Shame, Suicide, and Being Homo Sapiens

Based on two separate relationships with two different persons, I now speculate that “shame” and “suicide” distinguish homo sapiens from all other species, past or present. My relationships to both persons were very close over twenty years and almost concurrent: each knew the other, and neither was biologically related to me, although they themselves were biologically related but neither was a dependent of the other.

I would welcome evidence that proves my speculation incorrect.

Hm. Dogs display something and slink away, tails between their legs, when scolded. It sure looks like shame, not that it necessarily is.

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Not sure that suicide (apart from the moral connotations we include as part of its definition) would be much of a distinctive. Male black widow spiders don’t appear to be deterred by the thought when they’re planning their daily itinerary. But you probably want something a little closer - at least in the mamallian class? Just a quick glance at a site on the web seems to indicate that what appears to be animal suicide (among dogs or bears or cats) while not common - is not unknown either. (By the way - did you know that some mother spiders allow their young to literally eat them? I did not know that.) Of course in all this, one can argue that true suicide has to be with planning, knowledge of mortality, moral implication etc. So one can easily just carefully define it until the only suicides that really qualify as such must only be human. If that’s what you want to do, then the true distinction you are after is farther up the chain, and not all the way down at suicide.

If you are looking for more background on the topic of human distinction then the newly posted podcast about it (that you’ve already listened to I believe) may take us farther.

  • Re: the suicide that I knew personally was a 48-year old, male. That he ended his own life is not debated by anyone: coroner, police, or family. He left a brief rambling note and designated heirs, and five days prior, and the only “warning signal”, if it can be called that, was a statement that he made in a phone conversation: “I feel helpless and hopeless.” No other species that I know of leaves suicide a note or will, or gives warning signals.
  • Re: The ashamed person that I knew personally, cut off relationships with anyone who became aware of certain facts, including her mother, but continued relationships with family and friends that she was certain did know the facts. A dog may slink away when chastised, but typically only continues–briefly or permanently–to avoid the chastiser. Guilt, by the way, involves a recognition that one has done something “bad”… Shame, on the other hand, is more a belief that one is “bad”.

Jane Goodall told the story of a young chimp who lost his mother. He became depressed, stopped eating, and died of a broken heart.


That’s very sad.

I do agree though that as far as I know there is no other species that decides and plans out to take their own life for the sake of ending it. I don’t place much moral implications into suicide though. But there are animals that definitely seem to experience shame as in for telling they did something they will be held negatively for. Like how it was mentioned at times dogs seem to indicate it.

I heard of a captive dolphin committing suicide.

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Only high level intentional agents can commit suicide. Anecdotal stories of animals grieving to death, giving up the will to live, don’t demonstrate suicide. Human shame is at an altogether different level than animal behaviour that looks analogous [we condition dogs to look really sheepish when they fart].

Certainly animals do not leave suicide notes to clue us into why they have done what they did.

I wondered who and how many would go for the “low-hanging fruit” that I intentionally put in my second post in this thread. Congratulations, you found it!

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