Animals Are Intelligent But Are Humans Exceptional?

I’m an introvert. Attending gatherings with people I don’t know simply sucks the life out of me. The icebreakers that frequently open these gatherings only make things worse. I hate walking around the room asking people I don’t know silly questions.

One well-known icebreaker is the either-or game. Each person is asked about their preference when given two choices. For example:

  • Android or iPhone?
  • dark chocolate or milk chocolate? 
  • at a restaurant: share food or don’t share food?
  • Marvel or DC comics?
  • bar soap or body wash?
  • texting or calling?
  • organic or regular produce?
  • toilet paper: over or under?

These questions are all in fun. Individual preferences to these either-or choices lead to laughs and help break the ice at parties, but they’re not otherwise significant. 

There is, however, an either-or question that’s critically important. Its ramifications impact the way we view ourselves and the way we consider others. It even has bearing on how we view our place in the cosmos. 

Are humans different in degree or in kind from other creatures?

Who Are Humans?
Since the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man, biologists for the most part have regarded humans as different only in degree, not kind, from other animals. According to this view, there is nothing inherently unique or special about human beings. Those qualities we often think make us exceptional have their antecedents in other animals.

Darwin wrote, “The difference in mind between man and higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”1

This view (difference in degree only) has shaped anthropology for over 150 years. Yet, in recent years, based on the weight of comparative animal behavioral studies, a growing number of anthropologists have broken ranks with the mainstream. They now argue that human beings are different in kind, not degree, from other animals. They contend that human beings are, indeed, exceptional. 

As Thomas Suddendorf, an evolutionary psychologist, writes in his book The Gap,

“We reflect on and argue about our present situation, our history, and our destiny. We envision wonderful, harmonious worlds as easily as we do dreadful tyrannies. Our powers are used for good as they are for bad, and we incessantly debate which is which. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while our closest living animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their remaining forests. There appears to be a tremendous gap between human and animal minds.”

According to Suddendorf (and others who share his view of human exceptionalism), four qualities make human beings unique and exceptional:

  • symbolism
  • open-ended generative capacity
  • theory of mind
  • our capacity to form complex social networks

As a Christian, I find the growing scientific case for human exceptionalism to be a powerful validation of the biblical view of human identity and human nature; namely, that human beings differ in kind from other creatures because we alone bear God’s image. In this vein, I see the qualities delineated by anthropologists who hold to human exceptionalism as scientific descriptors of the image of God.

What about Animal Intelligence?
Those who argue against human exceptionalism often cite animal behavioral studies as evidence that human beings differ only in degree from other animals. Animals appear to have unrecognized intelligence and emotional depth. Scientists studying animal behavior have observed animals’ remarkable abilities to communicate, to solve problems, to plan for the future, to recognize unfairness, to feel loss, etc.

In his book Not So Different, biologist Nathan Lents writes, “All the impressive human cognitive abilities evolved in ancestor species that already had an extensive palette of emotional states. In order to understand how our ancestors made the jump from animal behavior to human psychology, we must first recognize that the distance of that evolutionary jump is not as great as it seems.”3

So, which is it? Do animals and humans differ only in degree? Or are humans exceptional, differing in kind?

A Third Possibility
Is there a way to simultaneously acknowledge animals’ remarkable behavior and hold to human exceptionalism?

Research by Johan Lind from Stockholm University (Sweden) suggests this possibility is an option.4 He has demonstrated that animals engage in behavior that resembles flexible planning (which arises in modern humans from our capacity for abstract reasoning, planning depth, and technical inventiveness) through associative learning. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers have long known that associative learning can produce complex behaviors in AI systems. These behaviors give the appearance of having the capacity for planning. In other words, planning-like behavior can emerge through associative learning. The same processes that give AI systems the capacity to beat humans in chess can, through associative learning, account for the planning-like behavior of animals such as the great apes and corvids. These creatures don’t display the capacity for flexible planning like modern humans. Instead, according to Lind’s results it is most likely that animals “plan” for the future in ways that are entirely different from humans. 

In a follow-up study, Lind and Vera Vinken, a collaborator, extended this earlier work to encompass general animal intelligence.5 Specifically, they sought to address the question: What causes animal intelligence? 

They developed a computer model, dubbed the A-model, which allowed them to probe the degree that associative learning can account for animal intelligence. Lind and Vinken used this model to simulate the results of a battery of tests that animal behavioralists use to assess animal intelligence. They learned that associative learning could account for animals’ capacity to learn how to perform the tasks required to successfully complete the tests. Some of the tests are quite demanding and complex—seemingly requiring the animals’ ability to plan and problem solve. 

Associative learning accounts for sophisticated behavior in animals because it produces backward chaining, a process in which animals develop a chain of associations that ultimately leads to a reward. The researchers also found that adding the capacity for short-term or trace memory further amplifies the power of associative learning. Lind and Vinken conclude “that associative learning is an underestimated general mechanism that can account for a large array of behavioral phenomena observed in animals.”6

Taken together, these two studies allow the concepts of animal intelligence and human exceptionalism to coexist.

Animal Intelligence Is No Threat to Human Exceptionalism 
The seemingly sophisticated capacity of animals to “plan” and “problem solve” can’t be marshaled as evidence that animals and humans differ only in degree, not kind. Animal and human intelligence arise from different mechanisms. 

In animals, that mechanism is associative learning. Flexible planning in humans, on the other hand, comes from the capacity for symbolism and the open-ended capacity to manipulate and combine symbols in countless ways. 

Symbolism and our open-ended generative capacity to combine and recombine symbols separates us from animals. As Suddendorf writes, our capacity for symbolism is responsible for “Turning animal communications into open-ended human language, memory into mental time travel, social cognition into theory of mind, problem solving into abstract reasoning, social traditions into cumulative culture, and empathy into morality.”7

Even though Lents argues that animals differ in degree, not kind, from humans, he appears—perhaps unintentionally—to agree with Suddendorf that symbolism distinguishes us from other animals. Lents writes, “I think both humans and chimpanzees feel love; the only difference is that humans write sonnets about it. I think both humans and dolphins practice fair play, but only humans enact laws to govern it. I think both humans and elephants experience grief, but only humans seek professional counseling to cope with it.”8

Of course, it’s the human capacity to write sonnets, enact laws, and seek professional counseling that makes us different in kind, not degree, from animals. 

So, when it comes to animal and human intelligence, it isn’t either-or, it’s both-and. But, when it comes to exceptionalism, only humans stand distinct, just as the biblical accounts of human origins teach. 


Evidence for Human Exceptionalism

The Challenge to Human Exceptionalism

Were Neanderthals Exceptional?


  1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd ed., Great Minds Series (1874; reprint, with an introduction by H. James Birx, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 632.
  2. Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 2.
  3. Nathan H. Lents, Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 15.
  4. Johan Lind, “What Can Associative Learning Do for Planning?” Royal Society Open Science5, no. 11 (November 28, 2018): 180778, doi:10.1098/rsos.180778; Stefano Ghirlanda, Johan Lind, and Magnus Enquist, “A-Learning: A New Formulation of Associative Learning Theory,” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 27 (July 6, 2020): 1166–1194, doi:10.3758/s13423-020-01749-0.
  5. Johan Lind and Vera Vinken, “Can Associative Learning be the General Process for Intelligent Behavior in Non-Human Animals?” BioRxiv (December 16, 2021), doi:10.1101/2021.12.15.472737.
  6. Lind and Vinken, “Can Associative Learning be the General Process.” 
  7. Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, 216.
  8. Lents, Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, 15.