All That Different?

Because human beings don’t have chlorophyll and a few other physio-chemical adaptations, for us to survive, we need to eat either other forms of life or the products of other forms of life. We’ve bred forms of both plant and animal life to provide food for us, and we’ve become better and better at it.

But there’s an underlying assumption behind our agricultural achievements, and that assumption is that human beings are not only superior to other forms of life on earth, but that we are fundamentally different in the way we interact with our environment.

One of the early beliefs was that human beings were the only tool-users on the planet. Now, after a raft of studies over the past fifty years or so, we know that there are quite a few other species that make and use tools. While those tools are incredibly crude compared to our tools, they are tools, and for a species to make and use a tool requires a certain amount of thinking and forethought beyond blind instinct or environmentally programmed responses. We’ve also discovered that animal tool use is, at least in a number of cases, “cultural,” in that some groups of a species use tools and others don’t, or make different tools.

Then came the questions dealing with whether animals could actually think, especially in dealing with “theory of mind” matters, that is, is the ability to attribute beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc., to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. Experiments with mirrors and images have shown that certain species do indeed have that ability. Crows, ravens, elephants, and certain primates behave in ways that show they are very much aware of possible differences and mental motivation and states of others of their species and sometimes, even of other species.

But what we’ve learned doesn’t stop there. For a long time, most biologists dismissed the idea that plants did anything but grow and reproduce in some fashion. In the last few decades, however, they’ve discovered that plants aren’t nearly as simple as once had been thought. Experiments have shown that plants of the same species communicate with each other, and can warn other plants about insect attacks and other changes in the environment. They can also muster defenses against certain attacks. Unhappily, at times these defenses can be fatal if the attackers also adapt, as in the case of the spruce and pine bark beetles, who are attracted to both the warning signals and pitch secreted by the trees in an effort to repel beetles.

At the same time, more and more experiments and evidence show that plants do learn and adapt to changes in their environment. An evolutionary ecologist at the University of Western Australia, Monica Gagliano, actually trained plants to grow in specific directions based on which way a fan blew.

What’s the bottom line of all this? That while human beings are currently the best tool-users and thinkers on the planet, we’re not the only ones, and that we’re not fundamentally different from the rest of life, just better at taking advantage of all other life-forms – except maybe bacteria and viruses, but that’s another blog.

4 thoughts on “All That Different?”

  1. Lourain J Pennington says:

    Along with bacteria and viruses you might want to throw in insects…

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    A mimosa can be trained to ignore a very specific harmless stimulus (not curl up its leaves), while still responding to other stimuli; and it will “remember” that difference in response for at least a week (possibly at least four weeks, depending on whether weekly retests “refreshed” its “memory”).

    Although that was perhaps the most compelling study of sophisticated behavior by plants, it certainly wasn’t the first:

    The “mirror test” ( ), whether a creature recognizes itself when seeing its reflection, is passed by humans, great apes, dolphins and maybe killer whales, and magpies; the latter having very different brain structure, which upset some theories. Humans and great apes don’t recognize themselves until a certain age (typically about 18 months to the 50% level in humans, perhaps the same or close in chimps). Some cultures tend to delay that recognition.

    However, when it comes to tools, although some animals will use an existing object (a stick to dig for termites, for example), and a very few may slightly alter an object (strip leaves off of a stick, or sharpen it slightly), as far as I know, none but humans will keep such a tool, but will just find (and perhaps make) another as needed. This likely limits the effort they’ll make in perfecting a tool.

    And there’s certainly evidence of communication by animals that is more than just limited signals of alarm or anger. But it never (or almost never) seems to deal with non-immediate (in either space or time) matters.

    And as far as I know, nobody has ever demonstrated learned foresight on the part of an animal. No matter how many times the dog got in the trash while I was gone, and was promptly “guilty” when I returned (even before I spotted the mess), it never learned not to do that. There’s definitely memory, but the most immediate stimulus takes precedence.

    Keeping tools (enabling the construction of more complex tools), and (sometimes) exercising foresight, so far seem to be limited to humans, although one can’t rule out surprises when making such a statement.

    1. Daze says:

      I know a few humans whose learning (and ability to not respond immediately to stimulus) is about on a par with your dog’s.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Many other omnivores probably “take advantage” of as many other species as they are able to…for food certainly. And there are many sorts of parasitic (or even symbiotic) relationships out there. Aside from food animals, egg-laying chickens, and animals abused in work or sports, quite a few human relationships with domesticated animals could be viewed as symbiotic – both pets, and reasonably well-treated working animals, with some investment in cost, time and effort, and often emotion involved; they get food, protection, and attention, we get some degree of service or comfort. Some (young and hungry) may well have approached us, rather than us seeking them out to exploit. And with those that have clear social hierarchies, humans can often interact with them as a substitute for the dominant member of their social hierarchy, with some exception for those that are usually either loner or dominant (I’d rather try to tame a female lion than a male one; but either only from a very early age).

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