What Distinguishes Humans from Animals?

Many have already thought about the topic, what distinguishes humans from animals. So why do I have to do that now? And why in this blog? The reason is that a) my conclusion is quite simple and b) has a connection to machine learning.

Mani Matter, a Swiss chansonnier who died in 1972, came to the conclusion that humans had inhibitions in contrast to animals (“Hemmige”, 1970). Perhaps that is so, but I lack the biological basis to be able to judge that.

But one often hears quite other differences, which can simply be refuted.

Social Behaviour

Here we are sure to agree: We all know social behaviour from animals. Who hasn’t seen pictures of monkeys louseing each other? There are many more examples of social behaviour from animals. So that can’t be the difference between humans and animals.

Specialisation / Division of Labour

If we look at large insect colonies, it becomes clear that bees, ants, termites and many more have specialised in various tasks within their breed and divide up tasks such as defence, rearing, food procurement, etc. according to their strengths.

Using Tools

Also not, we immediately think for example of birds, which come with small sticks to their food. Or otters, which use stones to break mussels. Many more examples come to my mind.

What If?

So I come to my view of things: Animals don’t ask themselves: What if? A cheetah doesn’t train to kill his prey the next time faster. Or related to the examples above: Animals use tools, but no bird will ever use a stick to try to get a stone out of a hole just to be prepared if one day in the future there is a nut instead of the stone.

Of course, animals also learn. Just like small children, animals imitate their parents and learn skills. But it is a completely different learning than humans do. Animals do not go to school and learn in a more or less abstract way what the previous generations have achieved so far. There is no passing on of knowledge in the sense that it takes place among humans. Animals do not have universities where they are trained to think further and to do research.

From this point of view one could almost say that teachers are the ones who promote us as human beings in the field that distinguishes us from animals.

And what does this have to do with machine learning now?

Quite simply: We have reached a dimension in which our brain can no longer support us sufficiently. Our brain is not designed to capture and memorize patterns in 100 dimensional space. Nor is it designed to draw conclusions from such patterns. To find those data points from huge amounts of data which are relevant, our brain can only be really efficient in exceptional cases.

So it seems that we use machine learning as a tool in exactly the discipline that makes us human.