It might be useful at this point to relate what we are to the rest of the animal kingdom of which we are part. It has become clearer in recent years that the only basic way we differ is that we can form symbols. From our ability to form symbols has come language, self-awareness, self-expression, the ability to pass on knowledge in writing, the world of the abstract, science, planning, measurement, speculation, logic, humour, ritual and ethics to mention only what are generally regarded as good things. I won’t list the many bad ones that constitute human suffering. They are such as to make one wonder sometimes if animals are not better off than us.

It is self-awareness that brings with it suffering. Animals suffer pain as we all do but psychological suffering – the “Why me?” syndrome – is almost exclusive to humans (I say ‘almost’ because there have been recent indications that the higher apes, dolphins and elephants and some of the domesticated animals that live with us-– what are sometimes described as the more ‘intelligent’ animals – have at least the rudiments of self-awareness). Why? Because self-awareness is dependent on the ability to create a symbol for self. This the non-human animal cannot do. If there is no concept of ‘me’, there cannot be a ‘me’ to suffer. It always amazes me how the animal rights fraternity seem to insist on wishing human suffering on to animals as if they don’t already have problems of their own without taking on ours.

Why did we develop the ability to form a higher system of reference by the use of symbols whereas animals are confined to simpler systems? It is generally thought that it has to do with the greater complexity of our evolving social systems – in other words, how we get on with each other. What is fairly clear is that it coincided with the expansion in brain size in hominids some two million years ago that received a further boost in development as we settled into large static communities as the last Ice Age receded some twelve thousand years ago. The signs of this development in the higher primates and others, perhaps indicates that they too are evolving complexity in their social relations.

Why is this development unique to the human species? It can be explained by the fact that the jump from the simple reference systems that animals use (and which we often use as well) to a complex system based on symbols involves a series of backward steps – an unlearning in which a network of relationships has to be set-up before the system can work. This seems to be the only way that the vast network of linked but indirect relationships that is our complex symbol reference system can function in the apparently effortless way that it does.

The two more direct systems of reference that the higher non-humans exclusively use are those of iconic and indexical relationships. The direct similarity of an icon to an object such as a picture of a landscape or a portrait is an iconic relationship. The less direct but still instinctive association of an index to something else – for example, a thermometer to temperature – is known as an indexical relationship. These two basic systems are overlaid in human beings by this complex network of indirect relationships, linking one concept to another. The simpler iconic and indexical relationships are so dominant and instinctive that it has proved impossible for animals in the wild to make the jump to the highly complex system of reference using symbols. There has to be a very strong force to overcome instinctive behaviour in order that a system can develop that must be, initially at least, counter-productive. The only examples we have of our ability to train animals to use symbols is in experiments in laboratories in which half-a-dozen technicians slowly train one ape during anything up to two years to develop a very rudimentary symbolic reference system.

You will have noted that my list of what symbols have done for us did not include free will. It cannot be that our ability to form symbols suddenly resulted in free will and the power to choose. I believe that symbols and the self-awareness that developed from them have merely given us the assumption that we have free will with nothing to back it up. But then many will disagree with me. Certainly our social mores and legal systems depend on us being conditioned to assume we have free will, whether we actually have it or not.

It looks as if we are simply animals with the ability to form symbols and everything that goes along with that ability. That doesn’t necessarily make us superior – merely different. All other species of animal have got along very successfully for millions of years without it. And we shouldn’t leave out the plant kingdom that also comprises conscious beings. Plants are not, of course, self-conscious beings – but any sentient being that reacts to its environment has to be included in the definition of a conscious being.

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