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Dog with ball in mouth runs from kid playing chase game at summer lawn
Dog with ball in mouth runs from kid playing chase game at summer lawn

Is It Empathy, Not Intellect, That Makes Humans Unique?

Could empathy create intellect, and not the other way around?

A Canadian philosopher of mind and language offers a refreshingly thoughtful approach to the uniqueness of human ways of thinking: He reflects on the difference between what is happening when his dog Mackenzie and his eighteen-month-old nephew William bring him an object to play with:

For Mackenzie, there is only one game in town. We have been playing it for years, and it never gets old. Sure, I mix things up a bit from time to time. A little sleight of hand can send Mackenzie left while I toss right. Or I fake a throw then hide the ball behind my back, after which I mirror Mackenzie’s stupefied, slightly annoyed look with my own incredulous one. (‘Where did it go?’) But I suspect that I need the variety more than Mackenzie does. His motive and expectation are simple. Though Mackenzie and I are dear old friends with a solid emotional connection that is reinforced by the play session, there are times when I feel like I might as well be a ball-throwing machine.

Hayden Kee, “On the same wavelength” at Aeon


What are William’s intentions and expectations in presenting the block to me? In fact, this remains an open question for me. Compared with Mackenzie’s ritualised requests, William’s entreaty seems open to a much wider range of possible replies. From his curious looks, which alternate between me and the block, and the inquisitive vocalisations that he emits, I can tell he wants me to do something. But what? It often seems that William is content just to observe my own attitudes towards the objects he brings me and the spontaneous use I put them to, as though he were asking: ‘Do you like it? What shall we do with it?’ And at other times, he seems to want to direct my attention to various things just for the sheer joy of sharing the world with me: ‘Check this out! Do you see what I see?’

Hayden Kee, “On the same wavelength” at Aeon

He brings up the topic of “pointing.” Apes, mostly those taught by humans, point to things but only to get what they want. Pointing is a much more complex phenomenon among humans.

William, by contrast, points to enquire about my views and attitudes on the world (call it interrogative pointing), or just for the joy of sharing the world with me (call it declarative, or exclamatory, pointing). Or, if we were to translate these gestures into explicit sentences, Mackenzie and the chimpanzee are saying something like: ‘Hey, you, do something for me!’ while the infant is often saying: ‘Hey, you, share this experience with me!’

Hayden Kee, “On the same wavelength” at Aeon

But then, eighteen-month-old William has a human mind that is beginning to explore aspects of reality that are not limited to getting something he wants.

Kee introduces an interesting approach to the idea of human uniqueness: What if it is not intellect as such, but empathy?:

But what if the primary way in which we are unique, and one of the ultimate causes of our remarkable rational and linguistic capabilities, turns out to be the unique way in which we are emotionally drawn to one another and the world? What if humans have become so rational and linguistic because of the very special kind of social way we interact and emote? How might it change our way of understanding ourselves, our relationships with and responsibilities to one another, our fellow animals and our planet if we came to see the foundation of human uniqueness not in our capacity for reason, but in our capacity for empathy? If we realised that we are the very special animal we are because of our very special ways of caring for and about one another – a care that we project into the nonhuman world? The rational animal has used its reason to wreak havoc on the planet and its inhabitants. Could the empathic animal begin to undo some of that harm?

Hayden Kee, “On the same wavelength” at Aeon

These insights are worth pondering in themselves. But they are remarkable in an age when some have insisted, against all reason and evidence, that human thinking and ape or dolphin thinking are simply on a short continuum and nothing unusual is really happening with humans.

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But, in the end, did the chimpanzee really talk? A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine sheds light on the motivations behind the need to see bonobos as something like an oppressed people, rather than apes in need of protection.


The real reason why only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly. (Michael Egnor)

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Is It Empathy, Not Intellect, That Makes Humans Unique?