There is no doubt that humans are special among all of the animals on Earth. We have come to dominate the planet, because of our abilities to communicate effectively, use tools and create complex cultures.
Though we are special, we are also members of the animal kingdom. There are lots of reasons why that matters. We can learn a lot about the way the human body functions by studying animals. There are also ethical issues. The more that we see humans as just another member of the animal kingdom, the more that we are likely to respect the rights of those animals to live and to protect their habitats.
Yet, language distorts the relationship between humans and the rest of the animals. In English, we usually use the word animal as a contrast to the word human. At the dinner table, parents will tell their children to eat like a person not like an animal. We say that a pack of wild teenagers was running around like animals. We witness a great performance by an athlete and say that he was an animal out on the field.
By the time we are adults, we understand that humans are animals, even though they are also special. Children, however, seem to take time to sort out the relationship between humans and animals.
An interesting set of studies by Patricia Hermann, Douglas Medin and Sandra Waxman from the January 2012 issue of Cognition explores this issue and suggests a way to help children bridge the gap between humans and animals.
In one study, 3- and 5-year-olds were taught a new word (blicket). They were introduced to a puppet, and were told that the puppet lives far away and has funny words for things. They were shown pictures of a dog and a bird (both animals) and were told that the puppet calls these things blickets. Then, they were shown a variety of pictures of other nonhuman animals, as well as a picture of a man and a woman, and a number of objects that are not alive.
In this study, the children applied the word blicket to the dog, the bird and the other animals they were shown. They did not apply the word blicket to the objects. In addition, they did not use the word blicket for the people. So, the children clearly treated humans differently than the other animals.
In a second study, though, the same procedure was used. This time, though, the word blicket was applied to a person and to a bird or a dog. Again, the children were tested on a variety of other animals and objects. In this case, the children were quite willing to apply the word blicket to the human (as they were taught). They also applied the word to other nonhuman animals. The 3-year-olds tended to apply the word to lots of the objects as well, but the 5-year-olds did not use the word blicket for objects.
That is, by the age of 5, children were able to see that a word that applies to humans and other nonhuman animals should not be used for objects as well.
What does this mean?
By the time children are 5 years old, they generally see humans as special. However, they also seem ready to recognize that humans and other animals have a lot in common. They just need a little push to help them learn to classify humans and other animals together. Giving them a word that applies to both is one push in that direction.
In the modern world, we need to reinforce the connection between humans and other animals. Obviously, learning this relationship prepares students to learn science to see that humans and animals share a deep biological bond. Equally important, though, in a world where children can live their lives seeing few other animals beyond pets and the occasional bird and squirrel, we need to strengthen the connection between our species and all of the other animals with whom we share the planet.