One animal among many? Children's understanding of the relation between humans and nonhuman animals

Erin M. Leddon*, Sandra R. Waxman, Douglas L. Medin, Megan Bang, Karen Washinawatok

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

11 Scopus citations


How do children come to understand the relation between human and nonhuman animals? This relation is central to endeavors as diverse as scientific reasoning and spiritual practice. Recent evidence reveals that young children appreciate each of the two concepts - human and non-human animal. Yet it remains unclear whether they also appreciate that humans are indeed part of the animal kingdom. In this study, we adopt a cross-cultural, developmental perspective to examine children's interpretation of fundamental biological concepts, focusing on children from three distinctly different US communities (urban European Americans; rural European Americans and rural Native Americans (Menominee) living on ancestral tribal lands) that vary in their habitual contact with the natural world and in their cultural perspective on the human-nonhuman animal relation. Using structured interviews, we trace 160 children's understanding of concepts including =human,' =mammal,' and =animal', and the relations among them. We include 5- to 6-year-olds (who have had relatively little formal science education) and 9- to 10-year-olds (who are well into a Western-science curriculum). The results reveal a surprising convergence across all communities: At both ages, children in all communities largely deny that humans are animals. The younger children strictly maintain the uniqueness of humans; the older children accept that humans are mammals (and that mammals are animals) but nonetheless deny that humans are animals. The implications of this finding for our understanding of early cognitive and language development, early reasoning about biological phenomena, and early understanding of religious or spiritual practices are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPsychology of Culture
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781622572748
StatePublished - Nov 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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