Home » Animal minds, News » “It is our ability to imagine being in the other person’s shoes that is the key to the human difference.”

“It is our ability to imagine being in the other person’s shoes that is the key to the human difference.”

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From James Barham’s article on pop science claims about human uniqueness, at The Best Schools (December 24, 2011):

De Waal’s take on all of this is quite interesting, because he rightly stresses that while the other primates share our empathic feelings in a more rudimentary form, what sets us apart as a species is the way those feelings interact with our superior cognitive capabilities. It is our ability to imagine being in the other person’s shoes that is the key to the human difference. And this ability, in turn, probably derives mainly from our gift of language.

Not sure about that last point. Human language is an outcome of the difference, not the cause of it.

Superior cognitive abilities enable us to enter more deeply into another’s experience. A vet, for example, sees that an animal is in pain and understands why, and has some idea what can be done about it. Another animal may empathize, but what follows?

Here is how de Waal puts this point:

The limited sensitivity of monkeys to others seems due more to cognitive than emotional factors. Monkeys do feel the distress of others but have no good grasp of what’s going on with them. They can’t step back from the situation to figure out the other’s needs. Every monkey lives in its own little bubble.

The trouble is that the intersection of reason and emotion doesn’t happen because there is no street called Reason in the monkey’s mind map.

One factor that makes this hard to grasp today is that, since the early nineteenth century, there has been an almost continuous assault on the importance of reason in human life. Emotion, we are told, is what matters. You should do what you feeeeeeel.

The trouble is effective help for others usually means suppressing what we feel and acting in accordance with reason. That’s why it is so easy for some to conclude that, because a monkey may feel distress at another monkey’s plight (but so do dogs and horses, by the way), therefore monkeys are just like us. Not so, unless we make it so by jettisoning reason and becoming like them.

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2 Responses to “It is our ability to imagine being in the other person’s shoes that is the key to the human difference.”

  1. Hi News,

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. Reason really is the key to human uniqueness. Claims have been made in recent years that crows and chimps are capable of at least elementary reasoning, but I’m skeptical. As one mathematics teacher whom I worked with about a decade ago put it: “It’s not enough to be able to get the right answer. You have to be able to explain to other people why it’s right.” And this is something which a chimp or a crow is utterly unable to do.

    Merry Christmas, by the way.

  2. vj,

    I think your definition of ‘reason’ is unduly restrictive. Do you really think a stroke victim who loses his language abilitites invariable loses the ability to reason?

    Or imagine a prodigious child, not yet speaking, who deliberately bends a piece of wire into a hook shape and uses the hook to retrieve an otherwise inaccessible toy. Would you really argue that she is not reasoning?

    Humans do have unique capabilities, but reason is not one of them.

    Amazing video of Betty the New Caledonian Crow

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