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Are Humans Special?

May 8, 2013

Nautilus, an interesting new online science magazine, uses an entire issue to dig in on this most profound question:

When we sat down to plan our first issue of Nautilus, we asked ourselves a simple question. What is the biggest statement that science has made about humans and our place in the universe in the past few hundred years? The answer suggested itself immediately: it seems we’ve been told that we just aren’t very important.

This was a bit of a surprise. We’re fans of science, you see. And some of our best friends are people. Where was this narrative of mediocrity coming from, and, more importantly, was it true? Our story seemed to kick off with Copernicus, who around 1514 understood that the heavens do not revolve around us. In fact, they more or less ignore us completely.

Over the next half millennium, things got worse. Genetics revealed that we are a script written in the same language as rats and slugs, and with mostly the same words. Social psychology shook our faith in our rationality. Zoology painted a picture of complex, human-like animals. And artificial intelligence nipped at the heels of some of our most cherished abilities.

But the story turned. We learned that cooperation, fashion, metaphor, and energy set us apart in surprising ways. While science has indeed undermined the most naïve versions of our self-importance, we began to understand that it has replaced them with others that are more complex and deeper.

Finally, the opposition between unique and not-unique imploded. For one thing, we found that the category of “human” is a moving target—especially for cyborgs—and that makes it hard to ask what makes humans unique. For another, the very biggest science there is—cosmology—is answering the question with a big fat question mark.

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The issue includes an interview with Frans De Waal, who talks about the blurry line between humans and apes:

Most people assume that humans are fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. What do you think?

Many people believe that. But to biologists we are animals. It’s hard to believe we are fundamentally different because there is no part of the human brain that is not present in a monkey’s brain. Our brains are bigger and we certainly have a more powerful computer than any other animal, but the computer is not fundamentally different.

So there’s no fundamental divide between humans and chimpanzees?

No. If you were to ask what the big difference is, I would say it’s probably language. But like all capacities, once you break them down into pieces, you are going to find some of these parts in other species.

Why are so many people wedded to the idea that humans are special?

We’re raised with those ideas. It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.

The deeper you look, the more you realize that we are all related on some level, and that the traditional hierarchy that places humans high atop the list of earthly species leads to terrible consequences for non-human animals.

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