George Orwell once wrote: “Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is the lord of all the animals.”
Orwellian satire aside, what is the essential difference between humans and animals? By the term essential I am referring to the classic Platonic definition which maintains that essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.
What makes human beings essentially unique from other animals? It can’t be the predator instinct. Humans are no less lethal than the fiercest monster in any forest or the largest sea beast in any ocean; nor can it be the possession of teeth, eyes, ears, hair, skin, bones, muscles, internal organs and the like. All organisms have anatomies which give them the ability to experience their environment.
Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that humans do not possess biological features like scales, feathers, and fins. Yet do not humans possess these parts if only through their imagination?
Could it be that humans are warm blooded, amphibious, or nocturnal? Hardly. For millions of other species have these traits.
Is it intelligence? It can’t be, for intelligence exists (to some degree) in all animal societies. Animals may not speak our language but they do construct their world symbolically. In fact, all animal species base their experience of the world on sizes, shapes, textures, colors, concepts like distance and speed, pheromones and countless other interpretive sensory machinations.
Could the difference be aesthetic? But how could it be when numerous animal species have highly sophisticated mating ceremonies, courtship rituals, and even standards of beauty and ugliness?
Does the essential difference have to do with the nature of sex and giving birth? Doubtful. After all, the defining characteristic of all animals is that they must be birthed into the world.
Could it be the soul? If so, what grounds do we have for assuming that animals do not have souls too? If we are so similar in so many other ways, why wouldn’t we be similar in our shared capacity to harbor a soul? In the words of Victor Hugo: “From the oyster to the eagle, from the swine to the tire, all animals are to be found in men and each of them exist in some man, sometimes several at the same time. Animals are nothing but the portrayal of our virtues and vices made manifest to our eyes, the visible reflections of our souls. God displays them to us to give us food for thought.”
If Hugo is right we are simply reflections of one another.