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University of Bristol
Wellcome Trust
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Humans & other animals

Human’s place in the animal kingdom

What is it that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom?

There are three
main characteristics:      

But are these really
unique to humans?

  1. Language
  2. Self awareness
  3. The ability to make moral decisions 


Most people recognise that animals can communicate with each other, but even the most complex of their systems is very simple compared with the sophistication of even the least well developed human language.

Koko is a 34 year old female gorilla who has been taught to recognise and use 1000 words in American sign language. This is an extreme example of an animal using human language, but it is not unique. Washoe the chimpanzee was brought up as a human child and learned many words in sign language.

Self awareness

Some animals are clearly self aware. Many psychologists have used the mirror experiment to demonstrate this. This test involves placing a mirror in front of an animal, and checking if the animal realizes they are looking at their reflection. Various animals, such as dolphins, chimpanzees, and some birds pass the mirror test. They go to great lengths to manoeuvre in front of the mirror so as to closely examine parts of their bodies which they normally can not see.


There is evidence that humans are not the only animals capable of making moral decisions. As one example, below is a passage from the book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, written by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, about an experiment performed on macaque monkeys.

open quote In a laboratory setting, macaque monkeys were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so - 87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow.close quote


List at least 2 ethical and 2 practical concerns that arise from this experiment?


Were the results worth it?

Who has the better memory? Read this article from the BBC

 Historical views


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