What sets humans apart from other animals? That’s a question people have debated for centuries. And maybe the answer is as simple as, “We’re the only ones who ponder questions like these.”
Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says what makes humans unique is our ability to create and believe fiction. Apparently (I haven’t read the book yet, so I might be inventing fiction here), he doesn’t mean just storytelling like novels, TV shows or lies like, “No, I didn’t eat the last three brownies.”
He’s talking about fiction in a larger sense. In the February 2015 Smithsonian magazine, Harari gives an example of one universal fiction: money. Even though money doesn’t have any inherent value, we have created and we believe in a whole system of exchange based on it.
When it comes down to creating fiction at an individual level, however, I’m not sure humans are as unique as we might like to think. As evidence, here’s a true story about a man and a dog. I promise, I am not making this up. I wasn’t there when it happened, but it was told to me by one of the participants, who—despite his behavior on this occasion—is generally ethical and trustworthy.
One summer day the man and the dog were at a lake, playing a game. The man would throw a stick out into the water, the dog would swim out and retrieve it, the dog would bring it back to the man, and the man would throw it again.
The man got tired of the game before the dog did. When the dog brought the stick back for the eleventeenth time, the man pretended to throw but didn’t let go of the stick. He created a fiction.
The dog, still full of energy and eager to play, didn’t notice the fake. He dashed out into the water to retrieve the stick, which, of course, he couldn’t find. He swam back and forth several times, searching. Eventually he swam back to shore, empty-mouthed.
But instead of coming directly back to the man, he searched along the bank until he found another stick. He picked it up, started toward the man, then stopped. He trotted back to the edge of the lake and dropped the stick into the water. Once it was wet, he grabbed it again and brought it back to the man. The fiction he created was actually more elaborate than the fiction the man created.
Without words, both the man and the dog lied to each other. You can decide for yourself which one was the better storyteller.
The larger question of the ethics of inter-species lying is perhaps a topic for another day. But, keeping in mind that the man told the first lie, I just might mention another observation on the uniqueness of humankind.
According to Mark Twain, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”