Saturday, May 12, 2012

What Makes Humans Special?

A spider monkey
I see and hear this question all the time, even from scientists - in particular, scientists who study things like non-human primates, paleoanthropology and that sort of thing. Increasingly, however, that question makes less and less sense to me.

Basically, I don't understand why we need to come up with anything that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Why should there be something like that?

I don't mean in the sense of describing Homo Sapiens as a species - there are plenty of anatomical and genetic markers for that. The question seems to be asked in a more general sense, as if humans are somehow not part of the animal kingdom, but somehow separate from it.

Reasons often listed include things like theory of mind, complicated language, abstract thought, technology (fire specifically) and so on. Granted, humans do seem to be better at those sorts of things that all the other animals (and the plants too, apparently). You'll note that those are all brain-related things, which only goes to show that our brains really are unique, at least in some respects, amongst all the animals.

But does that make us somehow special? Does it mean we're different in some really important way? People asking the question seem to think it does, but I disagree.

Problem is that distinction is arbitrary. It's as if people want to believe that we're somehow in class above the rest of life, and look to the most notable distinguishing characteristic as the defining thing that makes it so.

That seems like a pretty childish point of view to me. The sort of thing written about in ancient myths.

"And God blessed [man and woman], and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." - Genesis 1:28, King James version of the Christian Bible
An idea befitting a bronze-age nomadic culture, but hardly relevant in a society that knows as much about the world as we do today.

Better than you.
I can imagine a group of elephant philosophers sitting around trying to decide what sets their kind apart from the animal kingdom, and arriving at the conclusion that because no other animal has as marvellous a trunk, that all other species are inferior. Including those silly brown and pink apes with their pointed sticks.

Why should one, admittedly impressive, phenotypic trait somehow elevate a species above all the rest in any meaningful sense? It's one thing to consider your own species more important than the others because it happens to be your own. But to suggest that there's some objective dividing line between your species and all the others smacks of a level of intellectual dishonesty.

"There isn't a sharp line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom -- it's a very wuzzy line -- and it's getting wuzzy-er all the time" - Jane Goodall

I don't have much more to say about it, other than to ask the question: why should intelligent, educated, critically-minded, modern people feel the need to distance themselves from other life-forms? It seems more meaningful to me to celebrate the similarities we share with our distant cousins, rather that drawing lines in the sand.