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A Positive, Useful Discussion of Human Exceptionalism … On the Internet? Yes!

Ann Gauger

human exceptionalism

Over at the website Peaceful Science they often take note of what I write here, usually using my post as a prompt for discussion of views from all compass points. Most write with an agenda. Some are comics. I have at times joined in as well.

Most recently the subject up for consideration was my post, “On Being Human — A Reflection.” (No, it was not about the old GEICO insurance “caveman” ads.) 

As Good as It Gets

Below, culled from the forum, are the chief responses I received with some of my own comments. I offer this because it was one of the best examples of what an Internet interaction can be, where everyone learned something, even if no minds were changed, and everyone was civil. Ideally, the forum would have more than one person on the defender’s side, but you can’t have everything. My comments are labeled, and respondents are labeled 1-5


Quoting from my article: “We build incredible cities. We do horrible things well beyond what animals are capable of to each other. We have language, that wonderful, marvelous, treacherous gift. We have music, that powerful, glorious, dangerous gift. And we have art, that beautiful, transcendent, painful gift. All these gifts are things that animals don’t have.”

Respondent 1: I view Ann’s half empty glass as being half full. How wonderful is it that one of the animal species on Earth has reached such wonderful levels of creativity and discovery!!! We aren’t “just” animals. We are ANIMALS!!! And we should be proud of that. We represent an absolutely amazing point in the 3 billion year struggle of life on this planet.

[Me: I can’t understand this comment about my glass being half empty. I never said we were “just” animals — we are “more” than animals! But I will refrain from post-game refereeing from here on.]

Exceptional Animals

Respondent 2: Is it necessary, in order for there to be something exceptional about us, that we are not just animals? Are there not other animals that are also exceptional in different ways? Is it the “just” she complains about?

Respondent 3: Yes the human animal is and has been exceptional over past 2 million years going from creating stone tools to iPhones though creativity, imagination, and cooperation.

Respondent 2: Every animal species has something that is unique to that species, so by that definition there are no animal species. Being different from other animals does not exclude us from the animal group, at least in my view. Instead, the animal group includes a species with amazing intelligence.

Me: I’ll try to expand on what I wrote in my piece in a little more specifically biological terms. We have specific traits that are well outside the norm, so far outside the norm that some scientists see the gaps as unbridgeable. These include abstract thought, foresight, speech, art, music, sociality, theory of mind, manipulation of the material world, charity, wickedness, and religion. There may be others I haven’t thought of. We see rudiments of these things in animals, but human abilities are orders of magnitude higher than animals (or lower in the case of wickedness). Our specific abilities are greater than are necessary for survival, so unless they are linked to other traits why should we have a Mozart or an Einstein or a Galileo? What we do as scientists is pretty esoteric, right? Is there a selective advantage to any of it? Maybe at low levels, but being Shakespeare or understanding the molecular dynamics of ribosomes or however you would describe your work is purely gratuitous. Is there a selective advantage to trying to persuade people of the truth of intelligent design? Not so far. 😉

Respondent 1: The genetic differences between the human and chimp genomes is well within the range expected for two species sharing a common ancestor 5 million years before present, so I don’t understand how this difference is unbridgeable. This seems to be based more on emotion/intuition than on science. We also see an increase in tool complexity through time.

I don’t know of anyone who has shown that our intelligence does not improve our fitness as a species. In fact, there seems to be a very strong argument for an increase in intelligence increasing our fitness. That we happen to use our intelligence to write songs or paint pictures is secondary to its primary use. It is no different than trying to claim that the adaptations found in cougars does not provide a selective advantage because cougars use those adaptations for playing with each other.

I consider those [activities you mention] equivalent to play. The primary use of our intelligence is to make tools, cooperate as part of a group to hunt and gather, emotional ties that help a group of humans work better together, and so on. Is our ability to knap a piece of flint into an arrowhead advantageous? Absolutely. [Are] our abilit[ies] to predict prey migrations [or] cultivar growing seasons, make fire, make shelters, and communicate with each other selective advantages? Absolutely. Do we also use these adaptations for activities that are not adaptive? Yes, but that does not change the fact that our intelligence is advantageous in other arenas.

Me: We have specific traits that are well outside the norm, so far outside the norm that some scientists see the gaps as unbridgeable

Unbridgeable Gaps

Respondent 3: What gaps are unbridgeable? The many species of human animals that have lived the past 2 millions years slowly developed, on their own, abstract thought, foresight, speech, art, music, culture, theory of mind, manipulation of the material world. Homo erectus started slowly with stone tools, which affected cognitive abilities of its brain, By 500,000 [years] ago many human species have well advanced tools and culture. By 10,000 years ago, a single species, us, begins manipulating plants and other animals. That’s at least 2 million years of exceptionalism by humans.

Respondent 2: Which scientists, exactly?

Me: Noam Chomsky: “Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world….There is no reason to suppose the ‘gaps’ are bridgeable.”

From something I wrote, where I quote another scientist (citations omitted):

From the materialist point of view our human brains are the product of evolution — an ape-like brain grown larger and more sophisticated. Physically a human brain is three times the size of a chimpanzee brain, and uses considerably more energy. Our brain represents 2 percent of our body weight but uses 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe. However, our brains are not merely enlarged ape brains — there are other differences. Our brains contain neural structures, enhanced wiring, and forms of connectivity among nerve cells not found in any animal. Our neurons continue dividing well into adulthood and have a 10-fold higher density than chimps. The human brain is something new, something different, as can be seen by the things we do that animals don’t.

In fact our differences are likely to be greater than our similarities. David Premack, the late psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania said:

“In examining claims of similarity between animals and humans, one must ask: What are the dissimilarities? This approach prevents confusing similarity with equivalence. We follow this approach in examining eight cognitive cases — teaching, short-term memory, causal reasoning, planning, deception, transitive inference, theory of mind, and language — and find, in all cases, that similarities between animal and human abilities are small, dissimilarities large.”

Are the dissimilarities so large as to make Darwinian evolution of our brains and abilities impossible? Our brains have vastly more ability than is needed for survival, most notably the capacity for language and abstract thought. We are orders of magnitude beyond anything animals can do.

Let’s consider language. As a thought experiment, imagine what life required about 500,000 years ago (noting the irony of the experiment as you do so). The people alive then were hunters and gatherers. Their tools were Acheulean hand-axes and sharpened wooden spears. Fire was used for cooking. Listen to David Premack again:

“I challenge the reader to reconstruct the scenario that would confer selective fitness on recursiveness. Language evolved, it is conjectured, at a time when humans or protohumans were hunting mastodons…Would it be a great advantage for one of our ancestors squatting alongside the embers, to be able to remark, ‘Beware of the short beast whose front hoof Bob cracked when, having forgotten his own spear back at camp, he got in a glancing blow with the dull spear he borrowed from Jack’?

“Human language is an embarrassment for evolutionary theory because it is vastly more powerful than one can account for in terms of selective fitness. A semantic language with simple mapping rules of a kind one might suppose that the chimpanzee would have, appears to confer all the advantages one normally associates with discussions of mastodon hunting or the like. For discussions of that kind, syntactical classes, structure-dependent rules, recursion and the rest, are overly powerful devices, absurdly so.”

Respondent 2: OK, I suppose two counts as “some.” You must admit that the overwhelming majority of scientists, including the overwhelming majority of those who work in the field of human cognition, don’t consider that gap unbridgeable.

I will also point out that “unbridgeable” and “unbridgeable solely by natural selection” are not the same thing. Why not try theistic evolution on for size? Should solve all your problems.

Scorched Earth

Me: Here is a blockbuster. Look at the authors, then read the abstract. Scorched earth. They do offer some suggestions at the end.

[Now I am going to skip a bunch to save time. You can go read the rest for yourself.]

Me: Somehow several distinct ideas have been lumped together. I haven’t read the whole thread, so I don’t know why. But for me human exceptionalism is the idea that we have abilities that are unique, creative, cognitive powers that came seemingly out of nowhere in a very short space of time evolutionarily speaking, [with] language being the most significant. That statement is not the same as the claim that the world was made for us. Those are two different things.

Eukaryote microorganisms certainly are necessary for food production: beer, wine, bread, cheese. And there are some pretty nasty diseases caused by eukaryotic microorganisms, diseases that are not necessary obviously (unless you consider them to be a fitness pruner), but significant in their effects. But I would not say that is why these eukaryotes are there. I do not make the claim that the ecosystem and the living things that make it up are here for our sake. They are here for their own sake, It happens that some of them are good for making beer and some of them will kill you. Some of them are quite lovely, and some not so much.

Avian Exceptionalism?

Respondent 2: What about avian exceptionalism? Unique wings and lungs, right there. Are we really so exceptionally exceptional compared to other taxa? And how do you know how long it took our cognitive powers to evolve? How do you know how much language various hominids did or didn’t have?

Respondent 4: Yes, humans are exceptional, compared to all other species. But that’s only because humans set the standard as to what should be considered exceptional. It is all self-serving bias.

Respondent 3: Do you think upright walking is exceptional? Or is exceptionalism just those things that only modern humans do? When did humans become exceptional compared to other primate species? Did Neanderthals have any exceptional qualities? Do all humans have more or less the same exceptional qualities? Or are some more exceptional than others?

Me: These are all really good questions. They are making me think. The reason I became a biologist is because when I looked at a rose or an Anolis lizard or a palmetto bug or a meadowlark I saw something unique and distinctive in each, another way of being alive in each one.

“What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

Have any of you read “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” by Thomas Nagel? It is about the nature of consciousness and subjective experience, but along the way he discusses the idea that we can’t know what it is like to be a bat. We literally lack the equipment and the experience. We can imagine using our perceptions of how things are, but the internal experience of flying by sonar, nearly blind, and catching mosquitos and moths, is a sensory and mental experience we will never attain. Are bats remarkable? Yes. Likewise I will never live inside a zebra’s skin, or become a diatom.

Can we acknowledge that all of biology is wonderful? We’re not bats or beetles or bears (or tardigrades, though that might be useful during a zombie apocalypse). We don’t have those gifts, they don’t have ours. But we are the only ones who notice this fact. Or write about it anyway.

Still I think the general case for the human race’s exceptional (unusual, outstanding, extraordinary, unprecedented) traits can be made because of the nature of the traits we have.

  • creativity (music, art, dance, pottery, sculpture, cuisine, couture, landscape design, architecture, film, video)
  • language (communication, plays, books, poetry, essays, blog posts, graphic novels, letters, calligraphy, humor, rhetoric, and the tools of the rhetorical trade, alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, simile, and syncope)
  • intelligence (biology, physics, chemistry, biophysics, bioengineering, biochemistry,  mettallurgy, engineering, synthetic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, math, chess, strategy, tactics, computer science, cryptography, artificial intelligence, robotics, aeronautics, astrophysics, and cosmology)
  • sociality (welfare, crime, law, justice, kingdom, kingship, culture, marriage, family,  extended kinship, commerce, economics, warfare, ritual, religion, politics) 

For one perspective on the traits that distinguish us from just the great apes, read Ajit Varki and Tasha Altheide.

These are generalist traits, abilities that can be put to many uses, and have been. Together they are the powerful synergy that has propelled human culture since, well, at least 100,000 years ago.


One comment brought me up short and reminded me that we need to be careful not to make it sound like these special abilities define us and give us worth. Not all humans can be concert pianists. Some humans can’t speak or get out of a wheelchair or remember their daughter’s name anymore. Here we enter into moral and ethical issues. These individuals have value for us because they are human. More than that, many of us (most?) believe we have souls of eternal worth, independent of our physical state here on Earth. Our fellowship in this shared humanity requires us to care for them and come to their aid.

Something Beautiful and Unique

A few wrap-up posts and we drifted to an end. It’s always a pleasure when I find something we can agree on. It is this: when I look “at a rose or an Anolis lizard or a palmetto bug or a meadowlark I see something unique and distinctive in each, another way of being alive in each one.” That’s a great place to build from.

The host of Peaceful Science, Joshua Swamidass, has a piece on human exceptionalism from a slightly different point of view from mine. You can find it here. John West also wrote on the subject, adding his own perspective. We three are in agreement on this: Humans truly are exceptional. Something has happened on Earth that is beautiful and unique.

Photo: Ivan Ilić, a concert pianist, by Tibor BBB [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.