Religions, evolution and animals that look like people

August 4, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

The 80/20 Rule seems to apply to many areas of life, including the return for the investment one gets from reading. 80% of the excellent ideas I read seem to result from 20% of the authors I read. The trick, then, is to choose carefully when picking up a book. Make sure that the author is a high-quality thinker/writer, and you’ll end up getting a mind expanding education merely by following a few dozen authors. That is my experience, anyway.

For me, one of those high-quality authors is primatologist Frans de Waal. I have just finished De Waal’s most recent book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009) (here is my earlier post on this same book). De Waal makes so many compelling points in his book that I’m tempted to simply throw up my hands and urge everyone to go read this book. Truly, there is a terrific new idea or two every few pages, most of which have application to the increasingly strained modern human condition.  Image by s-dmit at (with permission)

Starting around page 206, De Waal makes a strong case for the emotional continuity between all animals (and especially other primates) and human animals. Yet, so many people or uncomfortable with the existence of this continuity. They would much rather believe that humans are not animals, and that humans somehow stand outside of nature, whereas all the other animals are part of nature. I have written before about the importance of recognizing that humans don’t stand outside of nature, but that we are full-fledged animals.

De Waal believes that this reluctance to talk about our animal emotions is caused by certain types of religious, “particularly religions that arose in isolation from animals that look like us.” He explains:

With monkeys and apes around every corner, no rain forest culture has ever produced a religion that places humans outside of nature. Similarly, in the East–surrounded by native primates in India, China, and Japan–religions don’t draw a sharp line between humans and other animals. Reincarnation occurs in many shapes and forms: a man may become a fish and a fish may become God. Monkey gods, such as Hanuman, are common. Only the Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul. It’s not hard to see how desert nomads might have arrived at this view. Without animals to hold up a mirror to them, the notion that were alone came naturally to them. They saw themselves as created in God’s image and as the only intelligent life on earth. Even today we’re so convinced of this that we search for other of such life by training powerful telescopes on distant galaxies.

De Waal describes how shocked Westerners were when chimpanzees and monkeys started arriving at Western zoos in the 1830s. He points out that this exposure to other primates occurred relatively recently for many Westerners, “long after Western religion had spread its creed of human exceptionalism to all corners of knowledge.”

De Waal’s idea is as powerful as it is elegant. It makes good sense too. People who are exposed to a variety of animals with various gradations of “humanness” would certainly be more comfortable with the idea of biological continuity, with his Darwinian idea that human animals are cousins with every other living thing on the planet.

De Waal clarifies that we Westerners are actually inconsistent with regard to our resistance to this idea that we are continuous with all other life forms. We stack the deck:

When it comes to characteristics that we don’t like about ourselves, continuity is rarely an issue. As soon as people kill, abandon, rape, or otherwise mistreat one another, we are quick to blame it on our genes. Warfare and aggression are widely recognized as biological traits, and no one thinks twice about pointing at ants or chimps for parallels. It’s only with regard to noble characteristics that continuity is an issue and empathy is a case in point.

De Waal points out that many well-accomplished scientists have worked feverishly to seek “specialness” in humans. They focus their efforts on trying to find something to distinguish humans from the “animals.” As De Waal suggests, they are likely to “discover” that these differences are most pronounced in the noble traits. It’s time to recognize the one-sidedness of these efforts, however.

My main point, however, is not whether the proposed distinctions are real or imagined, but why all of them need to be in our favor. Aren’t humans at least equally special with respect to torture, genocide, deception, exploitation, indoctrination, and environmental destruction? Why does every list of human distinctiveness need to have the flavor of a feel-good note?


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Category: Communication, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. > Why does every list of human distinctiveness

    > need to have the flavor of a feel-good note?

    Because it feels good? And, when you don't allow yourself to be empathic towards other animals (or other life forms in general) it's so much easier to exploit them.

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