Cave Art and Animals - The Uniqueness of Human Beings



At my job, I regularly teach a class on safely assisting individuals with medications. During the class, I note that I have a dog. The dog will eat anything except for what the veterinarian gives it. For some reason, that dog can sense a veterinarian's pill and spit it out. So what do I do? I wrap the pill in cheese. That dog will eat anything wrapped in cheese. But then, I add, people are not dogs. You cannot hide medication in food because that deprives the individual of the right to know that she is receiving a medication and her right to refuse the medication if she so chooses.

To most people, that statement that people are not dogs is not a particularly shocking statement. It seems unobjectionable that people are not dogs (and it is equally true that dogs are not people). But what if I had said, “People are not animals”? What do you suppose would be the reaction?

In some very important ways, people are not animals. I am certain that some people who read this will immediately object that people are animals. Okay, but be careful how you read that prior sentence. I began with the clause, “In some very important ways….” In doing so, I am not saying that humans aren’t animals in the broad sense that the term is used when playing the guessing game that begins, “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral.” Certainly, human biology is very similar to those of the other animals inhabiting the planet. There is no question that animals and humans share similar body systems such as respiratory systems and gastrointestinal systems. I do not argue that humans are not a type of mammal. However, humans differ from animals in some of the most significant ways.

G.K. Chesterton highlighted one of the differences between humans and animals in his seminal work, The Everlasting Man. Early in the book, Chesterton focuses on what can be learned about “the caveman” from the art that can be found in the caves where the caveman lived. Chesterton points out a very important distinction between humans and animals that can be known by that art. He writes:

Suppose [a boy introduced to the cave art by a scientist who believed in the evolution of the cave man] saw himself * * * as a mere Mowgli running with the pack of nature and roughly indistinguishable from the rest save by a relative and recent variation. What would be for him the simplest lesson of that strange stone picture-book? After all, it would come back to this; that he had dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man.
Per usual, Chesterton has made a profound observation that can be lost in his prose. To restate in my more simple language, if a person assumes that humanity is nothing more than an evolved animal and comes across the cave art, he would need to recognize that this very earliest known art sets out humanity as unique. We can look back endlessly into history (or pre-history) and not find anywhere where animals of any type produce art. Art is the sole province of humanity. Chesterton continues:
That sounds like a truism, but in this connection it is really a very tremendous truth. He might descend to depths unthinkable, he might sink into sunken continents as strange as remote stars, he might find himself in the inside of the world as far from men as the other side of the moon; he might see in those cold chasms or colossal terraces of stone, traced in the faint hieroglyphic of the fossil, the ruins of lost dynasties of biological life, rather like the ruins of successive creations and separate universes than the stages in the story of one. He would find the trail of monsters blindly developing in directions outside all our common imagery of fish and bird; groping and grasping and touching life with every extravagant elongation of horn and tongue and tentacle; growing a forest of fantastic caricatures of the claw and the fin and the finger. But nowhere would he find one finger that had traced one significant line upon the sand; nowhere one claw that had even begun to scratch the faint suggestion of a form. To all appearance, the thing would be as unthinkable in all those countless cosmic variations of forgotten aeons as it would be in the beasts and birds before our eyes. The child would no more expect to see it than to see the cat scratch on the wall a vindictive caricature of the dog. The childish common sense would keep the most evolutionary child from expecting to see anything like that; yet in the traces of the rude and recently evolved ancestors of humanity he would have seen exactly that. It must surely strike him as strange that men so remote from him should be so near, and that beasts so near to him should be so remote. To his simplicity it must seem at least odd that he could not find any trace of the beginning of any arts among any animals. That is the simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the coloured pictures; only it is too simple to be learnt. It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man. (Emphasis added.)


The point is that humans, apart from all other creatures, creates art. From the very earliest marks that ancient humanity left on the Earth are found the signs of the ability to reproduce in art what is observed around us. No other animal creates art like this. Sure, chimpanzees create art like the one above, but the art created has no representations in it is not a spontaneous creation of the chimpanzee. It is, at best, abstract art with no discernible form that has to be taught to the chimpanzee. Other animals paint similarly, but again, no representational forms can be found on their canvases.

In looking around the Internet, I came across an article about an elephant that was trained to paint a basic figure. But the elephant didn’t independently pick up a paint brush and set out to paint what it observed around it. Left to its own devices the elephant – undoubtedly urged on by its handlers – will paint what is seen below: simply dragging the paint brush down the canvas. In many ways, when the elephant creates representational art is no more than a trick. Over at Wondering Fair, Matthew Gray quite aptly commented on the so-called “Elephant Art” which actually shows a recognizable form when he wrote:


Most of the time, they’re really just smudges streaking across the canvas. * * * There are actually paintings made by elephants of elephants, which sounds much more exciting. But actually, these are really just shapes the elephants have been trained to paint, and they are unlikely to reflect the elephants drawing what they have seen and engaged in.
The question that needs to be addressed is “Where did this desire to do art come from?” It is hard to argue that it is evolutionary in nature because we don’t see animals creating art and humans merely doing it better. Elephants and chimpanzees were not painting in nature only to have humans create more complex art. Art, especially representational art, is one of the things that is unique to human beings and is one of the things that set us apart from animals.

I close by quoting again the words of Matthew Gray from Wondering Fair:
I suggest the more likely reason for our exclusive abilities (including the destructive ones, as well as the creative ones!) might be because we were created – 6000 years ago, or whenever – by a Designer God, Who uniquely made us to be like Him, and thus to design, to create. He has also designed us to be intelligent enough to interpret each other’s creativity, and even to take some smudges done by an elephant and read into them a creativity that they probably did not intend. We live for creativity; we are creative, in a unique sense, because we were designed to be like our creative Creator.

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