Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 24 May 2012
Thursday, 24 May 2012 17:00

From Animal to Man

Porous frontiers

The death, on October 30, 2007 at the age of 42, of Washoe, a female chimpanzee who became famous for having learned to use several hundreds signs from the American sign language and who had taught part of it, without human help, to her adopted son Loulis, made the headlines worldwide. This story reminds us how much contemporary research disturbs our ancestral certainties about the difference between man and animals. Could it be the harbinger of its imminent dissolution?

Darwin already pointed out in The Descent of Man (1871) that monkeys were able to crack nuts with a stone. Since the work of Jane Goodall in Gombe (Tanzania) in the sixties, we know that chimpanzees can make tools to catch termites in their nest. And from the end of the seventies, we noticed in chimpanzees and bonobos the behavior of self-medication by plants in case of intestinal diseases. More recently, in 2005-2006, some researchers observed several times the making of weapons (spears) by chimpanzees in order to kill prosimians in Senegal. Man is no longer be the only weapon manufacturer. All cognitive and technical boundaries which separate him from the rest of the animal kingdom do seem to have lost their firmness and sharpness.

Of course, no one will deny that there is a “plus” in the human language, in the human self-consciousness, as well as in the human technology and pharmacology. However, human exclusivity of these features seems to have become completely obsolete.

WashoeAnimal Cultures?

Regarding social abilities, the situation does not seem more favorable to the human being. Cooperation is widespread in the animal kingdom, through various cases of mutual help between fellow creatures, when handicapped for example. Thus, Mozu, a macaque female in Japan, was born without hands and feet and she managed not only to survive but also to raise five babies with the help of her fellow monkeys.

Cases of appeasement after a conflict, named “reconciliations” by Frans de Waal, are well proven although there are still debates about the exact motivation of this behaviour: is it the desire to reestablish a relationship or is it the desire to alleviate one’s stress? The difficulty for the human species to understand the unconscious or final reasons of reconciliation behaviour also casts a doubt on our interpreting other primates’ motivations.

Furthermore, the monitoring of chimpanzees communities during more than 40 years in various African countries showed local variations in the use of tools such as the catching of termites with bits of barks, or in certain gestures such as the handgrip above the head during the mutual grooming using the other hand, or yet in some behaviours such as dancing under the rain during a storm.

In 1999, one article mentioned the “animal cultures”1 while referring to 151 years of cumulated observations in primatology. Other primatologists would rather say “ animal traditions” to indicate that they are still far from the richness of human culture. Yet, even there, the human exclusiveness tends to fade: the transmitting of customs inherent to a group within a same species is no longer the prerogative of the Homo Sapiens.


Supporters of the insurmountable gaps between man and animal show concern towards these studies which are often accused of anthropomorphism. They point out to what extent the descriptions of animal customs use expressions and words created first for human behaviours such as reconciliation, empathic help or political alliances.

Yet these behaviours are not invented by researchers and they can be quantified: one would talk of a reconciliation when an appeasement contact occurs 15 minutes after an attack. One could invent completely new and ‘non-human’ words to describe these acts in other species, but would it not be anthropomorphism again? This would need the creation of a dictionary in order to translate the new language of primatologists into our natural languages. Furthermore, one would have to denounce as well all the whiffs of anthropomorphism when man talks about God, with the risk of muting the dogmatic theology. Thomas Aquinas was more optimistic regarding the value of analogies.

Another way to discredit these studies is to say that animals are only driven by their instinct while men are free beings. No need to start a complicated debate on human freedom and determinism to notice that the word ‘instinct‘ is a catch-all expression. Are we talking about parental instincts, self-preservation instinct, migration, etc.?

Again, field observations lead to us clarifying the extensions of the word ‘instinct’. For example, great apes are able to adapt to peculiar situations. They wouldn’t punish a Down syndrome baby monkey if the latter jumps on the head of the alpha male whereas any other baby would be severely scolded. Some chimpanzees seem to make very fine distinctions between human intentions: for example between someone who would be kept from feeding them by a physical obstacle and someone who would pretend to give them food when not really willing to do it. Also, one would need to question the uses of the word ‘instinct’ in the human species when one talks about maternal or survival instinct.

What about language?

Then it must be more relevant to differentiate the “poor in world” animal and the “world-forming” man (Martin Heidegger). The animal can live in the world when man can live face to the world. The articulate language would be the archetypal vehicle for this distancing of the world in which humans live.

Along the same lines, one might stress human temporality, including the conceptof boredom in Heidegger’s while the animal is subjected to time. This difference regarding articulate language seems to be based on a variation of the Foxp2 gene possessed by man - and probably also by the Neanderthal after some results from 20072 - whereas great apes do not have it and thus their larynx handicaps them,preventing them from emitting varied sounds. This would also explain the strong “ratchet effect”3 which appears in human cultures thanks to oral and written transmission.

However, the difference conveniently made between animal communication related to emotions and human communication related to a semantic content, is no longer able to exist either. Animal vocalizations are not only emotionally induced, such as for example fear in front of a predator, but they are also likely to carry a semantic content.4 Thus vervet monkeys not only have differentiated vocalisations depending on the predator being a leopard or an eagle, but also take into account the temporal context of the vocalization emission. Two identical cries referred to the presence of one same predator and emitted five minutes apart, lead to distinct behaviours. In the first case, the alert is transmitted and a self-protective behaviour occurs while in the second case, the vervet monkey does nothing.


Even though the range of vocalisations does not seem quite flexible for the non-human primates, one can observe flexibility in the use or the non-use of these vocalisations according to the context. Then, one is led to explore the notion of animal thought without a syntactic language.

This contemporary researche may seem to destabilise human identity and man’s characteristics as defined in terms of unique faculties or a human nature absolutely separate from the animal kingdom. Yet, they show that human specificity may lie in the more, in the excess of language or in human sociability.

“Ultrasociability” of man

More than all other animal species, man is capable of a great variety of sounds. And more than other vertebrates, he can live in very big groups. As a member of an “ultra-social” species, like the ant and bee colonies but with the difference that his relations are not controlled by pheromones (fragrant secretions), man finds in the development of language the assurance of others’ reliability, the possibility of cooperating with others to achieve common goals, of organising group life and sharing tasks.

The improvement of human language and its ratchet effect on the evolution of human culture are part of what is peculiar to the human species, if we mean what is proper to man. Human language can verily become reason, in the critical distance to the world where we live.

However, this does not mean that we should deny any dimension of reason to animals: the ability to read intentions, to consider other living beings as centres of action and to hold different positions in a coordinated hunt, already indicate a march towards reason in others species than ours. Contemporary studies on animal domestication also show how rare it is among species. Still, ants can domesticate aphids but through using chemicals. Whereas man is able of living daily in contact with animals who are also able of it in return. That means a remarkable capacity to read human intentions, as farmers often emphasize in their stories.

One of the peculiar characteristics of man has been to be able to broaden his ability to feel for his fellows beyond the human circle so as to include some animals in his habitat. As Darwin wrote:” Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. It is apparently unfelt by savages, except towards their pets. How little the old Romans knew of it is shown by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions.” 5

The point is not to enter too quickly into a concordism between christian faith and science, but one can note that these studies in zoology and primatology illustrate well two aspects that are often underestimated regarding the imago Dei: the coevolution between man and animals as well as the divine ultra-sociality.


One can find that coevolution of the man-animal relation resonates deeply with the prophecies that mention the Kingdom of God in terms of a peaceful coexistence between animals and man. It is a shame that factory farming widely destroys this dimension of coevolution by objectifying domestic animals. In fact, humans do not treat their fellows any better in many political regimes and contemporary genocides. Far from excluding each other, benevolence to animals and mutual respect between humans go together.

In the same way, human ultra-sociality, as emphasized by the zoologists’ works, calls for us to put back the divine ultra-sociality in the first position instead of the representations of God as reason only. The imago Dei is first to be searched in a Trinity-God, himself a relation who directs the living towards ultra-sociality. More generally, the porosity of frontiers in the definition of the human characteristic, emphasizes man’s evolutional roots into the living world. Then, should we question certain traditional views that assert the difference in nature between man and animals so as to resolutely choose a straight difference of degree as Darwin did in his time?

The possible freedom

Bergson in The Creative Evolution (1907) observed the strong propinquity between man and animals, especially in their ability - even limited - of invention, but he also maintained the rupture, the difference of nature between both: from animal to man, we go from the limited to the unlimited, from the closed to the opened, from conscience enclosed in its automatisms to freedom. However, one can remark that man also goes through a long way to freedom in his development to adulthood, as freedom is not innate to birth. It needs an important work of education. Thus this possible freedom always remains fragile in the practice of human existence. Man goes back easily to his routines, his automatisms, his closed morals.

As to animals, they are limited in their march towards freedom by their elementary and not cumulative enough culture. But is it definitive? Nobody knows because the evolution and the transforming of the living is far from finished.


First published in Choisir, June 2008

Translated from the French by Cerise Phiv with further editing by Daniel Pagan Murphy, illustrations by Marie Baron.


1 Andrew Whiten et aI., " Cultures in chimpanzees ", in Revue Nature, n' 399, 17.0

6.1999, pp. 682-685.

2 Krause et al.. « The derived Foxp2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neanderthals ", in Current Biology, vol. 17, 6.11.2007, pp. 1-5.

3 Cf. Michael Tomasello, Aux origines de la cognition humaine, Retz, Paris 2004, p. 19.

4 Dorothy Cheney et Robert Seyfarth, Baboon metaphysics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2007, pp. 233-247.



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