Phase Transition: What Can We Kill?

What is the difference between humans and animals? What right do we have to take the lives of the latter for our own benefit, whether for research or food? It’s a

ethical issue?

ethical issue?

challenge often repeated by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who compare the slaughter of chickens in abattoirs to the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust.

We are, after all, made of the same stuff: sinews, muscles, blood and bones. If we get technical and look at genetic structure, we’re hardly distinguishable from chimpanzees. And if you look at the occasional viciousness of chimpanzees, you can argue that our behavior is also hardly distinguishable.

According to many Amazon Indians, animals are people, or at least see themselves as persons. The visible form is merely an envelope which conceals an internal human form. A Jaguar sees the blood of its prey as beer, its own fur as decoration; it brings food home to its wife and children. Our species cannot see through the concealment. Jewish mysticism also tells us that skin is a masquerade, redirecting attention from what it obscures.

Jaguar with prey

Jaguar with prey

Some may argue that we are endowed by God with an immortal soul, and that sets us apart from the animals. It’s a good hypothesis, but unprovable. Should an enlightened creature such as man use speculation as the axiom which defines his moral parameters?

Others may say that it’s higher intelligence that gives us the right to exploit and consume our fellow creatures. If that’s the case, I’m morally entitled to be a cannibal, because I’m much smarter than most people; there may be a few people entitled to dine on me. Intelligence alone doesn’t do the trick.

What about consciousness as a criterion? I reviewed this issue in an essay on the creation of the world. Briefly, the cat physicist Erwin Schrödinger addresses this difficult question:

Therefore consciousness is associated with those of its (nervous system) functions that adapted themselves by what we call experience to a changing environment…. I would summarize my general hypothesis this: consciousness is associated with the learning of the living substance; its knowing how is unconscious.

Chimp Phase Transition


Chimps killing chimp

We parted company with chimpanzees about six million years ago. Our species made its first appearance about two hundred thousand years ago, and has been slowly improving ever since. We’ve built grass huts, brick houses, glass skyscrapers. We eat tubers dug from the ground, genetically improved grains, animals we’ve hunted or tamed. Our cousins the chimpanzees are still swinging from trees.

We’re complex creatures; some of that complexity the result of natural selection, some simply through random mutation of no specific benefit.   Where do we draw the line? Where is the demarcation point, the phase transition between ourselves and the animal kingdom?

Bucket of Phase Transition

There’s an old children’s’ riddle:

  • Q: What weighs more- a pound of steel or a pound of feathers?
  • A: They both weigh the same.
  • Q: So which would you rather have dropped on your head?

Let’s modify that riddle:

  • Which would you rather have dropped on yourhead- a bucket of di-hydrogen monoxide, or a bucket of di-hydrogen monoxide?

    di-hydrogen monoxide bucket challenge

    di-hydrogen monoxide bucket challenge

This question is sillier than the original version unless we set up some parameters, such as the temperature of the di-hydrogen monoxide in the bucket. It then becomes a question of having a bucket of water or ice dumped on you; the former getting you soaked, the latter possibly cracking your skull, though essentially they are both the same thing.

So it is with mankind and animals. We are the same amino acids, the same proteins, flesh and blood. We’re practically the same genetic blueprint as our close relatives, the chimps. We know now that genes only tell part of the story. Epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression that occur without a change in DNA violates the Mendelian principles we were taught in high school biology. The diet of our parents, intergenerational trauma (such as the holocaust) have effects which are passed on to future generations.

Women as meat

Women as meat

So knowing that we share the flesh, that we share the genes of a violent and brutish ape does not tell us anything significant about ourselves. At some fuzzy point in our millions of years of evolution there was a phase transition: we changed from ice to water to steam (or vice-versa, if you prefer). We evolved from graphite to diamond, both solid phases of carbon. We are, after all, carbon based life forms, whose existence is dependent on rare triple nucleus encounters amplified by quantum effects.

Species Phase Transition

detonate diamond

Phase diagram for carbon

In quantum phase transition there are many competing interactions in the vicinity of the critical point between phases, so that minute changes in the control parameter will favor one type of order over another. For water, the important parameter is temperature: cold di-hydrogen monoxide is a solid. When extremely hot, it’s a gas. For carbon we look at pressure; at high pressure the carbon of a pencil lead becomes a diamond. Many say that it’s population pressure that led to the development of agriculture and civilization, to the development of us. What were the “competing interactions” affecting the phase transition that brought humanity into existence?

What is our order? Are we animals, or something different? Are we pieces of coal, or diamonds? Is our consciousness a God-given soul, or an epigenetic fluke? Are we chickens headed for the abattoir, or creatures with the gift of free will?

Humans are a species. We can breed, exchange genetic material with each other, regardless of race or ethnicity. There has been a phase transition, raising our species above animals. It’s up to each one of us whether we choose to remain there, or phase transition back to animal, to ice, to a lump of coal.

Phase regression diagram for humans

Phase regression diagram for humans


  1. Richard L. Kent, Esq. says:

    This is evil and is nakedly immoral. Once you say that animals are the same as humans, in the end you say that humans are the same as animals and you can slaughter them with the same impunity. (Actually, we DO slaughter humans with the same impunity, so long as they are in utero. For now at least.)

    Human dignity means something. Abandon it and we abandon civilization for barbarism.

    • Read it again. I am saying we are very different from animals, despite the physical, including genetic, similarities

  2. Richard, that perception already exists. In popular entertainment culture, that is, movies, books, and so on, humans are slaughtered without a second thought.

    Kill a dog or a horse, though, and the banshees begin to scream.