Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Thoughts on humans, animals, and what traits are “more evolved”


This page is only partially finished, with some material yet unwritten and a sub-optimal coherence of what is written. The core ideas are that humans are more akin to animals than they like to believe, that understanding animals is the key to understanding (most) human behaviour, that most humans have a skewed image of what traits in a human are not those of an animal, and that those displaying “human” traits instead of “animal” traits are often misunderstood.

What sets humans and animals apart

I have repeatedly heard the statement that emotions are what make humans different from animals. This is patently false: While emotions in a human sense are not present in e.g. insects, reptiles, and many other types of animals (as far as I can judge, with reservations for e.g. misinterpretation due to lack of facial expression), they are present in most reasonably advanced mammals. Dogs, e.g., have a wide range of intense emotions, and I would tend to consider them more emotional than (at least) adult male humans. Elephants, who are among the most intelligent animals around, have shown some quite advanced emotions, including signs of grief or reminiscing (e.g. in the form of a “silent minute”) when re-visiting a place they associate with the death of another elephant. To claim that animals would not have emotions is extremely naive.

In stark contrast, I would claim that what sets humans and animals apart is the ability of higher reasoning, including meta-reasoning, reasoning about emotions, ability to put emotions aside, etc. (This is to be contrasted with the common popular science view that reasoning in any form is the distinguishing criterion—often accompanied with amazement that other animals are capable of solving any kind of problem.) While such ability may be present in non-humans too, it will be rare and undeveloped—and even humans only develop it over time (late childhood?), and often highly incompetently (consider e.g. the average high-school drop-out).


Would lack of this ability in some humans not make it unsuitable as a distinguishing criterion? Not necessarily: An assumption of a certain degree of development, maturity, “healthiness”, or “typicality” is quite allowable (unless, possibly, a formal definition is sought). Consider e.g. differing between chairs and tables with the heuristic that chairs are sat upon, while tables are sat at: This is certainly an over-simplification, certainly ignores some special cases, and certainly assumes that only two types of furniture need to be recognized; however, it is also a very effective and efficient rule, and even a sub-average thinker would likely be able to handle the special cases reasonably.

It certainly pays to bear in mind, however, that each species has a continuum of intelligence, ability of reasoning, etc.; and that there are very likely to be elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins, ..., that exceed the lower ranges of human ability. Further, if we compare the intellectual development of humans with their physical development, it should be clear that humans are intellectual dwarves compared to what is theoretically possible: Compare e.g. the relative ease with which a human (after some training) accomplishes an extremely hard task like setting a three-point shot to the problems we have with simple tasks like solving a linear equation-system in ten variables. (An interesting contrast is how easy it is for a computer to do the latter, but how it, in a robotic shape, struggles with the former.)

A scale of evolutionary progress

I have a very strong impression that the more intelligence, insight, and maturity grows, the less people are governed by their emotions and more by their intellect. In effect we have a development scale beginning with extremely primitive animals (with no emotions, no reasoning, no self-awareness) and, preliminary, ending with a hypothetical Spock (or rather someone of whom Spock could be considered a caricature). On this scale, dogs would rate highly, elephants even higher, a human child (depending on age) roughly the same as a dog or elephant, followed by a continuum of human adults of various levels of development (likely with women, on average, trailing men). An important observation is that, on this scale, it could well be argued that aspiesw are half an evolutionary step ahead of humankind in general, and do not suffer from a disorder—a position that there is some considerable circumstantial evidence for. (This with regard to e.g empathy, the probably most often cited “problem”; nevertheless, aspies may well have real problems in some other areas. Here, however, much subjectivity in the evaluation will be present. Is e.g. a certain sensitivity to sound an over-sensitivity, or just a case of the environment being unsuitable?)


Beware that this scale is a highly informal construct, not a scientific classification; further, that the classification given is extremely approximate.

A highly interesting issue is that based on this evolutionary scale (and, independently, rational reflection), being good at reading body language, having a strong empathic ability, being talkative, etc. is not something that shows superiority. The former two, e.g., are remnants from a time before more intellectual modes of communication surfaced, and when most individuals (not necessarily humans) had very low abilities of reasoning and thinking—indeed, cats and dogs, who are still in this state, are far superior to humans in both body language and empathy (at least when measuring in-born, as opposed to trained, ability.) The third, similarly, reflects a state of being where human interaction is the main form of entertainment available, and where more intellectual interests are not known, not available, or where the intellectual development is insufficient to appreciate them. I would challenge the reader to look at his or her own life and reflect upon what people have been the most and the least talkative—and who has been the more intelligent and intellectually well-developed. While there will be great individual variations, the overall tendency will almost certainly be that small children, brainless teenage girls, old women without a higher education, and the most stupid among the men are among the most talkative. In contrast, the least talkative will include physicists and mathematicians, professors, the high-school brainiac, etc.

Unfortunately, here the tall dancer syndrome comes into play, and because the rational are so much rarer than the irrational, these people tend to have a greater advantage than those who instead have a few IQ points extra, think rationally, or otherwise have a more valuable advantage. It is noteworthy that in the past (or in the lower to middle reaches of intelligence) there may actually have been a positive correlation between these abilities and intelligence; however, once a certain threshold is passed this correlation becomes negative. This old correlation could help with explaining why so many humans misinterpret, e.g., a never stopping mouth as intelligence.


A further consideration is that some of the most intelligent people can talk quite fast, once they get going. It is important to note the difference to the traditional motor-mouths: The former typical prefer other activities; but have the ability and need to talk fast, because they have a fast stream of ideas and information. The latter enjoy hearing their own voices, have no greater fun than talking, talk just to avoid a silence (which they equal with disaster, instead of e.g. a time to reflect), have a clear quantity-over-quality policy, or are otherwise wasting air.

Correspondingly, if someone tries to squash in hour’s worth of information in a half hour conversation, and remains quite for the rest of the day, he may well belong to the intelligent. If she (typically a woman) spends most of her day in conversations with others—constantly talking, but rarely actually saying anything—then the opposite is likely to apply.

Notably, intelligence is mostly an all-round ability to master situations for which one has not been evolutionary “pre-programmed”. In contrast, the human language ability is largely pre-programmed and special purpose (notwithstanding that it needs to be trained—just like a new-born baby cannot walk without training). This explains the low correlation between intelligence and language ability and why even a comparatively small child can have a strong command of language, be a reasonable conversationalist (in sufficiently favourable circumstances), and occasionally give a superficial impression of adult intelligence—even without actually being gifted.

Body language, emotions, and empathy are intertwined

Body language and “animal language” is largely used to communicate emotions, such as fear and happiness; a related area is intentions, possible consequences of an action in the counter-part, and similar. The latter is likely closely intertwined with the former from an evolutionary perspective, e.g. in that a warning signal developed hand in hand with feelings like fear and anger. (Consider also the mirror effect of body language influencing mood.)

Understanding humans by understanding animals

As I have grown to realize over time, one of the keys to understanding the behaviour of adult humans is to understand the behaviour of children and animals.

Example: If we compare women, children, and some animals (notably cats and dogs), there are some striking similarities in how to treat them in order to keep them happy—and how they behave, if we do not. (The same applies to some degree to men too, but noticeably less so.) Attention, gifts, physical contact, care-taking, are all examples of how they tend to want the same thing (obviously with some considerable variation in the details). An interesting exercise for the male reader would be to consider how he treats e.g. a cat, and how the corresponding behaviour, modified for species, would come across to women; correspondingly, the female reader should consider how the same behaviours would affect her.

Similarly, consider this joke chart on catse, and contrast “The hand that’s petting him” with “The hand that’s petting the other cat”: The same phenomenon is readily observable in humans—as are several other entries on the chart. (The linked site and several sister sites with comical content can be used to draw many interesting conclusions about both human and animal behaviour.)

The central issue here is that for most purposes humans (irrespective of age and sex) are animals, underlie animal instincts, behave in ways dictated by evolution in a pre-modern, often even pre-civilized or pre-human, world, etc.; and that reason, rationality, objectivity, ..., often fight a losing battle against the animal within.

Excursion on “Spockish” characters

A key-issue with many “Spockish” characters (mostly in fiction) is that they either fail to consider human nature, or try to conquer it in a naive fashion. In either case, they run into severe problems because of this. Notably, these characters often lack true rationality, either because they are not what they themselves believe that they are, or because they are caricatures that give a misrepresentation of the highly rational. Consider e.g. that someone who is truly rational will recognize his own nature and weaknesses—and give them appropriate consideration, possibly even utilize them. If, OTOH, we consider a character like Thomas Gradgrindw, we have someone who is not intelligent, well-informed, and rational, but rather the opposite—while living in self-delusion. This is illustrated e.g. by how he over-focuses on raw facts, and leaves actual understanding by the road-side. Notably, he also fails to accommodate human nature, which weakens his position, makes his methods less effective and efficient, and reduces his enjoyment of life.