Are human animals special?

May 3, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

Thanks to Jason for his provocative post, Wither Thou Goest.

Are we “special?”  What does that mean?  To say that every species is special is the same as saying that no species is special.  I would therefore say that I agree with BOTH of these statements.  You choose.  Your choice probably depends on how prickly or bubbly you’re feeling that day. 

The creationists would disagree with both of these statements, of course.  They hold that only humans (they hate to say “human animals”) are special or, perhaps maybe they would at least insist that we are “extra-special.”  

There is no doubt that Humans have skills that other animals lack.  We can use symbols and we have an advanced ability to use language.  These things combine to allow us to scaffold our existences (through our memories) from the past into the future. We don’t live only in the present like my darling dog.  Ok Ok.  In a colloquial way, then, we are “special” in this ability to place ourselves in a temporal context. 

Biologically, our genome is 99% shared with the genomes of chimpanzees and bonobos.  That’s a huge overlap.  That would seem to make THEM special too.  Some would say that this 1% is a quantum difference and that this 1% includes the “gene for the soul.” 

I disagree, based on the writings of primatologist Frans de Waal.  I highly recommend several of his books:

Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1997).
Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (1983)
Chimpanzee Politics : Power and Sex among Apes (2000)

De Waal did something radical a few decades ago.  He took the time to really get to know the apes he studied, as individuals.  He named each one and got to know his or her personality and interests.  Before doing this, he was merely studying a group of chimps. After he started doing this, an intricate human-like social structure came into focus.   After getting to know the individuals, watching communities of chimps became much like watching soap operas.  De Waal saw struggles for power, of course.  But he also saw a meaningful context for the assertion of power. 

He saw intricate alliance-building, support networks, tool use, negotiation, collaboration, jealousies and reconciliation following transgressions.   Since de Waal’s early studies, these behaviors have been repeatedly and consistently documented in great detail.  Gee . . . this seems to make chimpanzees a lot like humans, minus the language/symbol skill.  It makes chimpanzees very SPECIAL. 

The creationists hate this talk about animal culture.  They consider it blasphemous.  They need to read de Waal (and Jane Goodall and Robin Dunbar).  They might see that to the extent humans are special, they are special by a degree.  If they would dare consider de Waal’s incontestable observations–his factual observations, they would see “souls” in these incredible animals, souls that are similar (though less adept with symbols and memory) than the souls in human animals.

Other scientists are also closely checking out human animals as animals.  There is great controversy in doing this, even from some other scientists.  Like creationists, cultural anthropologists have argued that our animal bodies are irrelevant to understanding human nature.  As I see it, those who disparage the relevance of biology to studying culture will not hold back the tide of open inquiry.  It’s just too interesting, fruitful and compelling to fail to study ourselves as one “special” species on the evolutionary tree full of “special” life.  We’re just too similar to too many other animals in too many of our physical traits and behaviors. 

David Buss has conducted a wide range of research on human sexuality.  Various surveys have indicated that most women would prefer to have up to five partners in a lifetime. Men would prefer to have up to 1,000.  Buss found that it’s no accident that xx’s tend to be much choosier than xy’s.  He has written extensively about our mating behaviors in this regard.  He has found that many of our “social” inclinations as sexual beings flow directly from the different strategies employed by those who produce cheap sperm versus those who produce relatively expensive eggs.  Similarly, many mating and child-caring behaviors can be attributed to paternity certainty–a female always know for sure that she is her child’s mother.

What does this type of knowledge do to you?  Does it make you nervous or curious?  I think this is the dividing line between creationists and evolutionists.   The latter are fascinated by these facts and try to follow them wherever they lead.  The former cling to a priori principles they gather from sermons and dusty books and they steadfastly refuse to think of humans as animals.

A friend of mine has another perspective on being “special.”  He has a recurrent and disturbing thought that we humans can be viewed from far away, from outer space, not up close where things like our preferences for breakfast cereal matter.  From outer space we look (if you can see us at all) like a bunch of ants running around, bumping into each other, huge groups of little human critters crawling all over each other, new ones being born and others checking out all the time.  Perhaps this is another thing the creationists fear–a God without a telescope.  This vision makes me uneasy too.  It makes me wonder: What do we then matter?  For some people, this kind of worry mushrooms into a full-blown bout of nihilism justifying anything at all (or nothing at all).

I can’t shake this disturbing image.  I have to do something with it.  Because I’m on my way to becoming dust, fate is forcing my hand. I can do something with it or I can stop trying.  I take it as a challenge and as an opportunity, but I don’t really know why I do this.  Perhaps it’s because this life is all I have.  Perhaps it’s in my bones to try to be decent and kind.   Unlike Rick Santorum, I don’t think that morality comes from above.  It’s not a set of rules.  It’s not about doing something because an Ogre will throw you in hell if you don’t do it.

To me, then, evolution is not a threat to morality. I can try to be decent to other people even if I am not “special.”  Alternatively, we’ve all seen self-proclaimed “special” people being self-centered bombasts.  For me, morality therefore has nothing to do with being “special.” It has to do with how we treat the other human animals with whom we share this planet, whether or not they are “special.”

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Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Sujay says:

    Brilliant post!

    I agree with all that's said here, but the first half of the post pretty much sums up why I'm vegan!

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