Humans Are Animals: 8-Year-Old vs. Misinformed Teacher

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My friend’s 8-year-old son had an interesting day at school recently. During science class, the teacher—who, it should be noted, was a substitute—asked the third graders to name the habitat of an animal of their choice: the sea for sharks, trees for squirrels, etc. My friend’s son picked a house because, as he explained to the teacher, human beings are animals too. The teacher corrected him. Humans, she said, are not animals. “Yeah, they are,” the boy replied. “No, they’re not,” she told him, as he recalled later in an interview. “I go by the Bible.”

I don’t think the Bible is clear on this classification, but that’s beside the point. The boy did not back down, continuing to insist that humans are, in fact, animals, a fact he learned years ago from his parents, who told him about evolution. Not content with dispensing inaccurate information, the teacher referred to him as “the professor” for the rest of the day. Because there’s nothing like a supposed educator mocking a third grader for being smart.

It goes without saying that all of us are part of the kingdom Animalia, even grievously misinformed and mildly obnoxious substitute teachers. We’ve also learned in recent years how much we have in common with our fellow animals. For instance, mice make humanlike faces when they’re in pain. We share 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. Dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors too. We carry smartphones and are better at foosball, but that’s about it.

By arguing that human beings are not animals, the teacher may have been inadvertently revealing something about herself other than her ignorance. In a 2010 study, Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson, researchers at Canada’s Brock University, had subjects read short articles about humans and (other) animals. One group read an article that emphasized differences (“due to their cognitive superiority over animals, humans are able to inhibit their basic instincts …”), and another group read an article that emphasized commonalities (“like humans, other animals possess the capacity to make choices, create their own destinies, and understand abstract concepts including cause-and-effect relationships”).

So the researchers were trying to find out whether the second article made people more sympathetic toward animals, right? Actually, they had a more intriguing idea. They wondered if reading about human-animal similarities might make the subjects more sympathetic toward fellow humans. And, as it turns out, it did. After reading the articles, all subjects completed a survey to determine their attitudes toward immigrants, agreeing or disagreeing with assertions like “immigrants are getting too demanding in their push for equal rights.” Those who read the article emphasizing that humans are like other animals were less prejudiced, as measured by this test, toward immigrants. From the paper: “As anticipated, outgroup dehumanization appears rooted in the perception that humans are different from and superior to animals.”

Realizing that humans are animals may make us more tolerant and, in a sense, more human. Plus it just happens to be true, as a certain plucky 8-year-old will gladly inform you.

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