Take the 2-minute tour ×
Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for practitioners, researchers, and students in cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and psychiatry. It's 100% free, no registration required.

As I grew up, I was taught that the difference between humans and animals was that human being have free will and animals do not. The basis being animals will act accordingly to the nature of their species. I never fully understood this statement and still wonder whether it is, indeed, a valid claim.

From an evolutionary perspective, we would be regarded as a species at the top of the food chain. The main advantage in our development being our brains.

If we put aside the differences in what human beings are capable of, eg making clothes, machinery, etc, Is there a real distinction between human beings and other animals? Do we really have free will, or an illusion of free will? Or are we behaving, as other animals, in accordance with the nature of our species.

I know this is a big question and could result in a range of debates over my definitions. So for the sake of clarity. Let's keep this question limited to what defines a human brain, as opposed to an animal brain and any evidence that supports any significant difference. Allowing for the fact that the human brain is well developed (as opposed for eg to our canines).

Please advise, if you would like me to alter the format of this post.

share|improve this question
What is your definition of free will? –  John Aug 26 '13 at 5:33
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Some articles with some information pertinent to your question, hope this helps:

According to "Human and animal cognition: Continuity and discontinuity" (Premack, 2007), that as several species have skills once thought to be unique to humans, that this suggests that there is a misleading (the article's word) disparity between 'brain' and 'mind'. So the article's focus is on:

What are the dissimilarities?

When examining 8 aspects, or competencies, including teaching, short-term memory, causal reasoning, planning, deception, transitive inference, theory of mind, and language, the authors found that the similarities to be minor, but the dissimilarities to be very large and that there is no disparity.

Each of these points are discussed in depth in the article (too big for this answer); however, the article's author concludes with a fundamental difference:

Animal competencies are mainly adaptations restricted to a single goal. Human competencies are domain-general and serve numerous goals. For instance “planning” may be tied to episodic memory, suggesting a broad competence.

Going further, according to "Evolution of the brain and intelligence", (Roth and Dicke, 2005), that a main difference is due to:

factors that correlate better with intelligence are the number of cortical neurons and conduction velocity, as the basis for information-processing capacity.

and critically (bolding mine):

The outstanding intelligence of humans appears to result from a combination and enhancement of properties found in non-human primates, such as theory of mind, imitation and language, rather than from ‘unique’ properties.

share|improve this answer
it was a great learning experience writing this answer! –  user3554 Aug 12 '13 at 9:55
add comment

It is not that we are just generally smarter then animals, but we posses cognitive tools of a different kind that they don't. Two of them are language and the ability to simulate the future.

Regarding language, there is a wide consensus today that human language has some unique complexities that no animal form of communication has (see Pinker's "The Language Instinct"). It includes intricate syntactical structures and generative engines of vocabulary. Noam Chomsky was the first to argue that language is a universal capability, i.e. every healthy human being would be able to use it, and thus pre-wired into our brains from birth (and by that also debunking the Behavioral assumption that we are born tabula rasa).

The ability to simulate the future is the simply using our imagination to forecast the results of different actions or events. Again, you can every now and then find an animal that seems to know how certain actions will results, but it is always a product of learning from the past, while trying and erring. In contrast, people can imagine how the world would response to certain actions, without encountering a similar situation previously. (I'm sorry, but I can't recall right now a good reference for this. If you insist in the comments, I could run a quick search).

Of course these two features are not all that sets us apart from animals, qualitatively, and there a certainly more that hopefully would be brought in answers of others. However, as I personally see it, these two are special, since they equip us with unique cognitive abilities of a different kind and of dedicated brain machinery (but that's for a different question).

share|improve this answer
Whenever I come across the language argument I cannot help thinking of Wittgenstein's "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him." (Wittgenstein, L., & Cumming, M. (1958). Philosophical investigations (Vol. 255). Oxford: Blackwell.p.223) I live in a place where there are 29 official languages. I somehow manage to understand two of them. Since the other 27 are not available to me could I think that they do not have the capacity for language? The dog barks, maybe saying something to me, but I have the same understanding as in the case of those 27 languages, namely none. I just wonder. –  Dana Sugu Aug 9 '13 at 8:49
I love this debate! (is the comments area suitable for it?). Nevertheless, I find this type of argument counterproductive, since ultimately we would always have this epistemological barrier. In reality, there is no known human language that cannot be translated into a another. And every such human language obeys universal principles (albeit in fact this set of principles is not yet properly defined, and there have been found exceptions). Communication protocols of animals, however, do not reach the same complexities or obey these rules. –  Dvir Adler Aug 9 '13 at 16:07
Not that I don't agree with you, but for the sake of argument, since you love it, "there is no known human language that cannot be translated into a another" implies that there is someone who knows both languages. Let's say that there is a language X that nobody knows. Before someone picks it up we are in the same position as in the case of animal communication. Language might be base on motivation, drives, and affects (primary processes). Now the dog's basic motivations or affects may build up different sets of principles to which we might not have access. –  Dana Sugu Aug 9 '13 at 17:26
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf) says that what non-human animals possess the neural substrates for consciousness. What we might have 'extra' is self-awareness. That made us the storytellers. "Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story, and with this proverbial concept in mind, the symposium will address the notion that humans do not alone possess the neurological faculties that constitute consciousness as it is presently understood." (fcmconference.org/) –  Dana Sugu Aug 9 '13 at 17:52
Right, it is about consciousness. I think that self-awareness is what could make the humans different. This could count for language and simulation of the future, you spoke about. –  Dana Sugu Aug 9 '13 at 18:56
show 3 more comments

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.