Quantity has a quality all its own“, which Stalin may or may not have said, is worth thinking about. Many inquiries start with a qualitative difference between man and other animals. This all-important difference is searched for and guessed at. The effort to find the unique x has disrupted and distorted the normal scientific path. On the other hand, quantitative differences between us and other species is a much more fruitful objective to search for.

Here is a quote from Marc Bekoff in a recent post (here):

For as long as human animals have pondered how we might differ from nonhuman animals (hereafter animals for convenience) many ideas have come and gone. For example, it’s been postulated that humans are created in the image of God and are the only rational beings. People vary in their opinions on whether we are the only animals who are created in the image of God and of course it’s not a claim that can be proven or disproven. However, ample research has shown that animals are rational beings and that they also share with us many other traits that were once thought to be uniquely human, including manufacturing and using tools, having culture, having a sense of self, using complex systems of communication, producing art, and having rich and deep emotional lives and knowing right from wrong. Two traits that seem to separate us from other animals are we’re the only animals who cook food and no other animals are as destructive and evil…

The time has come to debunk the myth of human exceptionalism once and for all. It’s a hollow, shallow, and self-serving perspective on who we are. Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species exceptionalism, a move that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.

Separating how we think about humans and other animals is like separating how we think about rivers and the Nile. It is not an efficient way to understand the Nile and it robs effort from understanding rivers in general. The only way this sort of thing happens if we start with “the Nile is not a river”, “don’t use concepts that describe the Nile for any other river (nilomorphism to coin a word)” or “it belittles the Great Nile to say it behaves like other rivers”. We have built an artificial boundary here, we have not ‘divided nature at its joints’. We will sink down to playing semantic games – trying to define Nile so other rivers are not included and trying to define river so that it includes them all except for the Nile. In the same way, dividing man from other animals is also artificial – not the way science should be done.

Human uniqueness has been a sort of holy grail. People have been searching for this mythical piece of knowledge – what is the important distinction. But the important knowledge is the ability to trace how all those things that we share with the other animals have been mixed and modified to produce the unexceptional uniqueness of all animal species. No part of our makeup and our culture started from nothing; everything (gene, gene-like, meme or meme-like) has evolved to its present state; it had evolutionary roots. Science should not be trying to separate us from other animals but should be drawing the connections. By and large Biology has been doing this for years but with the newer brain sciences it has been tough trying to break through the mind-set that humans are unique in a unique way.


2 thoughts on “Uniqueness

  1. Interesting perspective, and I think the term ‘unexceptional uniqueness’ is a brilliant turn of phrase, for unique in a unique way.

    Surely there is some other way to conceptualize it all that doesn’t lead to such fine specialization, or blind exploring — something that does not lump all animals into one pile, or something that does not put humans at the top: neither of those are fruitful at this stage of science. People get bogged down and start to think in such binary ways. (Is Pluto a planet..? Are dreams relevant or brain dumping garbage?)

    Thanks for some thought-provoking stuff.

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