The Paragon of Animals

Copyright © 2004, Glenn Story

The Paragon of Animals

In chatting with Joana yesterday, we argued about whether humans are animals;  I said they were; she said they weren’t.

I had this same argument with my brother several years ago.  I realized then that this is purely a semantic argument:  it depends entirely on the definition of “animal.”  So let’s let the dictionary decide:


1.  A multicellular organism of the kingdom Animalia, differing from plants in certain typical  characteristics such as capacity for locomotion, nonphotosynthetic metabolism, pronounced  response to stimuli, restricted growth, and fixed bodily structure.

So I was right.   We are multicellular organisms.  Biologists classify us in the kingdom “animalia” (proving that biologists agree with me).  .  (As an aside, when I had this discussion with my brother, “multicelular” was not part of the definitions; in those days, all life forms were classified as either plants or animals.) We differ from plants in all the ways mentioned

But wait.  Let’s look at definition number two:

2.  An animal organism other than a human, especially a mammal.

So this agrees with Joana’s and my brother’s definition.  Looks like the dictionary agrees with all of us.

When I was arguing with my brother, that’s as far as I took the dictionary analysis.  But, let’s keep looking:

3.  A person who behaves in a bestial or brutish manner.

But this definition seems more metaphorical to me.  We also call people in certain conditions “vegetables”, or “machines”; that doesn’t mean they literally are.

4. A human considered with respect to his or her physical, as opposed to spiritual, nature.

Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.  My brother is very religious.  And Joana’s arguments yesterday were based on spirituality.  Are humans spiritual and the (other) animals not?  Well, maybe.  We’re the only ones who think about it.  As Mark Twain said, “Man is the only animal that has the True Religion:  several of them.”  Are we the only ones who have an immortal soul?  Most Christians believe “yes”.  But Buddhists would say “no” as we can be reincarnated any kind of animal.  Ironically the word “animal” derives from the Latin word, “anima” which means “breath” or “soul”.

In the end, the dictionary would argue (by virtue of two opposing definitions, 1 and 2) that whether we are animals or not is strictly a matter of opinion.

As for me, I agree with the biologists.   And I agree with Shakespeare who seemed to encompass both definitions when he wrote:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!

Dictionary source:  The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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