Are humans more important than other animals?

Humans and animals have lived side by side for many years. Animals enrich our lives and help us understand the natural world around us. But humans have the power and intelligence to make influential decisions... does this make them more important? Hmmm…

Is your pet a god? Test your knowledge of animals and religion!

Just how different are we to our four-legged friends?

What’s so special about humans anyway? Is there anything that other animals are aware of that we’re not? Zoologist, Professor Alex Kacelnik (University of Oxford) talks about the ways in which other animals are more similar to humans than perhaps we might like to admit…


Everyone has read stories about animals performing amazing acts of intelligence, bravery and loyalty - the kind of qualities you might only usually associate with humans.
And we’re not just talking about our close relations, the upper primates, either. Even crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences. Actually, these birds are capable of logical thinking, planning and creativity – just like people. They watch others, try ideas out, and eventually learn how to do things. Prof. Alex Kacelnik led this study some years ago and continues to work in this field now. 

Image of a crow

Levels of awareness

He says that the nature of consciousness is tricky to understand, and suggests that there might be different degrees of it, as various species demonstrate levels of awareness about what’s going on around them.

When we talk about consciousness, it can be useful to split it into ‘primary’ consciousness: seeing, hearing and feeling pain, and ‘secondary’ consciousness, which covers things like self-awareness, reflection and abstract thinking. Lots of animals exhibit evidence of primary consciousness, such as fear: anyone who’s owned a dog on fireworks night can probably attest to that. 

Finding examples of secondary consciousness is much more difficult. One of the first steps in the search is to look for self-recognition: many members of the great ape family (to which we also belong) as well as dolphins, elephants, and some species of birds, including magpies, can demonstrate an ability to recognise their own reflection in mirrors, suggesting they have some capacity for self-awareness.

Certain behaviours can also be telling, especially if they suggest that the animal has to think about what it is doing, rather than just follow instinctual behaviour. Californian scrub jays have a habit of hiding their food. But if they catch another jay watching them, they’ll wait for the nosy observer to leave, then move it elsewhere. Are they trying to mislead their spectator?

Elephants are best known for their amazing memories, but they also show complex social behaviour that may indicate consciousness. They are one of the only non-human species known to exhibit ritual around death, and there is some anecdotal evidence that they mourn their lost herd members.

Whatever form consciousness takes in other animals, it probably lies on a spectrum. This leads to lots of other fascinating questions. Prof. Kacelnik gives the example of an ethical dilemma…if you were presented with the choice of killing one human and 20 humans, you may choose the “least-bad” option. But what if you were presented with the choice of killing one human or 20 animals?

“It’s an ethical problem, and it is for people to speculate on their own decisions,” he says. “For example, if you were to conclude that it depends what the animal is, how about a mosquito? Do you have the right to kill it or not?”

Research on animals

The next question Prof. Kacelnik raises is to do with the use of antibiotics. As we know, it’s a really helpful medicine but it’s used to kill living organisms. Plus its success has depended upon previous research on animals in a lab setting. 

“You are choosing between killing millions of bacteria for one human by taking antibiotics,” he explains. “Lots of us would consider that to be right, we take antibiotics all the time, but it can become difficult if you need to kill or harm a chimpanzee to use a vaccine that could actually save a large number of human beings. If we haven’t done research in other species, we wouldn’t have vaccines, and millions and millions of children would be dying of polio, tuberculosis and many other diseases. And so if you consider that taking an antibiotic is justified, then how about doing medical research at a cost of the lives of other species?”

“You are choosing between killing millions of bacteria for one human being by taking antibiotics...”

Prof. Kacelnik explains that animals are used in medical research to understand how cells change during illness and how they respond to treatment. 

“Animal research has already produced a huge proportion of the medicine that we are benefiting from today, and animal research today will produce a huge proportion of the benefits that future generations are going to experience as science makes progress,” says Kacelnik.

But he admits that not everyone would agree with him. Some people might say it wouldn’t be ethical to save a human being at the expense of another animal. They might also say that it isn’t right to use animals in research, or eat animals, or have pets. Prof. Kacelnik says that these people wouldn’t agree with “any other thing that establishes a moral distinction between human beings and other species”.

To conclude...

Does this mean that it’s possible to think that other animals are just as important as humans? Prof. Kacelnik says “it depends”.

“The question is for who?” he asks. “Obviously for a monkey, humans are less important than monkeys, and vice versa. So presumably this question leads to another closely related one: as humans, should we care more for humans than for other animals? My personal answer would be that yes, I care more about humans than I care about other animals. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about other species, but basically, I work within a framework in which humans are more important to me.”

When it comes to these questions, Prof. Kacelnik thinks people need to make up their own minds, using their own principles plus scientific fact. “I think it would be wrong to expect scientists to give the final answer to this, but I do think that scientific ideas should inform the way we think about the problem,” he says.

So over to you…what do you think?

Image of a man and a dog


Do animals have legal rights?

Dr Kevin Grecksch (Law Faculty, University of Oxford) explores whether animals have legal rights, whether humans should protect them and if it's possible for an animal to commit a crime.

Weird and wonderful celebrity pets

  1. Mike Tyson’s feathered friends
    1. Did you know that the former world heavyweight boxing champion is a big fan of pigeons?! Apparently, the birds give Tyson a sense of peace, and he’s always been fascinated with them. In fact, Tyson claims that they’re the reason he started his fighting career in the first place. A childhood bully killed one of his birds in front of him, and the hurt and anger he felt at the death of the innocent creature fuelled his desire to train as a boxer.

  2. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Sulcata sidekick
    1. DiCaprio reportedly ‘shelled out’ (get it?!) £400 for his pet tortoise, who will live around 100 years! Owning a tortoise is a huge commitment, and the breed that DiCaprio owns is not exactly a small addition to the family either. As a Sulcata Tortoise, it can grow to weigh a mighty 200 pounds, or 14 stone! 

  3. Nicolas Cage’s 8-armed acquaintance
    1. Nicolas Cage is famous for having spent a lot of money on many extravagant things, such as 15 houses, a deserted island, the very first superman comic, and a real dinosaur skull! He is also a fan of unusual pets, owning two king cobras and more famously, a $150,000 unusual octopus, which allegedly helped him with his acting!

  4. Miley Cyrus’ piggy pals
    1. The singer loves animals, and has a huge number of pets, from cute and furry dogs and cats to the slightly more strange! She absolutely adores her pet pigs, and has shared photographs on Instagram with one of her pigs, Bubba Sue, painting her trotters bright red! Cyrus even announced that she wasn’t going to go on tour with her album Younger Now, because she wanted to devote more time to looking after her curly-tailed companions.

  5. Salvador Dalí’s feline fun
    1. The surrealist artist, Dalí’ had a somewhat unusual taste in pets and in the 1960’s he surprised everyone by purchasing a Colombian ocelot called Babou. Ocelots used to be endangered as people hunted them for their fur. They have coats resembling a clouded leopard or jaguar, and round ears, big front paws and long tails. Apparently, Dalí’ used to take Babou everywhere with him, keeping him close to him on a lead and stone-studded collar. Once, the pair shocked diners at a Manhattan restaurant, until Dalí’ reassuringly said that actually Babou was just a regular cat that he’d “painted over in an op art design.” 

  6. Audrey Hepburn’s adorable deer
    1. In the 1959 film Green Mansions, Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn was required to act alongside a baby deer. And so in preparation, the director thought it would be a good idea for the pair to bond outside of work to strengthen their on-screen trust. They got on so well that the deer thought Audrey was its mother, and followed her everywhere. The pair even took naps together, and did the grocery shopping together in Beverly Hills!

How the relationship between humans and animals changed

Throughout human history, the lives of people and animals have been tightly intertwined. From their use as food to the benefits of their companionship, it's difficult to ignore how much animals have benefited us throughout our evolution - even if the way we interact with them has changed dramatically. 


Once upon a time in the Ice Age

While it may be tempting to imagine early man living in complete harmony with nature, this was probably far from reality. Towards the end of the Pleistocene (the Ice Age), Earth was home to an incredible suite of enormous animals, known as megafauna, from car-sized armadillos, called Glyptodon, to the charismatic woolly mammoth. But, perhaps unluckily, these huge creatures shared the planet with the recently evolved, meat-hungry Homo sapiens (modern humans). 

Image of a woolly mammoth

The switch to an animal-based diet was an important stage in human evolution that allowed us to evolve our characteristically large brains. However, big brains need a lot of sustenance – and an abundance of several-ton beasts was sure to be tempting. During the Quaternary period, nearly all Pleistocene megafauna went extinct – and many believe that hunting had something to do with it.

Our role in the demise of these animals is hotly debated. Many hypotheses have been pushed for these extinctions, including climate change, disease and even swarms of comets. But it is suspect that each major migration of early humans was accompanied by a large extinction: our arrival in Australia 50,000 years ago coincided with the disappearance of Diprotodon, the largest known marsupial ever to have lived; while 40,000 years later, the colonisation of the Americas was closely followed by several megafauna extinctions: including that of Glyptodon.

Interestingly, African loss was much less than elsewhere because humans evolved alongside African megafauna. Outside of Africa and southern Eurasia the loss is much more closely linked to the expansion of humans

Ultimately, the real cause was likely a mixture of factors. But it’s hard to deny that we probably played a part. 

Man's best friends

As human evolution progressed, our relationship with nature wasn’t only destructive. We’ve made friends along the way. Roughly 36,000 years ago, while humans still lived as hunter-gatherers, wolves began to associate with people, setting the scene for the first animal domestication. 

While no one is quite sure how dog domestication actually occurred, it is clear that it led to a powerful partnership: the combination of clever human hunters and their ferocious canine companions would have been a force to contend with. And the successful pairing has persisted ever since, leading to a vast diversity of dog breeds that help us fulfil very different goals: from the sledge-pulling malamute to the Chihuahua – first bred as a living hot water bottle! 


Image of a chihuahua


In hunter societies, dogs were the only animals we needed to work with. However, the onset of agriculture, around 11,500 years ago, led to the domestication of a whole new suite of animals.
Even before livestock existed, the early ancestors of the pet cat were beginning to enter the scene. The earliest known feline-human association goes back 9500 years when a wildcat was buried with a person in Cyprus. However, DNA evidence suggests cats lived alongside humans for much longer than this. 

Early agricultural settlements would have been a haven for rodents, attracted to farming waste. This surplus of potential prey would have drawn cats to human settlements and would benefit people by eradicating the pests. As well as being useful rat-assassins, many societies, particularly the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, found cats to be pleasant company. And so the domestic cat was born. 

Around this time, humans also began to domesticate animals for food. 

Sheep were likely the first livestock, appearing on the scene around 11,000 years ago. As well as meat and milk, these hardy animals would have been highly valued for their hides. Clothes made from sheepskin are believed to have allowed people to move and settle in very cold areas – expanding our migration significantly.

Horses had an important role to play, too. Originally kept for food, their domestication for riding, believed to have occurred around 3500 BCE (Before Common Era) by the Botai settlements of Kazakhstan, had a huge impact on human movement. Historians believe that shift to using horses as transport may have driven the first major migrations into Western Europe.

Lending a hand (or a hoof)

As industrialisation took hold in the late 18th century, automated machinery took over and animals became less important to agriculture. At this point, service animals and pets became much more popular. 

The first use of animals in this way dates back at least 2000 years when pigeons were used to deliver post in early Persia. Even guide dogs date back to the 16th century! However, it is only in the last century that the use of service animals has really taken off. 

One of the most successful examples of this has been the use of dogs in law enforcement. These programs originated in Belgium in 1899, where dogs were trained to track and attack criminals. Nowadays, police dogs have an enormous variety of roles: they may locate or subdue suspects; conduct search and rescue operations; detect explosives or illicit substances, or sniff out traces of arson attacks!

Many other animals are now trained to work with us; helping people, especially those with disabilities, to go about their day-to-day lives. They may alert them of impending seizures, fetch belongings or even perform basic chores. 

And just being around animals can be beneficial too. While still a new field, animal-assisted therapy can improve people’s social and emotional well-being. For example, the Riding for the Disabled Association has achieved huge success working with people across the UK to provide therapy, enjoyment and a sense of achievement through horse riding. Older people, who may suffer from loneliness, may benefit from animal companionship. Even students are reaping the benefit – many universities in the UK now host petting zoos for their stressed finalists, including several of our colleges here in Oxford! 

Throughout human history, animals have been enormously valuable, be it as an important source of food, by enabling our migration to otherwise uninhabitable parts of the globe, or by helping us maintain healthy and enriched lives. While our attitudes towards them may be constantly evolving, there is no doubt that they are every bit as important to us as they were 40,000 years ago. 

How do other animals help us learn about ourselves?

  1. What actually is a “species”?
    1. You have likely come across the word 'species' in Biology lessons but what does it really mean? Take a look at the short video below to deepen your understanding:

  2. Birds have developed our understanding of all life on Earth
    1. Animals were incredibly important for Charles Darwin’s understanding of evolution by natural selection. Evolution is simply the process of something changing over time, and natural selection is one of the ways these changes can happen. Natural selection happens when different organisms have different characteristics, but only some of those characteristics are helpful for their environment. This means only the organisms that have the helpful traits will survive and have offspring. Because characteristics are passed down to the next generation in our genes, once enough time has passed, everyone in that population will have those useful traits. Darwin first recognised this process after travelling to the Galapagos Islands in 1835 on the HMS Beagle. He noticed that some finches had long thin beaks whilst others had shorter and thicker beaks. What was strange was that these finches were all closely related to each other. The differences in these birds’ beaks were because their habitats and food were not the same as each other. In each location, only birds that could access the food would survive and have offspring. Their chicks were also more likely to have beaks that could access the food, and not any many birds had unhelpful beaks. Over time, each species of finch had a beak that was adapted to their local environment. This observation motivated Darwin to write On the Origin of Species in 1859. At the time, creationism was the main way the presence of life on Earth was explained, so Darwin waited until 1871 to talk about evolution also occurring in humans, in his book The Descent of Man. We now know that evolution happens in lots of different ways, and to every living thing on Earth. 

  3. Cows created new moo-tations in humans
    1. Did you know that the way our ancestors behaved has changed our genes? This occurs through a process called “gene-culture coevolution,” which means that the evolution of our DNA does not only impact how humans are today, but our ways of life also influence our DNA! One of the most famous examples of this also shows us just how important animals are in human evolution. And the animal in question is… cows! Cows were domesticated in Europe about 10,500 years ago, but not everyone could digest the lactose in the milk they now had access to. Only people who had the “lactase persistence” enzyme, which allows lactose to be broken down, could process the new dairy product. With each new generation, through the process of natural selection, more and more people began to have the lactase persistence enzyme. But this only happened in places where cows were domesticated, meaning lots of people today around the world have not had this change in their genes. For example, only about 1% of people in China have the gene to digest lactose. Can you think of any other animals that may have impacted human’s genes in different cultures?

  4. Animals can teach us about how extinct humans behaved
    1. Animals can help us understand how our extinct human ancestors (called “hominins”) may have behaved. This is handy because behaviours don’t leave any trace, whereas bones and artefacts like tools can be dug up and examined millions of years after they were buried. And so we can use certain animals as “models” to learn about how particular environments lead to certain adaptive characteristics and behaviours, which may have been shared by our long-gone ancestors. There are two types of animal models we can use: “analogous models” and “homologous models”. Analogous models are animals scientists think may be similar to hominins because they live in similar habitats. Baboons are frequently used as an analogous species as they live most of their lives on the ground and live in landscapes in which humans would also have lived.  This is different to homologous models, which scientists assume share traits with hominins because they are closely related (evolutionarily speaking!), and so share a large amount of genes with each other. Chimpanzees, which are our closest living relatives (we share 98.8% of our DNA!), are often used to learn about culture  and the origins of standing upright. 

  5. Animal bones give us clues into human evolution
    1. Hominin fossils are very rare, which makes it harder to learn about how, when, and where our ancestors lived. Animals can be very important for helping us date when a hominin might have lived. Although there are many dating techniques available these days, a useful way to narrow down the timeframe of a hominin fossil is through “relative dating” using animal (aka “faunal”) remains. So, if you find a hominin bone in the same archaeological layer as lots of bones from pig species that lived from 2 million years ago to 1.6 million years ago, we know that that hominin must also be from that time-period (1). We can also study animal fossils to learn about the ancient environments (known as “paleoenvironments”) hominins evolved in. It is possible to analyse the chemical composition of the bones to see what types of food were available for the species to eat. In particular, we can learn about which plants were present, which tells us about the climate and landscapes at the time too. From this, we have learned that around 2 million years ago, which is when the genus of humans to which we belong – Homo – first arose, the landscape became less wooded and turned to having more open grasslands. These environments were where humans evolved to only move around on their two feet, eat meat, and have larger brain sizes. 

      (1) Lewin, R., & Foley, R. A. (2004). The Geological Context. In Principles of Human Evolution (Second, pp. 84–100). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

  6. Techno savvy animals teach us about our first tools
    1. The fact that you are reading this online article shows us how important technology is for our day to day lives. It’s hard to know exactly when humans started to use tools, but currently we have evidence stretching back to 3.3 million years ago! One of the earliest forms of stone tools used by hominins is called “Oldowan technology,” named after where it was first found in Tanzania by paleoanthropologists. Although we know these tools were used for pounding and cutting, we can’t be sure how else our ancestors behaved with these tools. This makes studying modern day animals really helpful for learning about the evolution of human technology. Although many animals use tools, such as New Caledonian crows and dolphins, only one living species uses stone tools in a similar way to Oldowan technology – chimpanzees. In fact, in Guinea, West Africa, some chimpanzees crack open nuts using a combination of different stones, each with a different purpose. Because their use of these tools is comparable to Oldowan technology, we can watch how chimpanzees learn to use the tools, and how they choose where to use tools, to figure out how ancient humans would have behaved with their tools. Chimpanzees also use many wooden tools in their daily life, and hominins would have too. Why do you think it is easier to study the evolution of stone technology than it is plant-based technology? To see chimpanzees using their own tools to crack nuts, take a look at this video created by researchers from Oxford's Primate Models for Behaviour Evolution Lab:

Are humans more important than other animals?

  • A duty to protect?

    Animals help us in lots of different ways. We use them therapeutically as companions but they can also help tackle crime and even perform rescue operations. Dr Kevin Grecksch (University of Oxford) explains that because animals do not communicate with language in the same way that we do, we can’t really understand the depths of their innermost thoughts and feelings. Not only do humans have more legal rights than other animals, but they also have the power to make important decisions which have the potential to change their habitats and beyond. And so some argue that we have a duty to protect them from others who may want to harm them. And this is especially important since many species are so crucial to our lives.

  • We’d be without food.

    Without animals, our food sources would be extremely limited. Aside from the way humans have used animals for meat since the ice age, even the small creatures that we might take for granted, like flies, ants and bees are hugely important. They play a key role in the overall food chain. Therefore, we should look after them because they look after us by contributing to our sources of food. Take ants, for example, we may not be a huge fan of these critters, but ants are incredibly helpful to us! They aid with soil decomposition, recycling nutrients and adding air to the soil when they burrow tunnels. Without these processes, the crops that we grow for food would not be as healthy, and in making our soil healthier, this reduces the amount of chemicals farmers need to fertilise the land.

  • Humans have the power to domesticate.

    While no one is quite sure how dog domestication actually occurred, it’s clear that it led to a powerful partnership. The combination of clever human hunters and their ferocious canine companions would have been a force to contend with. And the successful pairing has persisted ever since, leading to a vast diversity of dog breeds that help us fulfil very different goals: from the sledge-pulling malamute to the Chihuahua - first bred as a living hot water bottle! In hunter societies, dogs were the only animals we needed to work with. However, the onset of agriculture, around 11,500 years ago led to the domestication of a whole new suite of animals. Some might think that humans are more important than other animals because we have the intelligence to use animals to help us meet our aims in our everyday lives.

  • Humans and animals are the same.

    Some animals show similar complex social behaviour to humans. For example, Californian scrub jays have a habit of hiding their food, but if they catch another jay watching them, they’ll wait for the nosy observer to leave, then move it elsewhere. Elephants are best known for their amazing memories, but they also show complex social behaviour that may indicate consciousness. They are one of the only non-human species known to exhibit ritual around death, and there is some anecdotal evidence that they mourn their lost herd members. So if other animals display complex behaviours like humans shouldn’t they be treated the same as us?