Updated: Oct 11, 2021
One Question Leads to Many...
What is the difference between humans and animals? This question holds inside it many, many other interesting questions:
- What does it mean to be human?
- What is it that makes humans unique or special?
- What is our place in the grand scheme of things?
- What does it mean to be alive?
- Why do humans see themselves as different to other living things?
It can be assumed that animals do not ask these questions. They are busy with living whilst humans seem to be able to get into mental knots trying answer the most Impossible questions of all Creation.
We can also look at some interesting observations about humans:
- Their own mind can become a hindrance to themselves
- Humans can do something that we call 'spiritual practice'
- Humans are capable of incredible inventions/creation and incredible destruction
We humans, just like other living things have the same necessities to sustain life and are prone to the same problems of living. Possibly, to start to our journey, we can define what it is to be human as compared to animals at the very least in terms of magnitude, and not qualitatively. Many things that animals do, humans can also do, but often on a much grander scale. Humans are also good at identifying and appreciating different useful and powerful traits of animals by creating technologies or works of art based on them. Not only can humans think big, they can also manifest their complex imaginations - Big Time - into the physical world.
Even though just like animals humans are at the mercy of nature and the elements, there is something different about humans. It begins with the driving forces of behaviour and the opportunities each living being has to fulfil & consummate their fate (in Daoist terms, Ming), shape reality and become an active force of creation by virtue of their efforts. Every moment the very fabric of 'what is' is in change; in flux, and we are all playing our own part like stones creating ripples in a pond with the emanations of each outward flowing waves interfering and interacting with each other. The greater scope of the bird's eye view of the tapestry of infinite ripples dancing with each other is seemingly reserved only for Godly winged avian beings if they do exist.
Although humans feel a certain kind of superiority over the animal kingdom, we are also endeared by the multitude of qualities that animals embody and we often espouse these characteristics as emblems to adorn and fortify ourselves as an affirmation of their beauty and power. For example we clothe our children with outfits adorned by cute animal cartoons and we often name sports teams after mighty beasts. These qualities are all pieces of the greater mystery. These qualities are the individual pieces of the enigmatic cloak that we weave from the elements of nature and wear, identify with, understand and use to express and enhance ourselves and our lives.
Natural Cycles and Life-Phases
The Phases that rule our lives on the larger scale are that of birth, growth, maturation, ageing and Death. Within these phases are endless cycles within cycles governing every 'moment-movement' from a star exploding to a boulder rolling down a hill and to a cell excreting waste. When we zoom into a single day, we can see that there is a clear pattern that repeatedly manifests itself predictably but not always predictably predictable. There is an Art to sensing and navigating the sea of patterns and movements of time; the '10,000' things that Laozi mentions in the Daode Jing.
During a normal day we wake up, activity increases, we get some kind of work done to sustain our life or lifestyle, we take in food, excrete waste and then we need rest and relaxation in order to repeat the cycle again the next day. To be reborn each day we need to enter into sleep; a little, temporary life-replenishing 'death'. If humans are different to animals, this is not one of the ways that we are different! Just like the animals, we are all bound to the same universal laws and Life-cycle Phases.
The Human will to survive and flourish, human ingenuity, creativity and engineering has radically changed the way we live and the opportunities that we have available to us in our daily lives. We are able to construct houses and buildings that protect us from the elements, change the weather of internal spaces with air conditioning, mass-produce food such that food is readily available at all times, our ability to move from A to B far exceeds the speeds of any living thing known to us on this planet. We can shape the very face of the earth to meet our needs and desires.
As modern humans, when we look outside our windows to the wild we see a brutal existence governed by the laws of 'eat or be eaten' as we comfortably sit in our padded lounges sipping on hot drinks and plugging into hours of entertainment, luxuriously burning time whilst the wild creatures crawling, lurking and swooping past our window delicately respect the fluctuations of the elements to the tune of a deadly dance, with each step that must be critically timed to perfection. It seems that humans can leave the dance floor and retreat to their technological wombs and yet they take their bodies and the same wild physiology with them and so the biological clocks are still ticking in one's cells even if unnoticed, hidden by creature comforts and overshadowed by civil-intellectuality.
Termites build the largest structures of all animals (and humans) relative to their size. Considering that the size of a termite on average is 1cm (0.4 inches) long, this would mean that the tallest human building would be 1,400m (4,600 feet) tall! Currently the tallest human building is 828m (2,717 feet) tall and resides in Dubai. Not only that, termites have a highly organised 'society' whereby each member has a specialised role working towards the 'greater good'. The termite mounds are made of several levels and have interconnected specialised rooms for the Queen, for larvae and for the fungi culture that they maintain and harvest. Aside from the Queen and workers there are also specialised beefed-up tough-guy termites called Soldiers who are specially built for combat and defending the colony.
The termite mounds themselves are incredibly elaborate. They are made from sand or clay particles that have been cemented by the saliva of the termites and the material that is born of this is literally as hard as concrete! Not only is the termite structure impressive above ground, they also dig a network of tunnels underground which can extend hundreds of meters away from the mound. Amazingly, even when there are severe droughts, termites can keep the fungi culture that they feed on alive because they dig galleries into the table water or underground springs. Inside the termite mound the humidity is maintained at 100% and temperature is kept between 29 degrees (84F) to 31 degrees (88F) which creates a good environment for both the fungi and termites to thrive in. The mounds are oriented north-south which helps with thermoregulation and the tunnels in the mound act as in-built air conditioning ducts with air currents being driven about the colony by the hot air that rises in the above-ground portion of the mounds.
Crows have been documented and studied making tools out of leaves and sticks in order to extract grubs from holes in trees trunks. These crows make hooks out of forked twigs, and are also able to fashion different shaped probes out of leaves ranging from narrow, wide and tapered. The tapered version which is wide at the grip end gives stability and strength whilst the narrow end which is used to poke and prod in holes is flexible and has a pointed end. Not only do the crow leaf-tools come in different shapes, the tapered tool is observed to be a refinement of the wide tool which showcases the technological advancement of these Crows!
Let's Talk: Language vs Communication
It is clear that animals have forms of communication and that humans and animals can exchange information and communicate. The big question though is do animals have Language? it is very easy to say, based on the opening statement of this paragraph that animals have 'language' as we know it, and it is also easy to Not identify the difference between language and communication. There are a number of key differences that we can highlight between human and animal communication which differentiates language as unique to human beings. In order to understand the differences we can look at four key qualities of language and communication. These are known discreteness, grammar, productivity and displacement.
Discreteness means that there are certain individual building blocks made up of sounds or words which can be combined to communicate ideas. The system that provides the rules for how to combine the individual building blocks is Grammar. With these two basic things, an infinite number of ideas and messages can be expressed. The ability to use a language to covey infinite combinations is productivity.
Displacement is the ability to talk about things that are not in the immediate vicinity. For example, discussing events from the past, future events and fictional or imaginary information. For animals such as crabs and cuttlefish, this quality is not observed. For example, crabs will wave their claws at each other to signal that they are ready to mate. Cuttlefish will change their skin to a certain colour to avert prey. They don't combine their different modes of communication in new, creative ways, they don't convey the signals in a grammatical order and they also only communicate about things happening in the moment.
There are some animals though, that do exhibit some of the qualities of language. Bees have a certain way of 'dancing' to communicate with other bees about the location and richness of a food source by controlling the different moves, angles, duration and intensity. This is an example of displacement because they are able to communicate about something that is not in the immediate vicinity. Prairie dogs who live in large communities of thousands also exhibit this communication trait. They are hunted by coyotes, hawks, badgers, snakes and humans and use different alarm calls to alert other prairie dogs of different predators. The alarm calls can also express the size, shape and speed of predators and for human hunters they can even differentiate different types of clothing and whether they are holding a gun!
Apes have been taught to use sign language and have been observed to demonstrate the quality of discreteness by being able to combine several individual sings into original phrases (productivity). Coco was a Gorilla who was taught over 1000 signs and she understood approximately 2000 English words. Coco had a pet kitten that had died and Coco referred to her beloved kitten using the sign language after it had passed. By doing this, Coco exhibited the quality of displacement. It is important to note that although the apes who used discreteness and displacement in communication, they were doing so by using a form of communication taught to them by humans under laboratory conditions and it wasn't something that developed naturally. However, the fact that they were able to exhibit these qualities is exemplary of the degree of their intelligence irrespective of linguistic ability. Just because their natural mode of communication may not seem to have these qualities on the outside, it does not necessarily diminish the ability of their intellect.
Dolphins use whistles to identify the age, location, names and gender of other dolphins and they have also been observed to understand some grammar when communicating with researchers who use a language made of gestures. Grammar has not been observed to be part of a dolphins natural form of communication outside of the system used by the researchers and scientists to communicate with them.
We can say that communication is a way of taking information from the environment, processing it and expressing it to another person or being. Language and communication gives us a peer into the complexity of the inner workings of an individual's mind; The outward expression of language can be a good indication of the inner complexity. Of course, the complexity of language may not capture the full extent of the intelligence of an individual.
When considering that all of the animals have communication systems that have been observed, none of them exhibit all four of the qualities that constitute language as we know it: Discreteness, displacement, grammar and productivity; Using individual building blocks to form an infinite range of messages following specific grammatical rules and being able to discuss things not only in the present but also in different places and in time as well as imaginary events or information.
What does this say about the human mind and spirit? This gives us clues about the difference between humans and animals, the nature of the human spirit and what it means to be human.
The Nature of the Human Spirit - Xing
A famous Daoist named Ge Hong said, "Nobody in creation is cleverer than the human being. Possessed of the most accessible techniques, he can make all creation his servant; having attained the deepest, he can enjoy Fullness of Life and everlasting vision. Since he knows that the best medicines are potent for extending his years, he takes them in his search for sainthood. Knowing the great age attained by tortoises and cranes, he imitates their calisthenics so as to augment his own life span."
Ge Hong also said: "Animals in general cannot imitate the tortoise and the crane; therefore they are short-lived. Man, however, possesses intelligence; if he can practice the same divine process as did other great sages; he can achieve the same results." and "It is clear that in special areas many creatures far surpass man; this is not only true for the tortoise and the crane. Accordingly, when weaving a net, Fu-hsi used spiders for his teachers. Shao-hao relied upon the nine quail to determine the seasons. Yellow Emperor awaited the cry of the phoenix in order to tune the pitch pipes."
If we look at an excerpt from Wuzhen Pian - 'Awakening to Reality' by Zhang Boduan, we can see that Daoists observed something amazing in Nature that humans can cultivate and which forms the basis of Daoist Teachings, Methods and Way of Life: "All people on their own have the Medicine of long life; it is only for insanity and delusion that they cast it away to no avail."
When considering Daoist observations of Humans and the Natural world we can consider the intelligence that each living thing is endowed with in order to live their lives, learn and grow. Xing is defined as 'Nature' or 'Nature of the Heart' and it is a substance located in the chest that can be refined through spiritual practice. There are various methods such as meditations, praying and reducing of the internal dialogue which relates to this. What we can derive from this is that one of the key differences between human and animals is that Humans can do something that we call 'Spiritual Practice!'. it is important to understand that in Daoist terms, Spiritual Practice is not philosophy or something idealistic; it is living according to or participating in specific - Methods -, teachings and mode of living that have real, practical life-enhancing results.
We can see that in the world of animals everything is built on eating or being eaten. There is no time for 'sleep' and the game is equally fair for both predator and prey as they are both caught in a deadly dance, constantly measuring each other's moves and refining their own. Because of this, in their normal lives, animals are improving their spiritual progress by virtue of the pressures exerted upon them by the needs of survival and this keeps them toned and 'awake'.
On the other hand, a human's spirit is more advanced and has much more freedom in terms of refining and perfecting itself. Unfortunately, modern life is full of endless comforts and entertainment (and noise) which are not conducive to spiritual growth. So, then what is the difference between the spiritual development that an animal goes through compared to a human that practices spiritual techniques? Both humans and animals in the course of their lives spend their vital energy (Ming) to acquire certain qualities of the spirit (Xing). For animals in the wild daily survival in adverse environments is their spiritual development, the only form that is available to them. Modern humans living in comfort live with a 'sleepy spirit'. Practice can awaken a sleepy human spirit and direct one's spiritual development along a clear path, rather than wait for life circumstances that will push one to change, probably against their will with great suffering. A soul evolves across many lives and forms, and being born as a human is indeed a great luck. You can develop a lot in your ‘natural environment’, and life circumstances but for higher achievements you will need the Method. This is what Ge Hong refers to as 'Sainthood' or a 'Sage'.
To summarise, the human is able to develop the spirit directly, like shining the light of the spirit on itself by using a special Method, whereas animals and most people develop the spirit (Xing) indirectly through random life circumstances and the need for survival.
Daoist methods for self-cultivation are a perfect example of the difference between humans and animals. Human beings are able to use their intelligence to develop technologies for spiritual development. In modern times, 'external' technology is prevalent, impressive and powerful. We often think that ancient technologies need to be sought after under rubble, excavated from the earth and mysterious ruins. Actually in Ancient times people had developed 'internal' technology to the same degree or further than the degree of technological advancement that we have today in terms of external technology.
This technology was transmitted through the language and connection between the Teacher and Student. The beating heart of those involved in this entrustment is what keeps this technology alive and why you cannot go and dig for it. You can find it in your heart; if you listen to your spirit and if you are ready and genuinely want it, your heart will lead you to the right place and help you to find the right Teacher for you. The teacher is the physical embodiment of this technology. As a human being you have the opportunity to tune in or tune out by virtue of the human Spirit.
As humans we do not have complete mastery over the natural world but can certainly flex our technological and civilizationary muscles enough to show that we have an opportunity in our hands; that being of greater choices and opportunities for freedom depending on how we use our intellect relative to the awakening of the potential of the Human Spirit. Will you take this chance and discover what it is to be Human, what makes us unique and what it means to live in accordance to one's potential? You have everything you need inside you, you just need a Way to nurture it and help it grow!