Special, But Not Really
“When everyone is special, no one will be.” — Syndrome, The Incredibles
Having been taught humans are superior above all other species when I was young, I thought, too bad for all other animals that they were not “gifted” with the intelligence human beings have. But I wondered if this is true. In this article, I share some compelling arguments as to why this statement has become less and less self-evident over time.
Egotism and Tribalism
Observations and reflection made it apparent for me that we humans have a sense of egotism or a tendency to view one´s self more favourably compared to others. When part of a community, we also exhibit a form of “tribalism”. Tribalism is a feeling of loyalty towards a group (or “tribe”) with a sense of competition towards another group, be it for prestige or economic advantage. A tribe could be any unit like country, religion, gender, sports team, group of friends, or professional association. George Orwell, in his book “Notes on Nationalism”, aptly describes humans as having a habit of placing our tribe as “beyond good and evil, recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” It is therefore easy for me to imagine that same egotistic and tribalistic thinking extending to that of our species as a whole, resulting in us concluding that humans are above all other non-humans.
Stumbling upon intriguing ideas from various thought leaders cast further doubt on this superiority claim. In Yuval Harari´s book “Sapiens”, he calls out that because we, homo sapiens, are so used to us living as the only humans on earth (given it has been the case for 10,000 years), that we have forgotten we used to roam the earth with brother species like the homo rudolfensis and homo erectus. Since we have developed the ability to create stories and pass it on, we were able to tell stories of our greatness, and cooperate at a much larger scale than anything other known species. Furthermore, we developed fire and spears so we were able to hunt off our brother species to extinction. This was a major advantage in the race to the top of the food chain.
Intelligence, What Is It Anyway
It is already well-established that we share 96% to 98% of our DNA with the great apes. How can we know that we are so similar yet believe are so above another species?
Taught subjects about special human capabilities compared with other species suffer from having a moving goal post of how intelligence is defined. For example, it used to be focused on intelligence as having a complex language, the ability to create tools and the ability to trade. However, we now know that great apes can learn language (remember Koko), their communities have social hierarchy, and that they make tools. Another interesting finding is that capuchin monkeys can trade and understand the concept of money (and it was not long before they traded money for sex). Underwater, it has been shown that dolphins are self-aware, they are political animals, they babysit other dolphins´calves and synchronise their language with other dolphin species. In fact, scientists have found that dolphin language is hierarchical, open and even more complex than that of humans. Not surprisingly, they also have a way to call each other distinct individual names. These, and many other examples of how we simply do not fully understand the ways and intelligence of other animals, heightened my doubts about our alleged distinction as a species.
It can be hard to consider that humans are not that special especially if this has been indoctrinated since childhood. Furthermore, it is simpler to assume this superiority and make the burden of proof lie on science. In trying to find a holistic and consistent view of hierarchy among species, I tend to subscribe to Richard Dawkins´ views in his book, “The Selfish Gene”. All organisms including humans, plants, viruses, bacteria are survival machines evolving from millions of years ago. It makes for a consistent view that even though the “houses” in which genes thrive in have become varied as we can see in the millions of types of organisms on earth, the fundamental processes that genes do are the same everywhere, that is, evolving, and trying to survive. So the next time we humans think we are above all other species, perhaps we are simply being tribal. We think we are special, but no, not really.