Are Humans Special?
The BBC recently reported on an experiment in Japan to test memory in chimpanzees and humans. The chimps far outpaced the human subjects (university students) in speed and accuracy. I emailed the story to some colleagues, with a note clarifying why I think the assumption of “human specialness” is the root cause of our ecological crises. I said there is nothing “especially special” about human specialness. All species are special.
— Christian de Quincey
First of all I want to say that I am 100 per cent in alignment with your goal of “a saner, healthier, more equitable, more sustainable, more compassionate world for all species.”
I have explored these questions through living them. I have been a vegan, vegetarian, eating only “happy” animal products. I used to live on an organic farm. I have volunteered for Greenpeace, the Green Party (both in the U.S. and U.K.). I have explored deep and transpersonal ecology, social ecology, eco-feminism, eco-Marxism/Anarchism/Capitalism, animal rights, and welfare ethics, bioethics etc. I have protested fox hunting, climate change, global capitalism, marched for peace, etc.
So I share your concern that a holocaust has been unleashed on nature by humanity. It’s heartbreaking, on top of all the inevitable heartbreaks of life—what a waste. Ultimately, my goal in life and for all people is to live in the mystery, to live in love—now.
Even if I am not able to articulate it fully in words, I have a sense that everything is especially special, and what is special about humans is this: We can consciously learn how to manifest beauty, love, joy, compassion, truth, authenticity, wildness, non-attachment, intimacy, trust, light, heat, health, life—Divinity.
My response: I’m with you all the way in your project to “live in the mystery” and “to learn to manifest beauty, love, joy, compassion . . .” Yes!
I’d like to explore two points you make: First, to say that every species is special makes sense. It means that every species has something unique that makes it that particular species. You could say it is part of the definition of what being a species is. But to say that all are “especially special” is a contradiction. It’s just not possible that everything is more special than everything else. The problem with the notion “humans are special” is that it implies we are especially special or uniquely unique. I think such self-aggrandizing hubris is the source of the “holocaust” on nature you mention. That is why I say we need to change our fundamental guiding story as a civilization. That is why I write my books. That is why I teach.
The other point, directly related, is when you say “what is special about humans is this: We can consciously learn to manifest beauty, love, joy, compassion, truth, authenticity, wildness, non-attachment, intimacy, trust, light, heat, health, life—Divinity.” I see this as just another version of the fundamentalist credo that God made humans “stewards” of the Earth.
What basis do you have for asserting (believing) only humans have the capacity to consciously learn to manifest beauty, love, joy, compassion . . .? Isn’t that just an assumption? (perhaps motivated by a deep-seated, unconscious urge to put humans above the rest of nature—and that, I think we both agree, is a recipe for ecological disaster). Anyone who has spent time with other species—such as dogs, dolphins, whales, parrots, chimps, gorillas, elephants—knows that they also appreciate and manifest love, joy, compassion, etc. How can you know whether or not this is accompanied by conscious intent? Why would you assume it is not?
What’s the Evidence?
How much evidence do we need to show that every “special” quality attributed to humans is also exhibited by other species? These qualities evolve, and are on a spectrum. Humans shine brighter on some qualities; other species shine brighter on different qualities. The most recent example is the striking, even startling, evidence that young chimps have memory abilities far superior to humans’. Name any other “special” human quality, and then do the requisite interspecies research; you will find evidence for that trait in some other species, too.
If your commitment to human specialness is evidence-proof, that would make it pure ideology—just fundamentalist faith. If not, what evidence would shift your position?
Have you ever hung out with a dog, for example, and noticed his/her commitment to “joy, love, compassion, authenticity, wildness, non-attachment, intimacy, trust, light, heat, health, life?” How would you know whether a dog or any other species has a conscious commitment to beauty or divinity? Do dogs show appreciation for human notions of “beauty”? Hardly. But, then, when was the last time you or I rolled around in some deliciously smelly piece of decaying flesh, or licked a leaf where a raccoon had pissed the night before? I won’t even ask why you think humans are the only species with a hotline to divinity.
I’m urging us to nudge ourselves out of the (ultimately self-destructive) rut of anthropocentricism. Here’s a question: Are we the only species that has the capacity to shift our species perspective? Can dogs shift from canine-centricism? Chimps from chimp-centricism? Dolphins from cetacean-centricism? Can other species besides humans adopt the perspective that other species also have a valid perspective on reality? How would you test this? Or would you jump to the conclusion that there’s no need to test because you already “know” the answer? (fundamentalism).
When I engage in debates on this topic, and challenge the notion of “human specialness,” I have been accused of being a “traitor to my species.” Typically, I respond with a mix of obviousness and humor: “Some of my best friends are humans.” I am not down on humanity per se. I do love the magnificence and spirit of humanity. I want us to survive as a species. But I do not want us to cling to a metaphysical story that elevates us above the rest of nature; a story that is doomed to fail us and bring down many other species with us. Seeing it happen all around the world, at a rapidly increasing rate, saddens my heart. And I’m often angry at our profound stupidity and self-serving greed.
Do Science and Spirituality Make Us Special?
Yes, there is something special about humans: We can ask these deep metaphysical questions. We can debate them. So what? Does it make us especially special? Does it make us superior?
Does an ability to construct complex and subtle abstract models—we call them “cosmologies,” “metaphysics,” “science”—mean we are superior to other species? Who decides that? How much of our civilization is, ultimately, created in the service of over-inflated human egos? And, really, why should we assume that even engaging in spiritual practices that lead to experiences of “unity,” “divinity,” “transcendence,” or “transformation” is a mark of superior or special consciousness?
Couldn’t it be that we humans feel a need to engage in such psychospiritual practices precisely because we are constitutionally out of sync with the rest of nature? I’ve never met a parrot who needs a priest, a rabbit longing for a rabbi, a gorilla searching for a guru, or a dog howling for the divine. What we assume to be great achievements of the human mind may, in fact, be magnificent expressions of a profound pathology. Maybe. I don’t assume I know the answer to this either way. What I do know is that I don’t know of any evidence that marks humans as “especially special.” And certainly I do not know that humans have any “divine” or “natural” right to exploit other species.
I want us to recognize and acknowledge that we, necessarily, experience, perceive, and interpret the world, and our place in it, from a thoroughly human perspective. And part of that perspective, understandably, is self-serving. But we also have the ability to realize that what applies to us also applies to other species. They, too, naturally and inevitably, experience, perceive, and interpret the world, and their place in it, from their perspective. We simply have no right or reason to assume that our perspective trumps all others. That’s my bottom line.