Closer To Truth: Human Uniqueness

There is an ongoing PBS TV series (also several books and also a website) called “Closer To Truth”. It is hosted by neuroscientist Robert Lawrence Kuhn. He’s featured in one-on-one interviews and panel discussions with the cream of the cream of today’s cosmologists, physicists, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, etc. on all of the Big Questions surrounding a trilogy of broad topics – Cosmos; Consciousness; Meaning. The trilogy collectively dealt with reality, space and time, mind and consciousness, aliens, theology and on and on and on. Here are a few of my comments on one of the general topics covered, a subject dealing with the alleged uniqueness of the human species.

What are Persons?

IMHO we really, really need to get away from this idea that we, humans, persons, whatever are an organism and thus are somehow a single biological entity. We are a colony or organisms, cells is what we call them, and any discussion about what constitutes a person needs to come to grips with that biological fact. So, person-hood starts with that first cell. You are a person when you are asleep because your cells are still alive and awake and strutting their cellular stuff. Someone with severe mental deficiencies is a person because their bodily cells are still functional, such persons don’t all of a sudden divest themselves of their cellular structures. The same applies to any injury or disease of the brain or any other part of you for that matter. You only cease being a person when all of your cells are dead, and that actually doesn’t happen until after you are declared to be [medically] dead. So, in that sense, the sense that we are a colony of organisms, we don’t differ uniquely from other multi-cellular organisms. So, what does it mean to be a person? It means being an integrated living colony of cells, albeit the organization of that colony will differ from colony to colony (person to person), which isn’t surprising when you consider that any one colony (any one person) is comprised of billions of individual parts or cells. The odds that any two colonies (any two people) will be identical are astronomically against.

What makes Personal Identity Continue?

What makes the identity of the ocean continue? I mean the identity of the oceans remains the same from year to year even though with every passing second, water is evaporating and new water is entering via rain, melting icebergs, and the flow of rivers. The various atoms and molecules of the other gases in our atmosphere enter and leave the oceans on an ever ongoing basis. If this is not a mysterious process in oceanography, why should it be mysterious when it comes to our personal identity, and while we are at it, let’s not single out the human species. The same applies to the personal identity of all the other animals, even plants and microbes.

How are Humans Unique 1?

Of course humans are unique, but so too is each and every other animal (and plant) species that is, has been, or probably ever will be even if for no other reason than we recognize other species. We can tell a cat apart from a dog because cats are unique (as a species) and dogs are unique as a species. Each species probably has some trait(s) or characteristic(s) that makes them top-of-the-pops in that category. That applies to humans too of course. We are king-of-the-mountain, but not when it comes to every possible trait or characteristic. One other point is that okay, humans may be king-of-the-mountain with respect to this trait or that characteristic, let’s say intelligence. We are number one with respect to intelligence (at least until we find ET or until artificial intelligence relegates us to second place). But our uniqueness with respect to intelligence is only by degree, it is not absolute. Many other species have intelligence too, and not only other primates like the chimpanzee. Whales and dolphins rate pretty high in intelligence too, and many a bird is pretty damn smart. In fact to be called a “bird-brain” is actually a compliment. Then there is the elephant, a highly intelligent species unfortunately headed towards extinction at the hands of intelligent humans. And it’s not just vertebrates either. The humble octopus has quite the IQ too. So yes, humans can pat themselves on the back about how unique we are, but there are so many qualifiers that I wonder if it is worth making all that much fuss over.

How are Humans Unique 2?

How were the dinosaurs unique? Let us not forget that if it hadn’t of been for a fluke asteroid strike 65 million years ago, dinosaurs would still be king-of-the-mountain here on Planet Earth. There’s been a lot of speculation that one dinosaur type in particular, the theropod branch of the non-avian dinosaurs, wherein some species are known to have had the best brain to body size ratio of all the dinosaurs, including a bipedal gait with freed up “hands”, would have evolved to become the equivalent of humans, had not that asteroid smacked into our planet.

How Humans Differ from Other Animals 1

Well yes, humans differ from other animals, although I’m not sure that’s something to be overly proud of. I’ve often thought that while humans have the IQ, it’s the animals that really have the smarts. Animals don’t need an alarm clock to wake them up! Seriously, we humans tend to attach great importance to things that aren’t really important at all, and if truth be known, if animals were aware of that, they’d be snickering behind our backs. I mean humans attach great importance to the Academy Awards (and hundreds of similar award ceremonies like beauty pageants). Why does the “vast superiority of human mentality” attach such significance to these sorts of happenings? Another example is the outcomes of sporting events. What’s the real significance of the Olympic Games? Is it really important enough to justify all the money and all the hype? What’s so important about wearing a suit and tie to work? Does this attire really make you do a better job? In fact the entire fashion industry is a waste of talent and resources. No animal could ever understand a woman’s obsession with shoes! Animals are smart. They wouldn’t waste their time watching daytime television sitcoms and ‘reality’ TV. Animals would find nothing interesting about celebrities or royalty. Animals aren’t racist and aren’t so up themselves as to give themselves honorary titles like Sir, or Saint, or Your Highness, or in fact the word Honourable. Can you imagine an animal being obsessed with social media ‘likes’ and endlessly taking photographs of oneself? What’s so special about human nature that we need to take drugs that we know will harm us. Animal nature wouldn’t have a bar of this behaviour. And why are Americans in particular obsessed with owning guns – more of that vast mental superiority of ours? When is the last time you saw a animal who required holidays and weekends off, or who attributed special significance to some sort of date? What animal gives a damn about midnight and New Years Eve turning into New Years Day? It’s also so amusing to see how humans like to put themselves up on a pedestal as in look at us and how unique we are and how different we are from mere animals. I sometimes get the impression that humans worship humans or at least the concept of humans or humanity more than they worship deities! That vast superiority of human mentality may ultimately be the cause of our extinction. The animals will have the last laugh, assuming we don’t drive them to extinction first.

How Humans Differ from Other Animals 2

I would maintain that humans and animals share more traits than differ. In thinking about this, I decided to compare and contrast myself with my companion animals – cats. For starters, we are both mammals. We both are warm blooded and have left-right symmetry. We each were conceived, born, experienced parental care and nursing, experienced play, growth, maturity, ageing and eventually death. We are both prone to various afflictions and diseases. We both need to eat, digest food, eliminate waste products including taking in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, and scratch where it itches. When it comes to food we’re both carnivores, and cats will nibble on some plant material too, like grass. We both can eat and digest red meat (mice for cats) and white meat (birds and fish). We each have five senses including binocular vision. We each use sex in order to reproduce and pass on our genes. We each have a brain and an automatic nervous system. We each have a subconscious, and a consciousness, and of course memory. We can both learn, and learn from our mistakes. We both sleep and dream. We both yawn and stretch. We both think, weigh up options, and make decisions. We both can problem solve. We’re both an equally curious species. We each react to external stimuli. We equally respond to fight or flight options as required. We can both adequately communicate our needs and wants. We both exhibit body language. We both have emotions as well as likes and dislikes. We each have a sense of morality or ethics. Cats aren’t that big on the arts, but I’ve had cats that respond favorably to music and no doubt to them the sight of a full food bowl is artistic beauty indeed. Given how much cats love warmth and sunny spots it wouldn’t surprise me that in the inner recesses of their minds they didn’t have the concept of a Sun god. They certainly have some understanding of physics when they chase after a ball in flight; they respect the nature of gravity. Okay, mathematics is beyond them, but a lot of mathematics is beyond me too. And yes, cats walk on four legs while we walk on two, and most cats have a tail and have a lot more body hair than we have, but that’s hardly a significant difference. If we were to tighten the parallels by contrasting ourselves with the higher primates then we also encompass tool-making and tool use, language (even if just as sign language), and they too have some abstract concepts of not-things as opposed to knowing about just things. Primates know a bit about basic economics and trade, even if it is trading sex for grooming. While one could go on and on comparing and contrasting, I think the point is made that humans and animals are way more alike than in our differences.

How Humans Differ from Other Animals 3

Try as I might, I cannot seem to be able to teach my cats even the most fundamental basics of mathematics. That implies that their grey matter hasn’t evolved enough to be up to the task. So, I can pat myself on the back and say how different and unique I am from my cats since I can do the fundamentals of mathematics and they can’t. But then that got me thinking that we humans seem to feel that there is nothing in theory that we can’t grasp or understand or comprehend. There is nothing the cosmos can exhibit in the way of complexity that we can’t eventually come to terms with and fully understand. Life, the Universe and everything is our comprehensible oyster. But what if humans are relative to something else, like ET, in the same way as my cats and their ability to comprehend mathematics are relative to me? Might not a super-intelligent, super-advanced race of extraterrestrial beings be able to understand concepts that we just couldn’t in a pink fit have a hope or a clue of understanding with our relatively lack of sophisticated grey matter? If aliens might look down upon humans the way humans look down on the animals, well, it would probably serve us right to be knocked off our self-erected pedestal.

How Humans Differ from Other Animals 4

There are a number of traits that appear to suggest human uniqueness, though I maintain these traits are not a step-function but a continuum, albeit a line that still places humans well in front of most if not all other animals.

Trait number one is our “naked ape” status relative to the other 183 or so species of primates. However, as we all well know, we are not absolutely hairless, so the difference is one of degree.

Trait number two is that we alone walk upright without benefit of a balancing tail. However, this too is a matter of degree since some primates, and other mammals (bears) and birds (penguins) do have the ability to use and can use a bipedal gait, albeit used sparingly.

Trait number three is our very high IQ. However, again there is a continuum between bacteria and humans. It would be wrong to suggest that every other animal has the IQ of an amoeba. Many primates, many birds, the whales and dolphins, the elephants, even the humble octopus has a reasonable IQ.

Trait number four is that we are a racially diverse species. That’s a polite way of saying we come in breeds. However, many other species have ‘races’ in the sense they have between them diversity and distinctions enough to be considered that they too come in unique breeds.

Trait number five is that we are a facially diverse species. Humans tend to recognise humans, especially humans they haven’t actually met, via their unique facial features. In police line-ups and in courtroom identifications it tends to be the face that gives the game away. You’d be hard pressed to distinguish between cockroaches or alligators or brown bears or penguins based on their face. However, if you work really closely on a daily basis with say chimpanzees or just about any other vertebrate species, their minor facial details come to the fore and you can tell them apart. The bottom line in any event is that animals can tell those of their own species apart and that’s what counts.

Arguing God from Human Uniqueness 1?

What on earth makes anyone think that human beings are unique? We may have vastly greater social development, but vastly greater isn’t the same as unique. Humans may have superior mental capabilities but that’s not the same as unique. As the late Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan argue in their book “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are”, there is absolutely nothing 100% unique about the human species. Sure, we can pat ourselves on the back about being king of the mountain with regards to this trait, or we are top of the pops with respect to some other trait, but when you slice and dice things, those traits differ from other animal species by matter of degree, they don’t differ absolutely. Our differences are relative. The only exception just might be human only concepts involving a relatively few abstractions, like the supernatural and an alleged soul and an afterlife and a sense of history, but all of that is just part of our superior mental abilities, not unique mental abilities. And least we forget, each and every other animal species is king of the mountain with respect to some trait or other. It really is time human beings ceased being so absolutely up themselves. In fact that just might be a human uniqueness! And in any event, uniqueness doesn’t translate of necessity as a gift from God. It could just as easily be a gift from Mother Nature via the normal processes of biological evolution and natural selection.

Arguing God from Human Uniqueness 2?

What I see here, and in similar “Closer to Truth” segments on the question of human uniqueness, is a human interviewing humans about humans. There would seem to be some sort of obvious bias operating here. Humans arguing about human uniqueness have an obvious reason to pat humans (and therefore themselves) on the back. In short, I get the decided impression that humans are totally up themselves. This discussion will only become a fair and equal discussion when animals are asked the same question about their uniqueness versus human uniqueness. What a tale that might tell! To date, we are getting just one side of the story – the human version. Okay, I know that the other side of the coin isn’t able to be aired, at least not yet, although communication between man and certain animal species is improving all the time. However, until such time as the animals can speak on this program for themselves instead of having humans put words in their mouths, I will reserve judgment about just how really special we are.