Culture & Ethics
Henry Gee’s View Notwithstanding, We Matter More than Giraffes or Begonias
What is it with many in the anti-humanism crowd? On one hand, they insist that we are just another animal in the forest — not exceptional! On the other, we are ordered to engage in radical self-sacrifice to save the planet and perform other acts of biological altruism.
And they seem to have such an emotional stake in knocking us off our well-deserved pedestal. Frankly, I think it is neurotic.
Now, in the Guardian, the angrily anti-human exceptionalist paleontologist and Nature senior editor Henry Gee yells at a television science show presenter for daring to support human exceptionalism in a program about evolution. From his column:
Cox speaks, with the prerequisite Bronowskian awe and reverence, of our uniqueness as a species, that we are the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing. Cox turns his boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment from the heavens to the depths of antiquity, the growth of societies and trade and how writing pulled this all together.
It’s this — the assertion of the uniqueness that makes us special — that really gets up my nose, because it’s a tautology and therefore meaningless.
No, it is a self-evident truth.
Gee then garbles the essence of human exceptionalism, conflating its meaning with making moral judgments about contrasting biological capabilities among species:
Giraffes are unique at doing what they do. So are bumble-bees, quokkas, binturongs, bougainvillea, begonias and bandicoots. Each species is unique by virtue of its own attributes — that’s rather the point of being a species — and human beings are just one species among many.
To posit humans as something extra-special in some qualitative way is called human exceptionalism, and this is invariably coloured by subjectivity. Of course we think we’re special, because it’s we who are awarding the prizes.
We are the only species even capable of thinking about such things. That’s special.
And let me ask Dr. Gee: Which action is the most morally consequential: Murdering a human child, killing a giraffe calf, or uprooting a begonia? If he says murdering the child, he believes in human exceptionalism whether he will admit it or not.
And that gets us to the point: The distinctions between us and the rest of life are moral, not biological. A giraffe’s long neck doesn’t make it morally exceptional, nor does our opposable thumb. Termites can eat wood and we can’t. So what? That is a mere biological difference, irrelevant to our respective moral worth.
But only humans possess true moral agency. Only we value altruism. Only we mitigate suffering, including that of animals. Only we are rational. Only we think abstractly, record history, and strive to impact our posterity positively. Only we engage issues of spirituality and philosophy. Only we try to figure out Truth. Only we care about Truth. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Beavers erect pond dams. They don’t have a choice. It is instinctive.That’s not even in the same class of behavior as humans building Hoover Dam.
Gee disdains human exceptionalism because he is the ultimate relativist: A crow’s nest is more important to the crow than a human television show, about which the crow is oblivious, so we aren’t exceptional.
That’s not how to judge anything! If that is true, we are no more important that dung beetles or maggots — I mean they care as much about excrement as we do steak (or tofu, for you vegans out there).
Finally, Gee gets into dogs’ superior sense of smell:
Dogs can presumably recognize their own scents and tell them apart from the scents of other dogs as readily as we’d recognize our reflection in a mirror. Would we humans pass for self-aware, based on scent alone? I think not. Neither, then, should we judge the abilities of other animals by own own, unique, species-specific standards.
Yeah pal, well we created dogs! And think of the joy they bring. Name any other species in the known universe that has done anything so exceptional. What further proof do we need?