What makes people people?
June 16, 2005 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Help me argue an office mate. The author Douglas Coupland wrote that the only human activities that have no animal equivalent are smoking, body-building, and writing. I'm trying to think of more.
posted by tfmm to Science & Nature (80 answers total)
 
I think taking mood-altering substances should be on the list. What animals go out drinking or shooting up?
posted by cincidog at 11:05 AM on June 16, 2005


catnip, cincidog. Animals just aren't smart enough to use syringes or fire.
posted by callmejay at 11:05 AM on June 16, 2005


Surgery?
posted by rainbaby at 11:11 AM on June 16, 2005


...and I think Koala Bears eat Cocoa leaves for like 80% of their lives.

how bout plastic surgery and Trepanation? Surgery in general, really.
Do these count as "activities"?

on preview, damn rainbaby.
posted by hellbient at 11:12 AM on June 16, 2005


Premeditated murder?
posted by scratch at 11:12 AM on June 16, 2005


PDAs?
posted by carter at 11:13 AM on June 16, 2005


Beastiality?

Wait.. no.
posted by bondcliff at 11:14 AM on June 16, 2005


Piercing, tattooing -- although those could be lumped in with body-building as "body modification".
posted by o2b at 11:16 AM on June 16, 2005


Tying shoelaces.
posted by transient at 11:19 AM on June 16, 2005


Cooking?
posted by iconomy at 11:19 AM on June 16, 2005


This is so open-ended as to be nearly pointless. Driving cars? Flying airplanes? Team sports? Mountain climbing? Oral poetry? Playing musical instruments? Psychotherapy? French cooking? Theater-going? Nuclear war? Scuba diving? Bicycle repair? The invention of calendars? Mathematics? Mass suicide cults (that lemming thing is a myth)? Minting coins? Exchanging minted coins for goods and services? Beekeeping?

See what I mean?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:23 AM on June 16, 2005


I think I remember from college that Kenneth Burke said language (but not communication) is what separates us from animals.
posted by tayknight at 11:29 AM on June 16, 2005


True, but so many people are convinced that chimps/whales/whatever can use language that you'd spend all your time arguing that issue. (I haven't seen any evidence yet that would convince me, but then I'm a hardened skeptic.)
posted by languagehat at 11:35 AM on June 16, 2005


What mr_roboto said. In fact in the original:

smoking -> animal use of stimulants as others described

body-building -> any number of those things that animals do to help them attract mates. preening etc.

writing -> communication like birdsongs. or physical markings like scent-markings which say "this territory is mine"

I'd argue that everything we do has an animal equivalent. Because, well, thats what we are.
posted by vacapinta at 11:36 AM on June 16, 2005


Drinking the milk of another species.
posted by grateful at 11:38 AM on June 16, 2005


I think taking mood-altering substances should be on the list. What animals go out drinking or shooting up?

...and I think Koala Bears eat Cocoa leaves for like 80% of their lives.



Various primates will deliberately eat fermented fruit to get drunk, and my mother remembers seeing a robin unable to fly after eating over-ripe cherries (although it's debateable as to whether or not an animal with the brain the size of a peanut could be deliberately getting intoxicated). Incidentally, koala bears eat a diet of 100% eucalyptus leaves (cocoa is native to middle and south America), which actually have a mildly intoxicating effect: koalas are mildly stoned all the time, albeit unintentionally.

Back on topic, I agree with mr_roboto. If you're going to include body-building as its own category, you must also include plastic surgery, shoemaking, and doily collecting.
posted by Specklet at 11:38 AM on June 16, 2005


Creativity. That applies to the use of drugs for enjoyment, language, writing and even lifting weights to improve our looks. We're more creative than the animals.
posted by Napierzaza at 11:39 AM on June 16, 2005


Many animals use tools and communicate dude. Just 'cause they don't do it at our level doesn't mean they don't do it.

Also, murder is common among animals. I suggest scratch looks at chickens for an example of murder. Male chickens are known to kill all male chicks.

Just sayin'. I totally dig what tfmm is saying, but we can definitely cross body building off the list, as many big cats practices this. I suggest you read the Charles Atlas Bodybuilding guide to see an account. As for smoking, is this the same as taking drugs? I mean, seems like it to me, and has been mentioned earlier, lots of animals are trashed a goodly bit of the time.

Writing seems like the only good suggestion so far. I'll add construction of complex tools (using one tool to make another) to the list. I know of no animal that does this.

Tough question.

KFJ
posted by kungfujoe at 11:40 AM on June 16, 2005


Two words: Reality TV.
posted by randomstriker at 11:40 AM on June 16, 2005


religious worship of supernatural entities
posted by whoda at 11:44 AM on June 16, 2005


ants "milk" aphids
posted by Rumple at 11:47 AM on June 16, 2005


Two words: Reality TV.

*visualizes an obese Lassie, a drunken Benji, a gay RinTinTin, and a sensitive-about-being-a-cat Salem From Sabrina forced to live on-camera in an overfurnished doghouse in a hip LA neighborhood*

*calls CBS*

*holds*
posted by jonmc at 11:49 AM on June 16, 2005


Wearing clothing and the whole concept of "shame" at nakedness.
posted by anastasiav at 11:52 AM on June 16, 2005


Also, murder is common among animals. I suggest scratch looks at chickens for an example of murder. Male chickens are known to kill all male chicks.

I said premeditated, kungfujoe. Y'know, like Scott Petersen or someone. Hard to imagine a rooster hatching a plot to kill off his offspring.

/pun intended, y'all
posted by scratch at 11:52 AM on June 16, 2005






/pun intended, y'all

that joke laid an egg.
posted by jonmc at 12:04 PM on June 16, 2005


Certain primates murder each other. I watched footage of it in a recent BBC documentary - it was really strange and horrible to see. About 15 monkeys got into a group and sneaked up behind another one then thumped and stamped him to death. Scary. According to the programme the only species that commit premeditated murder are primates...can't find the programme online. Resume normal service....
posted by fire&wings at 12:04 PM on June 16, 2005


Art for art's sake.
posted by ubernostrum at 12:05 PM on June 16, 2005


Snark.
posted by maryh at 12:10 PM on June 16, 2005


Guilt.
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:18 PM on June 16, 2005


Wearing clothing and the whole concept of "shame" at nakedness.

If a rogue male chimp is caught having sex with one of the alpha male's harem, he will cover his genitals with his hands. But I'm not sure if this is out shame/embarrassment/guilt, or simply a deliberate removal of a visual signal that might prompt the alpha's wrath...
posted by Specklet at 12:28 PM on June 16, 2005


Collect pets?
Blush/Feel shame?
See themselves in their reflection?
Construct jokes, as opposed to finding something funny?
Say "nuclear"?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:30 PM on June 16, 2005


blogging.
posted by judith at 12:31 PM on June 16, 2005


I see they learned to AskMeFi. Sorry, just saw the opportunity for unfocused snark.

I suppose the question is how much variance you're going accept: is working a forklift the same as carrying leaves? Animals don't chew gum, so far as I know, but they may eat tree sap. They're certainly not very good power forwards, though many animals can play small guard well.
posted by klangklangston at 12:33 PM on June 16, 2005


so many people are convinced that chimps/whales/whatever can use language that you'd spend all your time arguing that issue. (I haven't seen any evidence yet that would convince me, but then I'm a hardened skeptic.)

A truly hardened skeptic would be skeptical of the claim that humans are better than other animals.
posted by norm at 12:38 PM on June 16, 2005


Rumple - ants do drink the secretions from aphids, but I believe it emanates from the aphids anus. Humans drink cow teat secretions.
posted by grateful at 12:39 PM on June 16, 2005


One word: Felching.
posted by neckro23 at 12:44 PM on June 16, 2005


deer take magic mushrooms.
posted by jon_kill at 12:52 PM on June 16, 2005


grateful -- that is so ass-backwards.....
they do stimulate the aphid to secrete so in a sense they are "milking" the aphid (though from tha aphids POV it might well be "jerking off" or some such.

neckro23: gerbils also felch, when you think about it.
posted by Rumple at 12:57 PM on June 16, 2005


I was gonna agree with ubernostrum and say anything aesthetic - decorating the house, doing up the garden, painting a picture, etc, but then I remembered this little guy.

Learn other languages? Cultivate crops/other animals for food?
posted by penguin pie at 12:59 PM on June 16, 2005


I don't think other animals make pancakes. As a slight derail, who here likes pancakes?
posted by grouse at 1:10 PM on June 16, 2005


I've been reading this thread, thinking to myself of animal equivalents to many of the above. Actually, the only three that still have me stumped are:

Language, Use of Complex tools, Nudity taboo.
posted by vacapinta at 1:11 PM on June 16, 2005


To those of you suggesting art or creativity, you are all wrong.

Read here. More links.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:13 PM on June 16, 2005


Collect pets?
Koko the gorilla treated at least one kitten as a pet; I don't think she was allowed to keep it with her all the time, though.

Make sophisticated electronic devices to communicate with and spend hours banging away at our keyboards trying to recreate the works of Shakespeare?
posted by Soliloquy at 1:15 PM on June 16, 2005


We cook our food.
posted by o2b at 1:18 PM on June 16, 2005


Suicide.
posted by nixerman at 1:23 PM on June 16, 2005


Copyright
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:26 PM on June 16, 2005


Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee pretty much tries to answer this exact question. In a nutshell:

Nearly all of the behaviors that we identify as being uniquely human, have animal precursors. Obviously they are now very developed and not as "crude" as the animal versions. Some examples:
- Language: Whales, other primates, dolphins, dogs, cats?, and birds, have very distinct vocal forms of communication. In some instances, it is possible to reproduce these noises in certain patterns and get a response as if it was an animal produced vocalization.
- Art: Diamond uses the examples of Bowerbirds who make extremely structures called bowers which Diamond calls "the most elaborate structures built and decorated by any animal species other than humans." These birds build these elaborate structures to attract the female of the species, and the male with the best (best looking/artistically elaborate?) structure gets the girl. Diamond argues, that like bowerbird art, human art is also designed to attract mates. If an artist can spend time on art, it may mean they are talented/rich and are good providers.
- Agriculture: Ants take part in agriculture as per the previously described aphid example. Leaf-cutter ants take leaves into their homes and do some sort of cultivation. Some also have mutualistic relationships with some fungi.
- Drugs: Diamond's take on this is pretty new to me. He argues that the reason humans take drugs is similar to the reason the peacock has a bright tail. It would seem to be a huge disadvantage to have a huge tail, but it confers a reproductive advantage (more important than a survival advantage). But these deleterious traits may attract females simply because they are handicaps. The peacock is saying: "look at me, I can be seen by anyone, and I can still survive, so I'll be a good mate, because even with this ridiculous target, I'm suriving and thriving. Look how impressive I am." That's Diamond's theory. I'm not sure if I agree with that or not.
posted by ruwan at 1:26 PM on June 16, 2005


vacapinta, what was your equivalent for religious worship of supernatural entities?

Whales and dolphins commit suicide.
posted by Feisty at 1:28 PM on June 16, 2005


If an artist can spend time on art, it may mean they are talented/rich and are good providers.

*bursts out laughing in otherwise silent office*
posted by scratch at 1:41 PM on June 16, 2005


Bondage.
posted by realcountrymusic at 1:42 PM on June 16, 2005


See themselves in their reflection?

I'm not sure what exactly is meant here, but my cat used to meet my eyes while looking at my reflection, and chimps will brush their hair looking into a mirror.

Construct jokes, as opposed to finding something funny?

I've had horses play jokes on me purely for their own amusement.

Rumple - ants do drink the secretions from aphids, but I believe it emanates from the aphids anus. Humans drink cow teat secretions.

I've seen a pig nurse a puppy, and a dog nurse a tiger (although I don't know if this would happen in the "natural" world).

We cook our food.

Animals prepare food, though, and many predators enjoy flesh cooked by forest fires...
posted by Specklet at 1:45 PM on June 16, 2005


Creating fire ?
posted by vronsky at 1:48 PM on June 16, 2005


I've always thought it was not being afraid of vaccum cleaners that seperated us from the animals.
posted by glenwood at 2:16 PM on June 16, 2005


I'm pretty sure that the other animals don't have discussions about what separates their super-awesome species from the others.

Seriously, is there any evidence that any of the other animals contemplate their own mortality?
posted by elderling at 2:52 PM on June 16, 2005


I remember reading about a bird who would drop their meal (crabs I think) into boiling springs to cook them.

And horses do have a sick sense of humor.
posted by vronsky at 2:52 PM on June 16, 2005


Scientific inquiry seemed like a good one. Though, if you consider that some animals use plants as medicine, as chimps use aspilia leaves to treat worms, then there must have been some trial and error involved to discover this. The rudiments of science.
posted by recurve at 3:18 PM on June 16, 2005


is there any evidence that any of the other animals contemplate their own mortality

and

religious worship of supernatural entities

seem to be related.
posted by Feisty at 3:21 PM on June 16, 2005


Rational thought.
posted by koeselitz at 3:54 PM on June 16, 2005


Belief, I say.
Not rational thought.

Belief as in : "tomorrow will be better", "this too shall pass", "you are going to respect the red light while I go at the green", "this 41k account will provide for my future", "in 10 years, I'll be a physician", "the justice system is impartial", etc, etc..

Everywhere, everyone believes in something. They believe their husbands will come home tonight, that their wives will cook a dinner, that their children are at school, that their lives could be better, that the sun will set and the moon will rise, that Larry King will be on tonight just like everynight, that having sex with a condom won't result in a pregnancy, that posting on an online forum is a good use of your time, that the government is going down to hell, that hitting the post button will actually post these words, that smoking is bad for your health, that Ivy Leagues aren't worth the dough, that your Ipod is cool, that you should get a new coffee table soon, that you're a really unique and special person...
etc, etc, etc..
posted by ruelle at 4:12 PM on June 16, 2005


Civil_Disobedient: Note that I said "art for art's sake", not "things done to impress a mate which we humans anthropmorphize into art".

ruwan: Diamond argues that those who produce art will be more likely to be "good providers"? Did he actually know anything about artists? Ditto for "rich" and "talented".
posted by ubernostrum at 4:22 PM on June 16, 2005


...that hitting the post button will actually post these words...
*waits for keswick*
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:33 PM on June 16, 2005


Gambling.
posted by pompomtom at 7:08 PM on June 16, 2005


ruwan : "Drugs: Diamond's take on this is pretty new to me. He argues that the reason humans take drugs is similar to the reason the peacock has a bright tail. It would seem to be a huge disadvantage to have a huge tail, but it confers a reproductive advantage (more important than a survival advantage). But these deleterious traits may attract females simply because they are handicaps. The peacock is saying: 'look at me, I can be seen by anyone, and I can still survive, so I'll be a good mate, because even with this ridiculous target, I'm suriving and thriving. Look how impressive I am.' That's Diamond's theory. I'm not sure if I agree with that or not."

I haven't read the book, but does Diamond take into account that anti-drug laws and attitudes, are basically a recent development, historically speaking, and at that, West-driven? Even now, the DEA distributes mescaline-containing peyote buttons to native Americans for ritualistic use. And many tribes in South America use ayahuasca. Hardly a display of thriving rebellion.
posted by Gyan at 8:40 PM on June 16, 2005


Remember this from not-too-long-ago?

"Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape."

NYTimes Article (includes evidence of "gambling" behaviour). Unfortunately the article is now archived.
Mefi Thread
posted by odinsdream at 8:52 PM on June 16, 2005


I've seen a pig nurse a puppy, and a dog nurse a tiger (although I don't know if this would happen in the "natural" world).

Not to mention that rat mothers supposedly will nurse baby mice, and mice mothers supposedly will nurse baby rats.

I think the only defining characteristic besides obvious things like appearance and vast manmade structures spanning the planet is the combination of our highly analytical processes and our opposable thumbs.
posted by angry modem at 9:23 PM on June 16, 2005


Note that I said "art for art's sake", not "things done to impress a mate which we humans anthropmorphize into art".

You could make a pretty strong argument that art doesn't care if someone's doing more art for its sake. Therefor, art is at best someone trying to impress someone else, at worst, someone trying to impress themselves.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:46 PM on June 16, 2005


I stand by my words.
Only Mankind has the unique capacity to hope, to pray, to wish... essentially, to believe.
And this, I honestly think, has always and will always be the theme of human life: if we can believe in a future there will be a future, if we believe in progress there will be progress, if we believe life's not worth living then we end it.

Whether it's all "true" is besides the point. We, humans, aren't that attached to the stark truth, but make us believe for a moment in something, and we will rise you above the ranks of common mortals.
I'm thinking Ghandi, Walt Disney, Hilter, Napolean, Ben Franklin, Einstein, Alan Greenspan, good moms and dads, political leaders, teachers, storytellers, friends, stand-up comedians, everyone involved in the movies, doctors that lift your spirits... you name it.
posted by ruelle at 1:11 AM on June 17, 2005


I don't know, ruelle. Just because we don't understand animals' manifestations of hope doesn't mean they don't have it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:05 AM on June 17, 2005


We make lists.
posted by yesster at 6:33 AM on June 17, 2005


Abstinence?
posted by tfmm at 6:37 AM on June 17, 2005


Math.

Haven't seen anyone propose an animal equivalent and I can't imagine one that makes sense.
posted by argybarg at 7:53 AM on June 17, 2005


Only Mankind has the unique capacity to...

Any statement that begins with the above is guaranteed to contain unsupported assumptions masquerading as Scientific Fact. I'm with norm: since we are incapable of getting inside other animals' heads, the proper "hardened skeptic" view is *not* to make unsupported assumptions that humans are unique among all of nature's creatures in our beliefs/hopes/awareness/etc. It seems far more likely that similar states also occur in other creatures on the planet we all share.

art for art's sake

No animals are capable of taking joy in a creative process? Is that really what you're suggesting?
posted by mediareport at 8:10 AM on June 17, 2005


We take philosophy and anthropology and ask questions just like this.
posted by sled at 10:16 AM on June 17, 2005


No animals are capable of taking joy in a creative process?

We don't know to what extent animals' emotions are like ours, let alone have any idea whether they are capable of something as specific as joy, or whether they understand the idea of a creative process well enough to recognize when they are doing it, or whether (assuming they can recognize it) that it makes them feel joy.

It's tempting to anthropomorphize, but the odds seem pretty slim to me.
posted by kindall at 10:44 AM on June 17, 2005


Civil_Disobedient: If you want to play the "well, people really do x because..." game, then I'll drop out of the conversation now. That way lies unscientific Freudian BS.
posted by ubernostrum at 5:12 PM on June 17, 2005


It's tempting to anthropomorphize, but the odds seem pretty slim to me.

That works just as well the other way, kindall. "It's tempting to assert complete uniqueness for human consciousness, but the odds seem pretty slim to me."
posted by mediareport at 8:54 PM on June 17, 2005


mediareport wrote Any statement that begins with [Only Mankind has the unique capacity to...] is guaranteed to contain unsupported assumptions masquerading as Scientific Fact.

Well I'll grant you that the phrase "only Mankind has the unique capacity.." is indeed an overemphasis. But that doesn't guarantee it to contain unsupported assumptions - for instance "only Mankind has the unique capacity to surf the web" is a pretty obvious statement, if a bit pompous.
posted by ruelle at 7:11 AM on June 18, 2005


But that doesn't guarantee it to contain unsupported assumptions

Well, every time I've seen it used vehemently (as opposed to your thoughtful, contrarian usage), it's been a ridiculous smokescreen for quasi-religious assumptions about the Uniqueness of "Mankind." That kind of crap should make any good, skeptical scientist vomit at the screen.
posted by mediareport at 4:38 PM on June 18, 2005


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