Are Humans Special?

Q: In Radical Nature and in your talks you challenge the idea that humans are special—yet isn’t it true that we are unique? No other species has developed civilization, constructed cities, created art, invented technologies, sent men to the Moon, built the Internet, or can can engage in philosophical conversations like this.  That makes us special, don’t you think? Besides, isn’t the human species responsible for the ecological crisis that challenges us today? It seems clear to me that humans are special, and to deny that fact is to deny the obvious.  What is your response?

CdeQ: This is a big and complicated topic. It’s big because—as you indicate—our species is responsible for bringing the world to the brink of eco-collapse.  And if we don’t deal with that right now and in a big way we are not likely to survive beyond the next century.

It’s complicated because in order to create a solution we will have to confront both our greatest glories and our greatest shame.

Yes, of course, there is something quite unique—even special—about the human species. We just need to look at anatomical design to see how we stand out. Anatomy has contributed to our emergence as a dominant species on the planet (I say “a” dominant species because, from a different perspective, we could make a case that the truly dominant species in terms of sheer numbers, mass, pervasiveness, and longevity are the various species of bacteria and other single-celled organisms).

Here are some of our special anatomical features:

  • Opposable thumbs—We are not the only species with this ability; other primates share this evolutionary gift. However, combined with our highly developed intelligence, we have used our opposable thumbs to manipulate the environment in exceptional ways.
  • Upright posture—While other species do stand upright, we are the only species to maintain a fully upright posture when walking and running.  We are the only mammal species to completely expose the front of our body (including our genitals), making us highly vulnerable.
  • Fully extended spine—We achieved our upright posture by developing a fully extended spine that enhances flexibility and strength. Plus we have . . .
  • Arched/flat feet—Planting our whole feet (toes and heels) flat and firmly on the ground (plantigrade motion) enables us to stand and walk upright.  We are not the only species with plantigrade feet, but humans alone combine plantigrade locomotion with an arched foot.  This gives us greater stability when walking and running upright.
  • Liberated arms and hands—Through the course of evolution, we have shifted the use of our front limbs from locomotive aids (“gravipodal function”) liberating them for greater manipulative ability, increasing our options for interacting with and changing our environment.
  • Highly developed neocortex—Human brains have evolved a highly complex neocortex, giving us capacities for great intelligence and sophisticated symbolic language.
  • Speech and abstract language—Humans have a rare combination of larynx, tongue, and teeth suitable for vocalizing complex speech patterns. Human languages have evolved to express complex and abstract ideas that enable us to strategize and to communicate plans to fellow humans.
  • Prolonged childhood—As much as 75 percent of our brains’ development occurs after birth.  This involves a prolonged childhood that requires a stable family structure to support and protect the infant, which, in turn, adds to social cohesion and cooperation.

While these, and other, characteristics have undoubtedly contributed to our survival as a species and have enabled us to create vast and complex civilizations, none of these attributes alone is unique to humans.

Other primates have opposable thumbs and have liberated their front limbs from “gravipodal” to manipulative functions. Penguins walk upright and have extended spines.  Bears, kangaroos, mice, rats, hedgehogs, raccoons, and skunks also walk with their whole foot flat on the ground.   Whales, dolphins, elephants, crows, parrots, and octopus are species with highly developed brains, possessing a complex neocortex. Many other species have complex languages and can communicate information about abstract and distant realities (cetaceans, birds, and bees, for example).

What is unique is the combination of these characteristics in a single species.  And perhaps the long childhood of humans is a decisive factor in the social cohesion necessary for developing advanced civilizations—along with the industrial technologies that have drastically disrupted the ecosphere.

Given all this, we can make a good case that humans are special.  Indeed, we are unique. But so is every other species. Possession of unique characteristics defines a species as a species. Some form of uniqueness is what distinguishes one species from another. Yes, humans are special—but we are not especially special. Every species is special—that’s what makes it a distinct species.

Beyond the Myth of ‘Human Specialness’

In Radical Nature (and elsewhere in my work), I point to the myth of “human specialness” as the root cause of the crises we find ourselves in today.  Both modern science and mainstream monotheistic religions support this myth.

Science, claiming that only animals with highly developed brains can possess consciousness, denies the possibility of widespread intelligence in nature. Because humans are assumed to have a uniquely developed neocortex responsible for higher forms of cognition, we are led to believe that only humans possess true intelligence.

Religion, when it draws on Biblical scripture, reinforces the myth that only humans have souls (or consciousness), and likewise conspires in the conceit that “humans are special.”

When we tell ourselves this story, and go to great lengths to defend it with science and religion, we set the human species against the rest of the natural world.  This myth has its roots in philosophy. The bottom-line metaphysical assumption of modern science is materialism—that matter, nature’s essence, is “dead” and insentient, without any intrinsic value, purpose, or meaning. How could it be otherwise? Only creatures with consciousness have intrinsic value.

The logic is stark and final:  Only creatures with brains have minds or consciousness. Nature doesn’t have a brain of its own, therefore it couldn’t have a mind of its own.  Therefore it couldn’t have any intrinsic value or meaning.  Therefore, nature is available for humans to do with as we please.  We are free and entitled to take whatever we desire, serving our own human-centered needs and wishes.

The results of living out this self-serving “story”—of believing and enacting the myth of human specialness—are equally stark and final.

Very likely, within a generation or two—if we don’t radically change our relationship to nature—the world will no longer be able to sustain the survival or our (and countless other) species.  We are victims of our own self-centered myth.

And here’s the clincher:  We will not change our behavior and our lifestyles, we will not change our relationship to the natural world—unless we change our fundamental guiding myth.

Until we give up the myth of “human specialness” nothing significant will change.  Without that fundamental shift in our story, anything else we do to “save” the environment—no matter how ingenous or well intentioned—will amount to nothing more than ineffective band-aids.

At the core of the ecological crisis is a psychological attitude rooted in a profoundly incoherent and dangerous metaphysical belief: that matter, nature itself, is essentially “dead.” That’s the fundamental story we have to give up.

Consciousness All the Way Down

Humans are not special because we have special brains with special or unique consciousness. We are not special because nature itself teems with consciousness—all the way down. Every cell in every living creature, every molecules in every cell, every atom in every molecule, and every subatomic particle, quark, quantum, or superstring—or whatever lies at the deepest level of physical reality—tingles with the spark of spirit.

When we accept this, when we open to the essential sacredness of nature, we will radically alter our relationship to every other living creature and to the wider inorganic environment of rivers and oceans, wind and rain, mountains and deserts—with the underlying geology of the planet itself—we will begin to move through and live in the world with deeper respect.

We will, like indigenous peoples across the world and throughout time—like our ancestors for millions of years—experience ourselves as integral elements in a vast and eternal natural cycle of life and death.  We will live with the knowledge that whatever we take is always returned, viable for future life.  We will be sustained.