April Discussion: What makes humans unique?

It seemed pretty obvious to Aristotle: plants grow, animals move, humans think. It’s also pretty obvious to anyone religious: “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Gen. 1:26-27) Humans, on these views, are special, important, at least significantly different from anything before. It’s nice to know you’re special, and our species seems to have a lock on it.

The view that human beings are unique doesn’t hold water like it used to, though. Evolutionary theory holds that we resulted from the same processes that made everything else. In recent centuries, materialist and atheist thinkers have argued that we can’t even do anything that couldn’t be done by something else. Neither our origin or our nature is exceptional.  Our lives are of no special interest or unique direction; subject to the same pressures as everything else, we fancy ourselves unique. Rather depressing.

Are we unique? Primatologist Robert Sapolsky discusses ways in which human beings could be unique, which was the topic of this month’s discussion. For instance, only humans wage war, right? Only humans have moral rules. Only humans show empathy. Though he argues that we are unique in such respects, Sapolsky mostly just seems to shoot us down: chimps engage in wars; fish can understand equal treatment; and of course, Youtube shows us the most adorable of cross-species friendships. There are precedents, it seems, for many of our supposedly special characteristics; human beings just appear to be another link on the chain.

Sapolsky tries to draw a distinction, though; while chimps engage in wars, only humans engage in long distance wars across the world, and suffer psychologically from them after. Humans process diverse, cross-species notions of reward and fairness. Humans can feel suffering from art. Sapolsky doesn’t quite define the distinction he is getting at: that between degree and kind. If humans just do more of what other animals do (e.g., bigger wars), it’s a difference of degree and not that special. But if it’s a difference of kind, it’s a totally different sort of feature without true analogue elsewhere.

To elaborate: Apes can wage war over territory, but only humans do it over, say, religious differences. Animals grasp equality, but only humans can ask what constitutes fairness for others (e.g., a baboon will groom to show kindness, as that’s just the baboon idea of kindness). Animals are empathetic, but only humans grasp the idea of caring beyond all sentiment and purpose. What these differences share is the idea of purpose, of grasping ourselves in a sphere where we can act independently and for reasons. It’s hardly the only thing (language comes to mind), but it’s definitely a curious one, and as good a start as any for considering whether and how we stand out.

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