Tuesday, November 13, 2007

“Humans and Other Animals”: An Egregious Perpetuation of Ontological Error

"Humans and Other Animals" is a zoology class at Colorado State University. The title assumes agreement with its implied conclusion, that is, humans are indeed animals. This conclusion is not only false but has horrendous implications.

It is widely accepted (i.e. in dictionaries and many biological textbooks) that animals are living things which respond to various stimuli in such a way as to usually produce bodily animation. I acknowledge that there are some plants which respond to stimuli with basic animation, such as the venus fly trap, but the point here is not to focus on classification of flora and fauna. As we are fully aware (at least most of us are) that we are not plants, I intend to contrast fauna with human beings. The public university is attempting to reduce mankind into a status of ontological equivalency with the animal.

What is the nature of the animal?

Animals posses tendencies that are widely accepted by those studying them. These include the strong presence of instincts as well as the capacity for varying degrees of learning through operant and classical conditioning (operant conditioning is using the punishment/consequence system, and classical conditioning is using rewards for good behavior). What is not agreed upon is the nature of certain responses which seemingly appear to be emotion.

I believe the idea that animals can "emote" is simply humans using anthropomorphism in life, or projecting a human emotion onto the animal. For example, when I used to train horses, I received a client's horse that she believed felt hate towards her. When I asked the client to show me what she meant, she got on the horse and passively asked him to move. The horse pitched a fit and refused to walk when the rider lightly tapped him with her heels (trying to get him to walk forward). The problem was diagnosed when the rider promptly stopped asking the horse (to the horse, rewarding it for its patience) and said in an exasperated voice, "You see? He hates me!"

Horses are by nature wired to preserve energy until it becomes necessary to expend it. This horse had simply learned via classical conditioning that he got a reward (rest) by being lazy and "angrily" tolerating his rider's weak taps until she inevitably gave up. The passive rider provided absolutely no reason for him to move. His "temper tantrum" was simply the result of months and months of being classically conditioned to stay at a slow pace and never being operantly conditioned (disciplined). This horse needed (and received) ample reason (operant conditioning) to move in the form of a swat on the rump, and was much better from that point on. He "hated" no one, and certainly did not "feel hate". He simply didn't feel the physical urge to move.

Animals use past information (pain, pleasure, and the associated sources) to make basic decisions in the present time. They do not reflect on experiences, feel human emotion, or consider the future. I am always careful to say that they do not have personalities, but temperaments. In short, they are not self-aware. They are one body ruled by chemical and electrical reactions.

What is the nature of the human being?

If the ontology of mankind was merely that of "a body purely under the control of here-and-now impulses made stronger by past experiences", this essay would be non-existent. In fact, reflective writing in general would be non-existent. There would be no ability to ponder things of a metaphysical and epistemological nature (among other things), as doing so would have nothing to do with our current impulses! Why on earth would we have evolved such a trait? That is, if we merely lived to survive and procreate, the ability to sit and consider abstract concepts such as the self would not be helpful. If it emerged by some fluke, it would have been selected out of the gene pool!

The best explanation for the undeniable and widespread longing for fulfillment far outside the purely physical realm is that mankind is more than just a body. We also have something that as a Christian I call a spirit (this is not to imply that non-Christians do not also recognize the spirit as such, though I would argue that they have an incorrect understanding of it). This is something the human being clearly has that the animal doesn't: a dualistic nature comprised of both body and spirit.

What are the implications of suggesting that we are animals?

If we are not any different than animals, then one of two possible philosophies (in their logical extremes) exists:

1) Animals, like people, have a dualistic nature and therefore deserve treatment equal to humans. This means it is a moral imperative (based on the golden rule) that we do not kill them, eat them, exploit them, or keep them as “pets”. (This view is not consistent with the philosophy of the unguided Darwinist [e.g. the secular university] and is likely to reflect a pantheistic worldview.)

2) Humans are not dualistic and are nothing other than more evolved animals. Therefore, we can theoretically euthanize anyone for any reason, murder unborn babies, act on sheer impulse at any time, and can feasibly experiment on other humans and eat other humans.

While the second possible philosophy is extreme, it reflects the logical progression from the Darwinist view (social Darwinism) where human beings have no purpose in life other than to survive and procreate. There is no need for or reason for the existence of a moral compass in a world such as this. Ethics are simply guidelines for effectively living the lifestyle of the survival of the fittest, if ethics exist at all. We are, like the animals, cosmic accidents and therefore live meaningless lives. For this reason physicalist (non-dualist) Darwinism leads to

Nihilism- a miserable life to lead, especially when the worldview is erroneous.

This worldview is the most common and ardently communicated one in the public schools and secular universities. “Humans and Other Animals” as a class is a lamentable tool for indoctrination into the mindset of the physicalistic Darwinist also known as (students are falsely taught) the “scientist”.


Kevin Winters said...

It's a zoology class, of course it's going to focus on human similarities with animals. And most certainly there are many such similarities, hence the class certainly is warranted, informative, useful, having a large amount of truth. To jump from, "This class is about humans as animals," to, "This class is about humans as animals and nothing more," is entirely unwarranted.

Furthermore, to criticize a class that is within a particular subject domain for not dealing with kinds of analysis that are not within that domain (i.e. epistemology, metaphysics, etc.) is silly. The class deals with life in general and doesn't require that we deal with any particular living organism nor does it need to within the confines of that class (it is, after all, an introductory course).

Why focus on a class when there are plenty of other readily identifiable examples you could have used?

Justin said...


While I do agree that jumping from "This class is about humans as animals," to, "This class is about humans as animals and nothing more" like you said would be irresponsible, I do not think that this is what the blog author was trying to say. Instead, I think that she was saying that the basic concept that the class is based off of is wrong, and therefore everything taught in the class afterwards is suspect as well. Your statement that it is silly to criticize a class for not dealing with things outside its domain is inaccurate, because the creators of the class brought that domain with them by naming this class in such a fashion. To then say that they don't have to defend their naming choice because it falls outside the scope of the class is silly.

Daniel said...

Good post!

I would add that both humans and animals (and all of creation) has been affected by the Fall. When Jesus said that he will make all things new, I fully expect this to include plants, animals, and of course humans.

Kevin Winters said...


Why must everything in the class be suspect? It's an introductory course in a department that deals with life in general, or with life as shared by many different organisms. The peculiarity of human nature is outside the scope, particularly of an introductory course.

I think we are all agreed that man shares many aspects with animals, including the ability to regulate our behavior through classical and operant conditioning. Furthermore, if we accept a tripartite view of the soul, as we find in Aquinas, then to categorize us as animals is indeed accurate...as long as we are not merely animals. And, again, within the confines of an introductory zoology course, that is entirely sufficient.

This is why it is not a problem that "the creators of the class brought that domain with them by naming this class in such a fashion." The aim of the class is to examine man insofar as he is an animal (even if he is more than an animal). This is valid if such an analysis of man gives us truth, illuminates some aspect of man's being, and it does. Thus, me thinks the lady doth protest too much (given her example).

Anthony said...


I must agree with both Justin and the blogger - you seem to be missing both of their points. They argue from the same position one might take concerning a newly built house. It may look to be finely built and completely safe, but if you were to learn that its foundation was nonexistent or severely flawed, would you feel comfortable buying, or even being inside that house for very long?

So it is with this class. Though it may seem, superficially, to be concerned only with matters of 'life in general', as you say, it is inarguable that the professor is assuming man's supposed similarity with animals - a presupposition which falls outside the realm of natural science (as Justin described).

The question about man's relationship with animals is, inextricably, a philosophical argument - one position touting their physical similarities and the other supporting their intellectual and spiritual differences. If "Man and Other Animals" is merely a scientific look at one side of this debate (as you seem to claim), then "Man's Divine Appointment" or "Man's Special Place in the Cosmos" must also be just as scientific - coming from the other side.

Just as the safety of the whole of the house is suspect when the foundation is compromised, the entirety of this class' so-called "truth" must be called into question if its very name (i.e. its 'foundation') is flawed.

As far as using Aquinas goes...perhaps I'm just not reading the same thing you are - while a tripartite theory of the soul is quite obvious in the writings of Plato and even Freud (neither of whom would agree with your equating man with animals), I don't see such a theory in Aquinas' work.

Sarah Scott said...


You are missing my (and Justin's) point as Anthony articulated well.

The area where you are frustrated seems to be my apparent disregard for the difference between being a MERE animal and being at LEAST an animal.

I will sum this up with a word equation:
Life+animation+cognition = animal
Life+animation+cognition+spirit does NOT = animal

Put into numbers:
1+2+3 = 6
1+2+3+4 = 10
10 is NOT 6 even though it is made up of that which also makes up 6.

There is no middleground between "mere animal" and "not an animal". Either he is equal to an animal or he is not an animal at all.

Kevin Winters said...


Your equation is mistaken. Within a dualistic view animals also have a "spirit," otherwise they would be missing the animating principle that makes life possible. In this case, then, "life" and "spirit" are synonymous and you are being redundant.

As for the either/or you are giving, I think you are mistaken (and not just on the "spirit" aspect). Insofar as man is the same genus as an animal, I can indeed say that man is an animal, but not merely an animal; man is of the genus of animal, but he is also different from many kinds of animals.

So, I stand by my original claim.

anthony said...

Kevin, I admire your conviction, but your position raises some awkward questions.

For instance, if man is merely an animal, what is it that differentiates him from the rest of the kingdom (or 'genus' depending on how scientific one wishes to be)? I understand Aquinas' view that it is man's 'form' - but this conclusion seems wildly arbitrary! What difference does it make if we walk upright on two legs?

As Sarah asserted in the blog post, if man is merely an animal, then why are so-called 'other' animals treated differently? Why do we act differently? Certainly there are similarities, but many of those we also share with bacteria - should we debate our equality with germs now as well?

If man truly is merely an animal, then the descriptor 'animalistic' would not be derogatory, but merely factual! To treat animals any different than humans, or for humans to act differently than animals (in general) would be logically inconsistent (again: arbitrary).

Why then do we do it? On the whole, why do we not (as the blog post originally discussed) cultivate herds of humans, dine on children (veal?), or keep people as pets? Why do we not question veterinarians 'putting animals down', but debates rage over the morality of Dr. Kevorkian? Why do we not treat animals and people in the same fashion? Where does the difference lie?

Because, listening to you (and the foundation of the class in question), there isn't one.

Kevin Winters said...


I had responded, but apparently it didn't get through. So here it goes again.

I didn't say that man was "merely an animal," so I'm not sure who you are directing this comment to. In fact, I believe I said exactly the opposite.

As to what distinguishes man and animal, that is indeed a good question and one that I did not address. There is something to Sarah's claim that rationality, reflection, and speculative thinking. However, I would argue that there is something more fundamental than that, namely that man inhabits (or, perhaps better put, is) a world. Animals may be said to have a world, insofar as things may be meaningful for them (even they may be more than mere automata or the function of the consequences of their actions [learning in behaviorism]), but it is impoverished compared to our rich world. The richness of our world is what makes things like rationality, reflection, or speculative thinking. In this I will probably differ from Sarah who will say that these are essential aspects of our nature as human beings. I, rather, would say that they are extensions of our being-in-the-world and, thus, not properly basic to man as man.

So, yes, there certainly is a difference between man and beast. But, again, that doesn't mean that man cannot truthfully be studied insofar as he is a member of the genus animal. Again, I stand by my original claim.

Kevin Winters said...

Hmm, I was writing quickly. Two corrections:

"There is something to Sarah's claim that rationality, reflection, and speculative thinking [are important for understanding human beings in distinction with animals]."


"The richness of our world is what makes things like rationality, reflection, or speculative thinking [possible in the first place; being-in-the-world grounds reason, reflection, and speculation]."

Kemp said...

Trying to tie man to animal in any way is a concept that is extraordinarily dangerous to the legal rights of all free individuals. Any course should reject labeling itself as "humans and other animals" as it gives implied credence to the concept that man and animal exist on an even footing and therefore must be treated equal under the law. Many who want to control people, would LOVE to have us accept equality with animals. That way they can cage and bond us. DO NOT accept language such as "humans and other animals" on ANY basis. otherwise you are giving ammunition to tyrants.