Why Do We Want to Think Humans Are Different?
A Sentience Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM Colin A. Chapman and Michael A. Huffman, Animal Sentience
December 2018

One harmful consequence of creating categories where one group is unique and superior to others is that it justifies committing negative, often atrocious, acts on the members of the inferior group. Correcting divisive human categorizations (racial superiority, gender superiority) has bettered society. Scholars have often claimed that humans are unique and superior to nonhuman animals. These claims need to be reevaluated. Many have already been refuted. Animals have been shown to outperform humans in many tasks, including cognitive ones. Here we raise the question: Has the false sense of superiority been used to justify human cruelty to animals?


Humans have the propensity to place things into categories (i.e., good vs. bad, full vs. empty, black vs. white), which can directly shape how we view the world. Since categorization shapes our actions, it is important to evaluate their validity and distinctness and the degree to which one category blurs into the next. One categorization that has intrigued scholars for centuries is that of humans versus nonhuman animals.

We often put humans on a pedestal, as unique and superior to all other animals: one of a kind; unlike any other animal. For example, in the 17th century, Rene Descartes stated that only people were creatures of reason, linked to the mind of God, while animals were merely machines made of flesh. His follower Nicolas Malebranche went on to say that animals “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it: they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Today Descartes’s and Malebranche’s statements may seem extreme and wrong (Call, 2006), but they clearly reflect the propensity to see animals and humans as very different and humans as superior.

The view of humans and animals has changed since the 17th century (Fuentes, 2018; Marks, 2016; Van Schaik, 2016), thus these categories need to be reevaluated. Other categorizations have changed dramatically over time, with very positive effects on human societies. When the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution was written, “only white male property holders [were] deemed adequately endowed to be included in the category of personhood” (US 1776).

This is no longer the definition of personhood. In fact, the question of whether great apes warrant being accorded personhood is generating much academic interest today (Kurki and Pietrzykowski, 2017; Shyam, 2015; Wise, 2014).


Please read the ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE (PDF).

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