August 05, 2011
Is there anything that makes humans special?
Primatologist Frans de Waal's latest book The Age of Empathy (2009) argues against the idea that we humans have some special quality that separates us from all the other animals. Some people, especially those who are religious, seem to be very reluctant to accept that idea that other animal species share pretty much all the same basic physical and emotional characteristics that we humans have.
There is an interesting passage in the book (p. 206-208) where he says that this wrong idea in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam originated because the part of the world in which those religions originated were those that did not contain our closest non-human relatives.
For the Darwinist, there is nothing more logical than the assumption of emotional continuity. Ultimately, I believe that the reluctance to talk about animal emotions has less to do with science than religion. And not just any, religion, but particularly religions that arose in isolation from animals that look like us. With monkeys and apes around every corner, no rain forest culture has ever produced a religion that places humans outside of nature. Similarly, in the East-surrounded by native primates in India, China, and Japan-religions don't draw a sharp line between humans and other animals. Reincarnation occurs in many shapes and forms: A man may become a fish and a fish may become God. Monkey gods, such as Hanuman, are common. Only the Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul. It's not hard to see how desert nomads might have arrived at this view. Without animals to hold up a mirror to them, the notion that we're alone came naturally to them. They saw themselves as created in God's image and as the only intelligent life on earth. Even today, we're so convinced of this that we search for other such life by training powerful telescopes on distant galaxies.
It's extremely telling how Westerners reacted when they finally did get to see animals capable of challenging these notions. When the first live apes went on display, people couldn't believe their eyes. In 1835, a male chimpanzee arrived at London Zoo, clothed in a sailor's suit. He was followed by a female orangutan, who was put in a dress. Queen Victoria went to see the exhibit, and was appalled. She called the apes "frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human." This was a widespread sentiment, and even nowadays I occasionally meet people who call apes "disgusting." How can they feel like this unless apes are telling them something about themselves that they don't want to hear? When the same apes at the London Zoo were studied by the young Charles Darwin, he shared the queen's conclusion but without her revulsion. Darwin felt that anyone convinced of man's superiority ought to go take a look at these apes.
All of this occurred in the not too distant past, long after Western religion had spread its creed of human exceptionalism to all corners of knowledge. Philosophy inherited the creed when it blended with theology, and the social sciences inherited it when they emerged out of philosophy. After all, psychology was named after Psykhe, the Greek goddess of the soul. These religious roots are reflected in continued resistance to the second message of evolutionary theory. The first is that all plants and animals, including ourselves, are the product of a single process. This is now widely accepted: also outside biology. But the second message is that we are continuous with all other life forms, not only in body but also in mind. This remains hard to swallow. Even those who recognize humans as a product of evolution keep searching for that one divine spark, that one "huge anomaly" that sets us apart. The religious connection has long been pushed to the subconscious, yet science keeps looking for something special that we as a species can be proud of.
When it comes to characteristics that we don't like about ourselves, continuity is rarely an issue. As soon as people kill, abandon, rape, or otherwise mistreat one another we are quick to blame it on our genes. Warfare and aggression are widely recognized as biological traits, and no one thinks twice about pointing at ants or chimps for parallels. It's only with regard to noble characteristics that continuity is an issue, and empathy is a case in point. Toward the end of a long career, many a scientist cannot resist producing a synopsis of what distinguishes us from the brutes. American psychologist David Premack focused on causal reasoning, culture, and the taking of another's perspective, while his colleague Jerome Kagan mentioned language, morality, and yes, empathy. Kagan included consolation behavior, such as a child embracing his mother, who has hurt herself. This is indeed a great example, but of course hardly restricted to our species. My main point, however, is not whether the proposed distinctions are real or imagined, but why all of them need to be in our favor. Aren't humans at least equally special with respect to torture, genocide, deception, exploitation, indoctrination, and environmental destruction? Why does every list of human distinctiveness need to have the flavor of a feel-good note?
This is one of the fundamental reasons that the Abrahamic religions find it so hard to reconcile their beliefs with science. They have locked themselves into a dogma that human beings are special in some discontinuous way from all other animals, when science is increasingly revealing that all species lie on a continuum with no sharp boundaries. These religions simply cannot live with the idea that what makes us human is just that we have different amounts of same things that are possessed by other animal species.
Religious people keep searching for that one spark of divine fire that reassures them that they are unique and that their god really does care for them in a special way. But they keep repeatedly failing in their quest because the 'soul' (for want of a better term) is like the rainbow, an illusion that keeps receding. It is kind of sad that they never seem to be able to come to terms with their true place in the universe.
I myself find it enormously uplifting to think that I am part of all of life, that I can connect myself to every single thing that lives and has ever lived by tracing a path through the great tree of life. What could be more magnificent than that?