Are you a person or an animal?

In the minds of many, there is a clear distinction between where the animal kingdom leaves off and humanity picks up. We use the word primitive (derived from our closest cousins, the primates) to refer to that which is beneath us. We bandy about the word humane as though the moral enlightenment implicit in its definition elevates our species above all others.

Genetics teaches us that irrespective of our subjective notion of the gulf between us and our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, these differences are at best of cutaneous profundity. But those minute differences are the crucial ones, aren’t they?

Consider human behavior (on a species-wide basis–no anecdotal evidence please). What are the main forces shaping our world? Most generally, isn’t it our survival instinct and our desire to pass genetic material onto future generations? Sure we do this talking thing and this writing thing, quite unique in the animal kingdom. Look around you, though, you’ll find many species capable of acts both unique and amazing. We don’t grant them exalted status.

So let’s try this from another tack: we’re the dominant species on the planet, right? By what measure? Biomass? No. Number of individuals? No. Ability to extinguish all life on the planet? Hardly not. Most adaptable? No. Able to survive in the most diverse ecological niches? Have you ever heard of bacteria? Record holders for the longest stint on this rock? Not even in the running.

I propose that human society perpetuates a myth of superiority and distinction. We’ve even created gods who especially care for our species, as we are made in their image:cool:. But even inasmuch as our speciesism underlies nearly our every thought and action, there is not an ounce of reason in it.

We are the dominant species in terms of our intelligence.


We think so, but by measures we consider valueable. We also have difficulty communicating with other species and thus are forced to make inferences about their intelligence based on their behavior. We have no way of verifying that we are not missing some incredibly rich internal mental functioning.

What if our incredible intelligence was the single major factor influencing human behavior? Would this justify our speciesism?

IMHO, our basic drives, the legacy of 3 billion years of natural selection, influence human behavior to a greater extent than reason and intelligence. Basic drives have a qualititatively different influence as well. More often than not, our intelligence is harnessed to satisfy our basic drives.

Arts and literature and music. Conscious creations. So far as I know, no other animal has this capability. While it is true that many animals are capable of building very beautiful things, these are not conscious decisions to create simply for the sake of creation itself, rather they are products of instinct and used as props for mating, catching prey, etc.

I agree that our intelligence is different than other species’ but there are examples of animals that can process information in ways we can’t.

But basically, what do we use this ‘superior’ intelligence to do. I agree with CB that we use this adaptation to further the same drives & goals other animals do. We rationalize a lot of it, but I challenge anyone to show me something that moves most of us that is based on a reasoned analysis of the goals (not sex, food, shelter, genetic inheiritance)- something that shows we are different in our goals/drives.



These are conscious creations by virtue of our insight into the internal motivations of their creators. The same could be said of our notion of our own consciousness. We lack the tools to communicate with other species in a manner that could reveal a rich inner life.

When you observe the rich complexity of natural creation, a spider’s web, honeycomb, the weaver bird’s nest, you infer that these are survival/mating props. They are solutions to the problem of survival. But they could easily have taken on more drab forms. Surely a web’s magnificent architecture is not the only means available for flycatching.

Perhaps a notable creation of human society is the luxury we afford some of our members not to directly behave in a manner that effects there own survival. There is enough to go around, food-wise, so that some may devote themselves to a form of creative expression that has no practical value. Our so-called primitive brethren sensibly restrict their creative expression in the name of pragmatism.

Here is what you are failing to catch, though. One can reasonably infer that webs, nests, honeycomb are products of instinct rather than a product of appreciation for beauty for beauty’s sake is that those examples are all common to that species. For instance, the webs of garden spiders, while certainly extremely beautiful and fascinating, actually all look remarkably similar from each individual spider to another. Same with weaver nests and honeycomb. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of amazing individual acts of creativity for no other purpose than creation itself. Mozart didn’t write music and daVinci didn’t paint simply as a product of instinct and those pieces are remarkable in terms of their originality. We wouldn’t be amazed by them if they were common to the species.

I will agree with you, however, that the products of Mozart and daVinci could not have come about without society and the luxury it affords. One might consider then, whether it is this aspect that separates us from other animals.

I’m not sure, though, that you can say that other animals sensibly restrict their creative expression. This implies that they could choose different. I submit that they cannot. This free-will, then, is another aspect that separates us from and arguably gives us superiority to other animals.

Our dominance is justified the same way any other dominance is. We can kick any other species’ ass.

(only partly joking)

I agree, it is somewhat impossible if you consider that the drive of greed be included in there.

You might note that, as a race and as individuals, we’ve largely accomodated sex, food, and shelter (genetic inheritance would be sex, I think) and so the driving force is accumulation of materials. Sure, you say, but the materials are ones which we feel are applicable to sex, food, and shelter. OK, but not in the quantity we currently demand.

At any rate, I find that most human endeavors are not animalistic because they do not directly involve those goals: working for a profit; the study of abstract mathematics; theoretical physics; philosophy; art. These things are above and beyond natural necessity and are also not instinctual (if they were, then we would all agree on what good art is and we would all be good at math, etc etc).

Man is part animal, part something new.

how much of this DOMINANT SPECIES mentality comes from EUROPEAN CULTURE, which happens to be the DOMINANT CULTURE on the planet at the moment? this is the result of technology and the willingness to use it in a DOMINANT fashion. see:

GUNS, GERMS, & STEEL by Jared Diamond

is this one ego trip related to another, with some Darwinian rationalization thrown in?

Dal Timgar

Surely you don’t think that a spider crawls out of its spider-bed in the morning, scratches it spinnerets, and thinks, “Shall I make a unique work of art this morning? Nah, I’m too hungry. I’ll just build the same web as always.”

I think it’s disingenuous to insist upon a sharp divide between human and animal, to say that humans are intelligent and all animals are not, but it’s obvious that there is a spectrum of intelligence, and one can confidently state that mice are “smarter” than spiders who are “smarter” than bacteria.

I agree these natural objects take similar forms among a species. There apparently are rules for the composition of webs, nests, and honeycomb. Our perspective of these creations is actually dualist, however. On casual glance, we note the striking resemblances within a given species. On the other hand, selection theory emphasizes subtle variations among members of a given species and the differential selection of the genotypes giving rise to advantageous variations. Of note, selection theory does not inform us as to whether a manifestation of consciousness is the tool which crafts a subtly more efficient web.

Also notable here, many instances of human creativity involve subtle variations of a previous artist’s efforts and these differences may not be apparent to the non-cognoscenti. Consider classical violinists playing pieces that have been played for centuries. Same melody, subtly different expression.

I now need to resume working (creative expression in return for food). Promise I’ll return later, though.

But isn’t our creativity just different adaptation. What makes it ‘superior’ or dominant?

Many species have driven others to extinction, by destroying their habitat, out competing for food or other resources. Just because we use ‘technology’ does that make us superior? If anything, we’ve adapted our culture and behavior & go more out of our way to adapt to other species than they do for us or others- so are we more inferior since we’re allowing other species priority?

How is our creativity just a different adaptation, PosterChild? I don’t think that most of our artistic expression helps advance the species, but comes from some other, different, source.

My point exactly. The fact that the spider’s web is more or less common to all shows that it is instinctual, not conscious. Even the same species in a distant region typically has the same type of web. Now, perhaps, in a million years some more divergence will happen in terms of webs (in fact, I’m sure that it will) but the fact that it doesn’t happen quicker might tell us something regarding whether changes are a result of conscious decision. I would argue that if spiders were consciously changing their webs, that this change would occur quicker.

I think Choosy’s point

is that spiders have been selected to make the webs that way and that whether they’re made by conscious choice or not, the spiders that make them that way were selected.

Good points Neurotik. Selection theory would also say that anything that we do as a species was selected for (or at least not selected against- tho I have problems with that, too:)) so our ‘creativity’ is the result of our evolution.

Back to the OP about speciesism-

My point is: I don’t see that what is “new” (or unique) to us is any “different” from what makes other species unique from all others.

For example, the whole creativity bit- we say it’s beautiful, wonderful, yadda yadda, but isn’t that circular reasoning? We’re valuing creative output because we value creativity, but what makes creativity a valuable criteria? We value OUR traits because they’re our traits.

It kind of reminds me of the racist/eugenic theories that some still spew- that these traits are the good ones. That the criteria for what’s important about a species happen to be the same ones that make us different.


No. While “primitive” has connotations these days of “that which is not as advanced as us”, it wasn’t derived from “primate”.

Primate has always meant “of first rank”. Homo sapiens sapiens would never come from hoi polloi, now would we? :wink:

Just a reminder of the OP.

PosterChild I appreciate your comments. I agree that the standards we impose in asserting our superiority are internal standards. Thus begging the question how do we come up with better standards that allow us rightfully to assert our superiority? In turn begging the question, why do we need to assert our superiority?

Modern Western culture is plagued with such assertions. Imperialism was predicated on the European assertion of cultural superiority.

As you contemplate your replies to this thread, imagine that you are trying to justify or undermine the rationale for analogous, more concrete examples of the assertion of superiority of one group over another. Try to view your responses in light of racism, for instance. And please, I’m not close to suggesting that the justification of speciesism is the moral equivalent of the justification of racism. It’s an exercise that I suggest to provide some perspective on your arguments.

I agree with the first half of this sentence 100%. No sharp divide between humans and animals. My point exactly.

My discussion of the motivations of spiders was intended to highlight our lack of insight into the internal mental processes in so-called lower species. Do I believe spiders possess consciousness? No. But I relate to spiders the same way you and everybody else on this board does, poorly.
We can all appreciate the degree of bias in the dataset compelling us to believe that free will is a strictly human commodity. The majority of the evidence for its existence originates from within our own mental processes or from communications with fellow members of our tribe.

Another important point here is that in OP I asked for respondents to refrain from using anecdotal evidence. My experience is that assertions of free will are anecdotal in nature. There are isolated incidents of free will being exercised. The Jean Dixon effect teaches us that we will amplify the historical significance of objectively insignificant data set provided it resonates with some dearly held belief. Ask youself, society-wide, is there free will? Every individual could choose whatever path they wish, but what do the majority do? What they do is of paramount importance here because when one looks for evidence of free will in the animal kingdom, we can only make judgements from behaviors we observe. How accurate would actuarial tables be if we were all running around exercising our free will?

Originally posted by aynrandlover
Man is part animal, part something new.
Agreed. How much play do we give that something new part, though? Genetically, less than 1% of us is something new. If you believe that our genetics play a major role in shaping our species, I suggest you could take one of two views of the genetic data: we are almost the same as chimps, and the vast differences we perceive between our two species is quite subjective and in reality meaningless or you could maintain that this 1% makes all the difference. Given the Western cultural legacy of the assertion of superiority over virtually every new culture contacted, which is our predisposition?

In going back to the OP to study it a bit harder and come up with a better response to it than I have been giving, as you suggested, a few things struck me.

I would argue that we ARE the most adaptable. Consider this, a single species Homo sapiens sapiens can be found in more habitats around the world than any other species. Now, I am using the term habitat rather than place in order to specifically exclude bacteria. If I had used the term place, then one could argue that bacteria are found wherever humans are found. By using the term habitat, many bacteria are restricted to very few habitats, as many of them are very specific to the creature they happen to be living in.

Anyways, back to the argument, assuming then, that this idea of us as the most adaptable is a fair measure (remember, you introduced it choosybeggar)then I think humans win out in this one.

Consider: humans can be found living in almost every habitat around the world, from deserts to swamps to jungles to temperate forests to mountains to tundra.

I now challenge someone to name a single SPECIES (bacteria is not a species, nor is a penguin, for example) that lives in as many varied climates and habitats as humans.