The Human Difference:

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Clip from an unidentified Chuck Jones cartoon (redrawn by Jon James) [See [long caption]


Children seem to understand human behaviour, because they laugh at Bugs Bunny cartoons where much of the humour depends on animals behaving like humans and our intuitive recognition that this is absurd. Scientists, on the other hand, have problems defining what this “human difference” is. Why – in the case of human behaviour – does implicit knowledge (e.g. in children) seem to be superior to explicit knowledge (e.g. in scientists)?

[ See collective deceptions and collective deceptions in western science ]

Anthropological fieldwork (and Bugs Bunny cartoons) implicate three fundamental differences between humans and other animals:

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Social Display
Human Culture

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What an animal cartoon can tell us about human behaviour (long caption)

In this cartoon clip*, two coyotes are watching Bugs Bunny. He swaggers along a road, smoking a cigar and showing off to the world his smart-Alec superiority. His every gesture is a display. of material, intellectual, social, and cultural wealth. The coyotes’ reaction to the sight of a rabbit behaving like a human is of course a double joke – they themselves are behaving like humans. Yet how long did it take scientists to explicitly acknowledge that even our closest relative, the chimpanzee, lacks the surprised facial expression? And has any scientist yet reported that chimps do not check out each other’s faces as if to say ‘Did you see what I saw?’ Yet we surely know that they don’t. Note that the question does not require words – it is quicker and simpler just to check the match between your face and the other’s. This – "active intermodal mapping" (AIM) – may be the primitive ancestor of all other forms of social mirroring [ See also Mirror neurones ] The surprised face is a uniquely human expression. Surprise implies expectations, and to be surprised or understand surprise in others requires the self-conscious awareness that we have beliefs which sometimes turn out to be wrong. Unlike most other animals, we humans can “see” invisible mental states such as knowing, believing, thinking, imagining, dreaming, and pretending. The knowledge that people have such mental states, and the ability to interpret our own and others’ behaviour in terms of such states, is called "theory of mind" or 'mentalizing ability'.

*Loosely based on a Warner Brothers cartoon which Warner Brothers have been unable to identify.


Suggested reading on “the human difference"

Maynard Smith, J., Szäthmáry, E. (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution (Oxford: W.H. Freeman)

Foley, R.A. (1987) Another Unique Species (Harlow, Essex: Longman)

Whitehead, C. (2000) ‘Anthropological psychologizing and what we need to do about it’ 20th Annual Conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness: Tucson, Arizona, 5-9 April – deals with anthropological theories Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2002) ‘Cultural and political origins of the “hard problem”’ Toward a Science of Consciousness: Tucson 2002, sponsored by the Centre for Consciousness Studies, University of Arizona: Tucson, 6-13 April – poster explaining the development of physicalism and how this creates the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2003) ‘Social mirrors and the brain', PhD Thesis, University College London: INTRODUCTION and CHAPTER 1 'The anthropological other'. Download PDF_TOP

Whitehead, C. (2004) ‘The social brain and the origins of human self-consciousness’: invited talk given to the Radical Anthropology Group, University of East London, 23 November. Download PDF_TOP


Copyright © 2005 Charles Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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