Human Exceptionalism

flyinghorsecropped_200Humans, at least in Western culture, have this thing. They have to feel superior. Doesn’t matter in what way. Intelligence, ethnicity, physical appearance, physical ability, culture, choice of deity or style of worship, geographical location, sports team, stuff/no stuff, you name it. Whatever it is, we gotta be Number One.

Some of it is fear or insecurity. Shouting as loudly as possible to cover an underlying conviction that we might not be the best/the brightest/the most greatest/the fanciest/the whatever-est. But some seems to be built in.

But then there’s the part of us that stops and looks and sometimes, however reluctantly, examines the assumption. With animals, for example, overcoming centuries of “Man is the pinnacle of creation, and animals exist to serve him” (note gender there–another assumption).

Science has been taking a closer look at animal intelligence in recent years, and questioning the belief that humans are exceptional for everything from intelligence to tool use. It’s not a question that we are the champions when it comes to dominating the environment (and, as is becoming all too evident, destroying it), but we aren’t as unique as we thought. We’re starting to realize that intelligence is a spectrum, and some species that we told ourselves were just kind of not there are actually quite, quite bright.

Octopuses, for example. Elephants. Even some that we’ve long dismissed as fundamentally stupid. Such as cats. And pigs–pigs are really smart. And, yes, horses.

That’s a major shift in the paradigm, to start thinking that humans aren’t the only thing on the planet that can think and feel, that’s aware of itself, that can solve problems and maybe even think ahead as well as back. What’s more, some animals may even have what can be defined as language. Prairie dogs, for example. Marine mammals. Some species of birds. And if we stop defining language as human language, i.e., auditory, oral, spoken words, we can really expand the horizons.

Once we allow a thing to exist, or to have the possibility of existing, we change how we approach the world. We investigate things (concepts, ideas, species) that we didn’t previously consider to be worthy of investigating. We give it value, because we are still, fundamentally, Superior Beings, and our notice is a form of validation.

At the same time, we also acknowledge that we might not be as uniquely wonderful as we’ve been telling ourselves we are. We leave room for others to be wonderful, too. Whatever Other we’re considering at the time.

I can see how the blowback happens. The trainers and riders insisting horses cannot be that intelligent. The general public, even the scientists, resisting the concept of animal intelligence. The politics of exceptionalism, and all the invidious isms of fear and hate and exclusion. Because opening up to the idea that we (for whatever definition of that word we’re looking at) are not so totally exceptional after all can be a terribly difficult and scary process.

It’s also essential if we’re going to move on–as trainers/riders, as individuals, as citizens. We have to see outside our own paradigms, and understand that our one way of being or doing or believing is not the only way.

Besides, if or when we finally, unambiguously encounter nonterrestrial intelligence, we’ll have to be able to think outside the human box. Probably very far outside it. We’d better be ready.

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Human Exceptionalism — 17 Comments

    • The value of life, any life, is a relatively new concept in human history. So is the idea of empathy with the Other.

      We’re really very territorial, very aggressive animals.

  1. And this is what science fiction is specifically -for-. So that we can try it out, meeting an alien intelligence or trashing our planet or nuking each other into radioactive dust. And we can figure out why it is a bad idea, without actually doing it.

  2. Absolutely! One of my favorite comments of all time was written in praise of Andre Norton, saying that science fiction had done more toward getting the civil rights movement going that anything else, because once you have fellow feelings with bug-eyed monsters from outer space, then having sympathy with blacks is no problem! And how could we think that pigs are stupid when we have Wilbur of *Charlotte’s Web* right in front of us. I think the more we hear about the intelligence and feelings of others (animals, especially) the more we find it in ourselves to say ‘gee, they are just like us’. Hooray for literature!

    • Norton;s claim denies all the agency and action of African Americans, while claiming all that exceptionalism for genre fiction — which as laterly we’ve understood was not particularly exceptional from the general racial and gender biases of the U.S.

      • See blog post re. assumptions etc.

        Awareness has been expanding, much faster than the genre itself, but that will/should follow.

        However that’s not the focus of the Horseblog.

      • Just a point of clarification, at least as quoted above, Norton wasn’t the one making the claim re: sf/civil rights, but someone making that claim in praise of her. (still denying agency, yes, but a different person than Norton herself making the denial)

  3. Anyone who’s spent any time observing in nature will find that different animal species often have an intense curiosity about one-another, as well as a surprising tendency to interact peaceably and accommodate each other, particularly when food sources are abundant.

    Even predator/prey relationships are not as cut-and-dried as we tend to believe.

    It could be that the prevalence of recording technology has allowed us to capture a greater range of animal behaviour and disseminate it more widely than in the past (when it was mainly researchers who shared their findings amongst themselves; or National Geographic, which specialised in showcasing the more gruesome aspects of the food chain), so our understanding of the world of species is changing – hopefully for the better.

  4. Humans -are- exceptional.

    Leave aside the big brain for a moment. Name an animal that can run ten miles, then swim two miles, then climb a tree.

    Now add the big brain, and watch the human write a story about his adventure. On a computer. That’s exceptional. It is the exception, not the rule.

    Doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it, but to deny the difference between humans and other mammals is foolishness.

    When/if we ever meet aliens, we will be meeting a being that is exceptional on -their- planet too. Most likely we will learn a very great deal about what it means to be Human, by watching the aliens not being human. Hopefully that will be entertaining enough to keep people from fighting. Realistically, probably not.

    • That’s exactly the attitude I’m talking about. Thank you for illustrating it so well.

      From the viewpoint of a dog, our noses suck. From that of a bee, our eyesight is pathetic. From that of a horse, we’re deaf and blind and extremely poor at picking up simple signals.

      We don’t know what other species do in their heads. We can guess or make assumptions. But if we persist in thinking that we’re the shizzle, that blinds us to whole ranges of possibilities.

  5. “Leave aside the big brain for a moment. Name an animal that can run ten miles, then swim two miles, then climb a tree.”

    Good grief – how many humans can even do that, unless they’ve undergone extensive training. I’m pretty sure there are many predators that could manage it without the training. And your average bear or tiger wouldn’t have to bother with the water or the tree: they’d have already hauled down their prey twenty steps into the chase.

    No-one is denying the differences, but to claim human superiority over other animals is specious. All of human “progress” is a result of cumulative co-operation between many members of our species over a vast period of time. Plunk your average human being down alone in the forest and they will die within days unless they’ve previously acquired very specialised survival skills from that collective body of knowledge. Most of us, sadly, haven’t.

    In fact, with all our technological advances we are more vulnerable than ever, because we no longer store our knowledge in our individual brains. Which, effectively, means our brains are now actually shrinking.

    Use it or lose it…

  6. I see discussions and discovery of animal intelligence as interesting but not relevant in terms of ethics. Even if animals turned out to be morons in every possible way, that would not justify using and killing them for pleasure and entertainment, as we have for thousands of years. I don’t want to use or kill another creature unless my survival depends on it. I wish all other people felt the same way.

    • It is a problem that humans are omnivores, and also pack animals and predators. I look to the day when we can synthesize truly effective and nutritious equivalents of animal protein, and also when we may get a better grip on the less savory aspects of our nature.

      Acknowledging animal intelligence is one way we make a start on this process. So is recognizing the humanity of the human “other.” We have our own evolution plus millennia of cultural programming to overcome, so it takes a while.