Difference Between Animals and Humans

“Man is the rational animal.” —Aristotle

In a Nutshell

Humans are animals but—essentially—they are the only rational animals. When a human sees an object they can create the idea of what makes that object unique (a tree). This is called abstraction. Animals merely see the object as a single thing (the tree). Because we can separate the idea of a thing (its concept) from the thing itself, we can combine it in our mind with other things to make new things that don’t exist in the physical world (a tree that talks, for example—combining “tree” and “human”).

The Whole Bushel

This concept of abstraction is unique to man and is the reason that humans have been able to create such incredible structures and objects that we surround ourselves with in life. A bird can make a nest but unless it is in his nature to build homes with heating, he will never be able to conceive of the idea of combing his home with a heating source.

The foundation of this idea is from the philosophical concept that certain things in their essence (their being or existence) is what determines their differentness. Using the same concept we can say that the difference between animals and inanimate objects is sentience (the ability to sense). Only animals have senses (a tree can’t feel the cold, a stone can’t smell the earth). Animals have senses, and humans have senses, therefore humans are animals. But only humans have rationality.

This method of determining what something is was the major foundation of science in ancient times. Philosophers of old were scientists too. Using special formulas (formal logic), the philosopher could abstract things down to their essence and come to certain new knowledge of that thing. Aristotle is probably the best-known philosopher for synthesizing and working with this system.

Show Me The Proof

Catholic Encyclopedia: Scholasticism
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Aristotle’s Metaphysics
Skeptic Tank: Human’s Are Animals Too

  • Kate Borrell

    Handy thanks. I will not be smiling at either! But I will be back to your site.

  • rhijulbec

    A convincing argument.

  • amazonas

    The bad side is that as rational as humans are, we also know the difference between good and bad but has yet to learn how to act accordingly. Other animals steal and even kill for food, for preservation and sometimes for love. But men do it for pleasure. I’m pretty sure that if we could go back to the gladiators era, once again we would be killing other humans for sport.


      Our power gives us potential… to do good or bad.

      The fact that we’re so biologically complex gives rise to emotion, and as a result, a notion that things are good or bad.

      Some animals kill other animals for pleasure too… I’m sure many animals kill simply because they feel like it. Technically, killing for any reason is killing for pleasure… killing for your pleasure of some sort. For example: Self defence is killing for pleasure- the pleasure of LIFE, for your own LIFE. You like to live, so you defend yourself, but that in itself is a pleasure.

      The true difference, I think, is not in what we’re killing for, but in the mentality that we have when killing that labels it as ‘wrong’. The difference is that we intentionally kill, and therefore could intentionally avoid doing so, but choose not to.

      As far as complexity for other simple animals go, like an ant, killing is just part of their daily activity, like the typical man reading newspaper on a Sunday morning, or the robot programmed to do whatever it’s told. They are not as advanced as humans and possess no intention in killing anything- they simply do it because it’s their duty as an organism of a colony (maybe they can have intention, I’m not entirely sure but it doesn’t look like they do). And because they don’t have an intention to do so, they can’t have an intention not to do so either (which is why we can’t blame them)- they have no intention in doing anything. They have no sense of right or wrong.

      They just do everything because that’s what their job is. And that’s all they care about.

    • ambidextrous

      I believe that good and bad are relative terms… with animals its all about instinct but for human the line between good and bad is often blurred.What seems good may actually negatively effect others. With humans i still think we selfish and our actions can be linked with so kind of gain we get in the future with is an extension of the survival instinct.

  • Enumscratch

    The answer to the question can be summed up by one word: Sapience. You did a great job of explaining it without even using the word 🙂


    1/20 , Very poor article based on very old philosophy written centuries ago by people who were unaware of all our knowledges and Sciences. Maybe you’re right, a bird won’t build a nest with central heating….maybe he doesn’t need it . But termites build their home with air conditioning long before humans did it . It has been proven that even birds, which are not known for being as clever as mammals , can understand abstract concept like ” numbers” or ” geometric shapes “. There’s even a method to learn your dog to count . Not mentioning the case of Dolphins …. they’re pretty successful in this exercise and scientists have even demonstrate that a dolphin could teach to other dolphins a complete abstract and foreign concept . The very old clue from philosophy to demonstrate the uniqueness of human being ( = look we are the only species able to use a tool ) has been destroyed years ago by many scientists showing the extraordinary ability of some birds/monkeys/crustacean to use items as hammer/peak/glue/bait .Animals are capable of bizarre things as ” solidarity”, what humans are more and more unable to demonstrate ( there’s even case of solidarity with different species….a cat and a crow, a lioness and an antelope and so on ), they’re capable of vain things like ” play just for fun” and teach their kids how to survive in their environment ( not to become littl’ spoil brats ) …which is less and less obvious now with the internet and the growth of greed among humanity. Ok you’re right, no dolphins has built a nuclear missile to destroy completely his species or has killed another dolphin because he’s different or has another god, so you’re right… we can feel probably very superior to them .

    • It is the nature of termites to build their homes with air conditioning; but humans are the only animals whose nature includes rationality. Using tools is not a part of rationality. The entire argument is that humans are capable of abstracting physical reality into concepts: no other creature does that. It isn’t about what our rationality enables us to do – it is about the very fact we can rationalize. I didn’t say “only humans can use tools” or “only humans have solidarity” – those are different things. I am saying only humans can create abstracted concepts and create new ones from it in their mind.


        Well an easy move from you , calling ” their nature” when nature and animals are doing what humans are imitating CENTURIES after …and calling ” amazing feature” the ” rationalize thing” and then pretending it’s only humans who are capable of doing this. .Well it surely depends on what you put in the word ” rationalize”, can involve many things from ” explain things ” to ” optimize the management of things ” Sure we’re very good at finding ” explanations” on why the sky is blue and how the world is working, you’re right, but i’m not so sure for the ” optimize ” thing regarding our resources…in fact, i’m pretty sure we suck at it. SO, till now as we’re not capable to speak to or to understand another species, i don’t see any reason to say ” that only humans can ” rationalize” ” …For your ” abstracted concept thing”.scientists found that mammals as dolphins, Orca , ( and elephant but i’m not sure ) understand the concept of ” death” .A parrot was able to make the difference between a circle and a square and to use more than 100 words ( which is a lot more than any teenagers on FB … ). A gorilla in captivity manages to understand how the lock of the door of his cell works ( at the end , when the management put a padlock to his door, the gorilla still asks the visitors to open his door so that he could escape his captivity ) …..Such skills are absolutely useless for a parrot/gorilla in his natural home, but still he achieves to understand and adopt these knowledge in a laboratory, which is not very far from being on another planet for him. If i teleport you, completely nude without your mobile, in a dark and hostile forest, i’m not sure you will survive long with your ” rationalize” thing …. So instead of saying, dolphins are stupid because they don’t have cars and jobs to be happy ( which is a very relative point of view ), i would say, hey man, why can”t you talk to dolphins ?Why half of human kind is starving and the other half is obese ??? Why human beings are destroying their environment instead of say…protecting it and manage it with proper intelligence ? From a higher prospective ( and therefore from a theoretical point of view ), to our planet, we look more like ants or virus than an evolved species .

        • rhijulbec

          Wow…what crap you spew.

        • Again you are confusing the whole thing – this has nothing to do with intelligence – it is entirely about rationality. Check the definitions of both of those to understand. The difference between a circle and a square is not because of rationality. The bird sees “the circle” and “the square” – humans see “a circle” and “a square”.

          • beyondareasonabledoubt

            “The logic behind patriotism is a mystery. At least a man who believes
            that his own family or clan is superior to all others is familiar with
            more than 0.000003% of the people involved.”-Criss Jami

            One cannot say without a doubt that humans are the only species capable of abstract thought processes unless we know, completely, the thought processes of all other animals.

            What Dexter Morgan offered was a valid example :

            -“A parrot was able to make the difference between a circle and a square”

            and you responded with:

            -The bird sees “the circle” and “the square” – humans see “a circle” and “a square”.

            From what evidence can you base this conclusion? or this this just opinion?(albeit a rationalized one.)

            One cannot argue an opinion as fact in science, that is the job of philosophy 😉

        • SugarMag26

          Please let’s don’t stroke out so early in this website.Your arguments have nothing to do with the article. I’m confused as to how you’re so confused.

  • randi thistle

    animals don’t use car bombs or create ponzi schemes.

    • If a puppy offered me a ponzi scheme I would definitely buy.

      • P5ychoRaz

        Yeah, I wouldn’t give a seconds’ paws

      • Valkyrie

        What’s a ponzi scheme? Stunning picture used for this by the way. Sadly I don’t agree that only humans have rationality.

  • Hellsgift2u

    Hmm, leave it to the least superior animal to self-claim its own superiority. I do not see us as above nature, but below it. How? How not, from our greed to differences being acted apon daily. Do you not see the conditions we make unnatural to fuel this day and age. Acts of hatred, racism, greed, and no suprise envy. All of which, below nature. How? What species is capable of destroying everything held dear through acts of differences, envy or greed. War has countless events through our history. The worst.. The self-claimed rational people fail to notice that what we build will fall. How? Threw time and false leaders of power and hate, or acts of selfishness that will plague this planet. It’s not that hard to see the power humans really have. While animals are self surviving, living in there own place in nature for long after and before us.

  • MR

    I disagree, consider the progress of animal language, and chimps apparent ability to remark ‘shoe’ as any shoe and not just that shoe in particular.

  • N Rey

    Perhaps the difference is the ability to self-loath, as evidenced by some of the comments on this thread…

  • Fatima Farzana


  • Rune

    I think rationality is an social comparison of an unexplainable reality (truth itself)… so it is an social agenda on what reality/truth is but this is an sad misunderstanding of what is real. We have to see that our nature is more intuitive and self reliant; that what society and its social anxiety makes us belive.

  • Mojo

    “Animals merely see the object as a single thing (the tree)” How do you know this? Did you interview an animal, or what? Riiight. Also pretty crappy proof if you ask me, no scientific reports or anything… (and this comes from a university student who has read all about using good sources)

  • As humans we decide what is good and what is wrong and we suppress our instincts. As an animal you follow primarily instincts! good article

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