Animals play. I was reading an article about how they play, and as intriguing as the material was, I couldn't help but shake my head a little. Really, how long is it going to be before we start to recognize officially that animals think and feel? That they behave in ways incredibly similar to humans for a reason? Despite the fact that animals and humans have many of the same behaviors and make similar choices in many everyday activities, when will humanity start to accept en masse that we're not that different from other species?
Yes, there are certain ways in which we are more advanced; I'm going to try to figure out how to replicate those types of advantages and see if it's feasible, so I definitely acknowledge that they're there. But the physiological difference between us and other animals isn't that great.
Consider this: most of the evolution of humanity has happened in the absence of strong natural selection. The most severe selective forces are intraspecific. What changed between the time that we were living in grassy plains and now is not biological - it is artificial, the development of society and the refinement of our memetic makeup. This is evidenced by the fact that peoples from all around the world are capable of learning and doing essentially the same things, despite long times of separation between many of those different cultures. (Saying otherwise is considered racist.) It is unreasonable to assume that the subtle genetic differences between us and animals are anything more than a point beyond a threshold, to which we and they are both very close.
Sure, we can communicate how our consciousness works to other people and we have thus mapped out through literature, philosophy, religion, etc. a huge amount of human consciousness. But imagine we hadn't had those opportunities to explore ourselves and share the discoveries with others. Imagine we just didn't have language, and picture yourself as an outsider, documenting the behavior of humanity. Humans would behave in exactly the same way that nonhuman animals do, which would still be remarkably complex and interesting, but we would not have nearly the same constructs that we do now. There would not nearly be the same kind of intercommunication between different groups/tribes/villages, and life would be so much simpler. We would be directly comparable to animals in that the information required to make more complex material and social structures would not exist. But we would still have the intelligence necessary to do all of it - all we would need is to break the threshold of speech. The motivations would be the same, but we wouldn't have the same systems of realizing those desires, and the same systems of regulation that restrains many of our natural urges.
Truly, language is the key to obtaining society. Humans are not so unique by having it that one cannot imagine other species joining our elite club of personhood. How to obtain language is the gaping hole in my argument. What that capacity comprises in the brain and physiology of the throat, mouth, and nose is beyond me. Hopefully we can learn more about these capacities by doing some research into birds that can allegedly speak, identifying the physiological and neurological features that allow them to do this, then comparing and contrasting them with humans' own speech tools. Then, in combination with the genetic technologies that are already undoubtedly being developed for use in gene therapy, genetic engineering, and all the other great things that increase the human lifespan, we will be able to share the gift of language with our Earthly neighbors and make an incredibly cosmopolitan society.