look at animal kingdom, even its highest members, some questions begin to emerge. If, as many assume today, animals are really “just like us,” where are the effects?

Where are their great cities? Where are their libraries, universities, and hospitals? Where are their bicameral legislatures, in which they debate justice, pass laws, and organize for the common good? Where are their courts, in which they hold one other accountable, punish crime, and administer justice? Where are their great cathedrals, in which they worship God and prepare for death and the next world? Where are their works of art? Where are their museums, in which they honor their history and reflect on their progress? For that matter, where is their progress at all? How have they made technological advances or better organized their lives? Do they show any progress from one hundred or even a thousand years ago? Have they progressed from the use of simple tools to more advanced ones? Have they gone from rudimentary living to more complex behaviors and accomplishments? Does their knowledge and technology build over time? Have they learned anything new at all? Have they been to the moon and back? Have they probed the stars?

I could go on with these questions for pages, but the point is to illustrate that the differences between the human person and even the highest members of the animal kingdom are so vast as to indicate a fundamental difference.

Physically, I am not so different from my cat. Like me, she is a mammal; we share most of the same basic physical functions. She can feel pain, experience hunger, and sense danger. I have some physical abilities that are better than hers: opposable thumbs and a larger brain, for example. But she outpaces me in other areas: more acute senses of hearing and smell, for example.

But most of the similarities end with the physical level. My cat has no higher life. She does not ponder justice and other metaphysical concepts. She does not ask why or join me on protest marches. She does not appreciate great music or read literature. I could put on music that brings me to tears while she just lies there unmoved.

All the observations I have made and questions I have asked are indicative of a fundamental difference between man and even the highest of animals. The difference comes from capacities that humans have and animals do not.

In philosophy and theology, we attribute these vast differences to the fact that human beings have a rational soul. Humans can have command of metaphysical concepts such as justice, mercy, beauty, and truth. We can ask questions like why and how. These lead us to explore, to experiment, to progress, to debate, and to insist on what is best. Our longing for truth, goodness, and beauty draw us to something beyond ourselves and beyond simply what is. We have developed complex interrelationships that we call civilization.

The difference between humans and animals is fundamental, not merely accidental. We are different because of a capacity within us we call our rational nature.

What you have just read is more of a pastoral reflection than a philosophical treatise. One may quibble with a particular point, but I contend that the overall picture indicates a vast difference between man and animal, a difference not merely in degree but in kind.

This essay is meant to be a response to the sad situation in the world today, wherein many have reduced the human person to little more than a smart ape or an advanced animal. We are much more than that. We have rational souls that can soar above the merely physical. As one of the remedies for the darkness of our times, we must recover a sense of our unique dignity.

2 Replies to “Of Dolphins and Man: The Vast Difference between Animals and Humans”

  1. It’s so interesting that it seems in the past, from even ancient times, mankind reflected on how different man is from animals, even though man is also a mammal. In the Bible is evidence (for instance the book of Job) on the awareness that man, although sharing much of the same substance as other creatures, is significantly different from them: so different as to beg for an explanation and cause.

    Yet in recent times, it seems people are more apt to reflect on how similar man is to animals, especially in the more base instincts such as in eating and aggression and sexual conduct (and used sometimes to justify lower levels of behavior as “natural”.) I wonder if it’s not driven by the way mankind has, in recent generations, divorced itself from nature, many people living in man made cities hardly interacting with nature at all. Perhaps these studies are an attempt to connect to animals and reflect a desire to “belong” again to the animal kingdom without having to really live in close proximity to them or with them as they really are.

    I wonder if ancient people would have been at all surprised by the findings of our “scientists” regarding the intelligence, communication, and learning ability of wild animals. Surely ancient man realized wolves must have wily intelligence and some kind of way to communicate in order to hunt in packs; or that prey animals herding together for protection reflects some kind of ability to learn and understand danger.

    Funny how each generation must rediscover the truths of our existence and how often they believe these discoveries are new.

  2. If someone has six dollars and someone comes up to him and asks, “Do you have five dollars?” He can truly answer, “Yes, I have five dollars.” If, he said that he only had five dollars, he would be lying. In the same way that a man with six dollars can say that he has five dollars, a man can truly say that he is an animal. In the same way that a man with six dollars cannot truly say that he only has five dollars, a man cannot truly say that he is only a animal. As a man with six dollars can truly say that he has four dollars, so can a man truly say that he is a plant, though not only a plant. As a man with six dollars can truly say that he has three dollars, so can a man truly say that he is a body, though not only a body.

    The idea of comparing the difference in the kinds of substances to the difference in numbers goes back to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas follows that example. The example they use is of a geometric figure. If you have a five-sided figure, you can double one side over another side and have a four-sided figure, and so on. The example with money is clearer to me. Americanism, I suppose.

    It is funny that we are quicker to call ourselves a body than an animal, and even less quick to call ourselves a plant.

    The ancient definition of man, which contradicts no teachings of the Catholic Church, is rational animal. Man is the only rational animal and thus is different in kind from all other animals, but he is still an animal. Going to the opposite extreme–denying that we are animals–gives the animalists the impression that we Catholics are in denial of reality.

    I strange and pleasant opportunity to speak with a woman who is a diver at Sea World. She told me that the dolphins were always trying to rape her. I said that that is like a dog. Anyone who grew up with a male dog that hasn’t been castrated understands what I meant by that. I think she understood and agreed with what I meant by that.

    If these animals are so smart, then why aren’t they trying to communicate with us?

    If I recall, I think I looked at an article that claimed that the pet lover’s cat is probably trying to kill him.

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