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Why humans need to rethink their place in the animal kingdom (newstatesman.com)
78 points by Petiver 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments



Even if we can't justify drawing a sharp line between humans and everything else, you get into very tricky ground if you do not.

Ant colonies have a similar biomass to humankind [1]. If humans aren't exceptional, do we acknowledge some sort of responsibility to provide for ants? Can they draw on welfare?

If we separate by intelligence ... humans are clearly quite exceptional. Even then though, if we reject human exceptionalism we will need convoluted definitions. Can a town itself sue you for leaving because the intelligence of the town itself decreases? Is a corporation a philosophical as well as legal entity? Can they feel pain? A corporation can 'speak'; to some extent independently of the people in it.

Humans may well not be exceptional in the harsh world of facts and science. We still have to act as though we are or we may as well give way to nihilism. The line has to be drawn somewhere.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biomass_(ecology)


There's no need to define boundaries that give rise to bazillion exceptions.

Nihilism isn't the ultimate end.

I'd say that if you can choose between eating a fruit, and killing a bird and eating it's flesh, a virtuous agent would eat the fruit.

It's unnecessary to go the utilitarian way of trying to draw the lines and meet every single exception to the rule.

Acting in the world as a virtuous agent is a much more practical approach.

Would you test and experiment on someone who has a nervous system capable of feeling pain and suffering, if it could save thousands or even millions of people? Given the data of the lack of success of a huge percentage of studies, you would, being virtuous, deduce that it's better to seek other means of testing instead of doing a hit and miss approach on animals.

People don't behave as virtuous agents, and they do not act kindly. Especially not to those they deem less worthy than them.

That's why stuff needs rethinking and regulation.


Where is it enshrined as truth that being virtuous (by the implied definition above) is important or even desirable as a trait in a species?


Discussion about metaethics can go to infinity, you might not agree with what I find virtuous and we can discuss infinitely of why the things we will be talking about are important.

I'm pretty sure virtue ethics is as practical as you can get and still stay in the realm of philosophy.

Virtue ethics is there to give you guidance of which questions to pose and how to act when coming up with the answers.

There's no need to delve on the metaethics of a particular case.


This is the crux of the issue. What makes one moral framework "virtuous" and one not? It could be considered virtuous to ensure the dominance of the most competitive species (us in this case).

Even if one, for the most part, cares for the world around them, is it virtuous to attempt to ensure the survival of a species like the panda? As a species it would vanish without any outside intervention.


Considering humans the most competitive species is also something that could be called into question. We certainly think we're special, but we're probably falling into Dunning-Kruger territory.

I think the only obvious route is to treat other living things the way we would like to be treated - after all, we have a common ancestry and a case could be made that we're just one big multicellular organism


I do buy the golden rule as the only unarguably reasonable philosophical principle (I hold it pretty highly as an essential combination of rationality and empathy), I'm just arguing for the sake of it.

The reason I consider humans the most competitive is because we could potentially wipe out any form of life (for some, we would have to go too). As for the special thing, I don't think we're special in the sense that we have some innate quality that separates us from other animals, we're just more intelligent. Some unknown gap between the smartest animals and us results in the situation we see today: humans have created technology and industry, pursued math and science. No other species has, as far as I know (or at least not to a degree that makes it significant relative to human understanding)


This is all hyperbole. From the egoistic perspective, live is just a figment of imagination, there is no other, just ego. This might sound like a matter of semantics, but it reminds me of this: Virtue is mainly a question of how to treat oneself.


> People don't behave as virtuous agents, and they do not act kindly. Especially not to those they deem less worthy than them.

> That's why stuff needs rethinking and regulation.

I assume the regulation will be done by the angels, as people do not behave as virtuous agents.


> a virtuous agent would eat the fruit.

For your subjective idea of virtue.


Of course, but almost everyone asking questions and acting on the answers, in the framework of virtue ethics, would do it.

It's the pragmatist philosophy.


What would an ethical person in this framework do with pets that can't be vegan (ex: cats)?


> If humans aren't exceptional, do we acknowledge some sort of responsibility to provide for ants?

Not necessarily provide for them, but the opposite extreme (not caring if they exist) isn't all that much better and hubris born out of the notion that humans are so exceptional and at the center of everything.

Because this ignores the fact that our habitat (Earth) doesn't just revolve around our existence, our existence is just a part in a vast ecosystem which can only work because life exists in all kinds of shapes and forms.

Nature isn't optional, it's what allowed us to get where we are today, the more we forget this the more likely we are to make mistakes which can't be reversed and will ultimately lead to the destruction of our one and only habitat.


This is the way we should be looking at the situation. We should provide "welfare" for all living species whether or not we believe they meet some threshold of privilege within a moral framework. I would argue that the same point could be made for why we should provide all humans welfare but somehow even that is a radical proposition in our conservative moralising society.


> If humans aren't exceptional, do we acknowledge some sort of responsibility to provide for ants? Can they draw on welfare?

This is a funny statement, because it is prefaced with a pretense of abandoning human exceptionalism, and then goes on to ask a question with implicit human exceptionalism; As if the ants need humans to take care of them even though they've been around for ~92 million years.


The sum of the mass of all human approximately equals the sum of the mass of all ants ... and therefore if humans are not special ants we need to consider whether ants are entitled to welfare payments? What??


In my humble opinion, Nihilism is the philosophical base for everything else. "fall back on" would be suitable. Point in case, the empty set is the initial element of set theory, as zero is the first element of the natural numbers, the identity element of addition. Without it, there is no equallity, no half order (and thus no order?). Horror Vacuui is very real though (fear of emptiness), the zero set is isomorphic to the one-structure, the terminal structure of structural homomorphism (if I remember correctly) as in the null element of multiplication.


If we separate by intelligence ... humans are clearly quite exceptional.

We can pick a great many animals, and say that if we separate by intelligence, they are expectional, doing things that other species can at best only crudely approximate. Human specialised intelligence is really good at doing human specialised things.

I think I'd agree that humans do some things with their intelligence that might put them into a fresh category, but the point I'm suggesting is that humans are not the only creature with an exceptional intelligence.


Yes dolphins and octopuses (and others I'm forgetting, I'm sure) have intelligence far and above their peers. But human intelligence is clearly much greater, isn't it? If humans are at a 100 and "normal" animals are at a ~5, the fact that octopuses and dolphins are in the 25-30 range doesn't mean they're equivalent to humans, or that human intelligence is limited to "human specialised things," it just means they're smarter than birds or snakes or crocodiles.


> But human intelligence is clearly much greater, isn't it?

Our current method of evaluating non-human intelligence is mostly taking tasks humans are known to do and seeing if we can get animals to do them, which biases it toward finding animals performing at no greater level in any dimension than humans. We don't really have a coherent model of what intelligence is, much less an unbiased interspecies test of it.

Humans obviously have the most human-like intelligence; any other superlatives attached to human intelligence should probably be prefaced with “apparently” rather than “clearly”.


We don't really have a coherent model of what intelligence is

Indeed. Going further, the idea that "general intelligence" can exist is something I'll countenance; the assumption that humans have it is a conceit without convincing evidence, based on a sample of one.


> the assumption that humans have it [general intelligence] is a conceit without convincing evidence

Why do you make this claim? Engineering, science, and mathematics are all convincing evidence that humans have general intelligence. Humans also score highly in measures of intelligence like https://arxiv.org/abs/0712.3329.


There might be some of the humans, who we grant special status, who are below the average dolphin, which calls the whole idea into question.


But human intelligence is clearly much greater, isn't it?

I think I'm going to say that "greater" doesn't really fit. Specialised in a different way, yes. I think that trying to apply a single value on a single scale simplifies it to a nonsense.

How are you measuring this? How are you coming up with numbers? A Clark's Nutcracker can remember the location of tens of thousands of hidden pine seeds over a 15 mile radius and find them even though it's now a snowy winter and the seed was buried months previously. Clearly, this bird is smarter than pretty much every human I ever met.

A chimp (at least one chimp) is better at remembering random numbers than a human (at least some humans, including a memory champion); https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/are-humans-smarter-th...

It's usually about this point the guy on HN who claims animals can't think because they have no formal spoken language turns up.


I find that hard to believe. Does the nutcracker remember, or just get the same environmental cues each time they visit a location? Does it remember whether the seed is gone? Does it search locations that have no seeds? How could this feat even have been validated? Who recorded thousands of seed hiding actions, and monitored all winter over 15 square miles?


You can pick apart any feats of memory in this fashion. The fact is animal memory is not like computer memory. When we say a person or an animal "remembers where something is" we don't mean they have a detailed photo-realistic map in their head. We mean they've stored exactly enough information to allow them to navigate to the object.


Or, as I suggested, they store nothing but rather depend on environmental cues to choose where to store (and later where to look). Which seem far, far more likely than a prodigious memory.

And no, a real feat of memory can easily be measured and proven. The subject modifies a large list of items (e.g. seed in knothole), then later retrieves said item exactly once. That would be real evidence.


What papers on the subject I found with a quick search suggests that moving the markers a little leads to the bird not finding the stash, but then searching again nearby. This would suggest to me that they do not simply try places that they might have hidden seeds, without remembering if they did or did not hide seeds there, because the number of places that they did not hide seeds so massively outweigh the places they did hide seeds and if they just thoroughly searched every possible area, they'd spend all their time searching and no time eating. Unless, of course, they're got some really strict criteria that limits the number of places - which would itself be a pretty intelligent thing to do. If I, as a human, needed to hide and remember tens of thousands of objects in a 15 mile radius, that's exactly how I would do it. These creatures are at least as smart as me.

I understand that human memory champions do the same in terms of using locations as a crutch for memory, with their memory palaces and so on. They build themselves spatial pictures and clues. So this bird has a memory as good as human memory champions? As for keeping track of where they hid things by noting where they were in relation to other things; isn't that what humans do? If you removed all landmarks, buildings and everything from my city and replaced it with a flat, featureless plain, I would not be able to identify the location of my house. I find my house by looking at other things to work out which way to walk.

Anyway, I'll stop here because we're both using unprovable axioms as our basis. I suggest that human intelligence is very specialised and that we struggle to even see other specialised intelligence, so limited are we in our thinking. You suggest that humans have a wide ranging general intelligence (poorly defined as that concept is), superior to all others? Neither of us can disprove an axiom, although we can both spend all day suggesting things that creature A can do that creature B cannot.

The test you suggest does strike me as very human focussed; reminds me of tests showing that some creatures can't remember faces based on showing them human faces. Turns out that humans are really good at human faces, and some other animals are really good at other kinds of faces.

I do appreciate your civil tone, though. You did come across as a sealion at the start (which is why I ignored you), but that turned out to be a misread on my part.


A human can come up with a system to help them record hidden pine seed locations or random numbers fairly easily though - marks in the ground or paper and pencil, for example. You'd have a huge challenge getting even the cleverest non-human animal to even use such a system, let alone invent one.

Human level of intelligence is clearly far greater unless you impose some very arbitrary restrictions on human abilities so they can be beaten by some very specific animal abilities.


A human can come up with a system to help them record hidden pine seed locations or random numbers fairly easily though - marks in the ground or paper and pencil, for example.

I would suggest that the evidence indicates otherwise. Written language seems to have taken humans tens of thousands of years to work out, so coming up with that system is clearly not fairly easy. Keeping track of 50000 locations over a 15 mile radius such that they can be found again six months later in winter under a foot of snow using marks in the ground made with a stick, without a written language? That seems... difficult.


I suspect early humans would have been able to make marks on trees to record routes or food caches for millennia before coming up with the more abstract idea of an alphabet. This would have been good enough for this task. The earliest cave paintings known are something like 40,000 years old; surely anyone capable of that could come up with a food marking strategy.


A great deal of my thinking is done using an internal monologue. I have no problems with my hearing or speech, so that internal monologue happens to take the form of spoken language. While I don't think formal spoken language is necessary to think, I would think some sort of formal language is necessary for higher levels of thought.


> If humans aren't exceptional, do we acknowledge some sort of responsibility to provide for ants?

Acknowledging human responsibility for non-human parts of reality is surely a legitimate moral position, whether or not it is one that you hold?

My understanding is that some (or even many) societies have maintained more holistic moral positions, that don't elevate humans beyond other parts of the world, so it seems like a viewpoint people may even be predisposed to, given the right conditions.


You can have a position that doesn't elevate humans beyond other living things but still err on the side of human life/safety/progress/comfort over other living things, can't you?


My main point was simply that moral positions that are not human-centric can and do exist.

It strikes me that the difficulty with accepting the possibility of human responsibility for non-human parts of reality may simply be a consequence of the moral position that is currently quite widespread - something like the one you describe. That position requires a line to be drawn (as OP noted), or perhaps rather values to be assigned, to the human and non-human, but that valuation is impossible in practice, and so really it just allows us to accommodate our own interests whenever the need takes us, and ignore our hypothetical responsibilities.

As to the specifics of your point, I think the answer has to be no: if your position is explicitly to not elevate humans over other living beings then surely it is a contradiction to err on one side or the other?


One does not give way to nihilism, one accepts it and carries on.


Meaning permeates my life, regardless of any pending heat death of the universe. I can't deny this.

Nihilism thus loses its muster.


This is a great article.

> "The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind."

I think deep down we all inherently know this. This is largely why I try my best (although it is difficult) to eat mostly vegetarian. I think if it were a matter of survival killing and eating is natural, however what we do with live stock and factory farming is obviously unethical.

It's hard to watch footage of the process, from birth, life, and ultimate death of animals in captivity. It reminds me of a video game I played called "Prey" (great game, worth playing even today).

A recent film that strikes this chord but misses the chance to drive it home is "Arrival" (2016). Another recent film is "Bladerunner 2049" (looking at the farming practices of both protein and replicants)

There are countless documentaries on Netflix (and likely other services) regarding factory farming animals which are worth watching. They certainly helped clear some of my own ideological barriers.


If the difference is of degree, could the degree be discrete rather than continuous? What I mean is that is that of the shared faculties between higher animals and humans, such as language, it does not appear as if increasing animal capacity by some factor would yield near human capacity. Instead, it seems that animals and human operate in different, discrete, levels of using a faculty.

Using language again, and I'm going to have to dig through my magazines to find the book reference, but recent research by Noam Chomsky into animal language reveals that it is fundamentally different than human language. Human language is non-linear and recursive, that is, words can have antecedents and self-referential clausal structures, whereas animal language is all linear; the current sound is always in direct relation to the previous sound. Moving from even highly developed animal language to human language, then, is not simply a continuous increase but a discrete one.

Not disagreeing with you here, just trying to nuance the point that to suggest that rather than seeing humans as fundamentally similar to animals and on a higher continuum, that we are fundamentally similar to animals and yet at a discretely higher level not achievable by increasing any given factor of those animals' faculties.


Fair points, but does it follow that because human communication is significantly different from animal communication, that therefore all other aspects of the human experience must be equally remote from those of animals?

I think that’s an inference too far. The parts of our brain responsible for language are quite different from those of animals, but the parts of our brains responsible for body image, sight, hearing, locomotion and emotional experience are pretty unremarkable compared to other higher mammals. Therefore it seems likely that our experience of those things is unremarkable too, at least when it comes to mammals. It’s just that we can talk about it, and they can’t


Yes, and some animals "think" in even more remarkable ways then humans, for instance the octopus can "think" and "see" with each of it's arms.

We fundamentally cannot comprehend how to think or see with our skin. That makes life on this planet even more amazing. So much to learn about life.


> factory farming is obviously unethical.

This really depends on your moral principles. Ethics is a entire branch of philosophy, and in the realm of philosophy, nothing is 'obvious'.


Philosophically I envy animals bred for food. These animals have an objective "purpose" to their lives: provide themselves as food for humans. That's a lot more of a clear cut, virtuous vector to their lives than any human could ever wish to have.


With respect to the author, he has it backwards (Wittgenstein and humans’ anthropomorphic assumptions are at the core of my work these days).

Humans always discuss non-human actors in human terms. This can be useful (think of Dennet’s “the thermostat wants to keep the room at 70degrees”) but also lead down a false path (the “queen” of a hive isn’t the boss — innfact there is no boss).

So the very model the author decries is a specfic tool to avoid these kinds of errors. Animals that killed humans were sometimes tried and hanged in medieval Europe. That’s a foolish absurdism. And people do understand this — his example of the elephant minders shown that people can adapt these models just fine.

This conception of agency explains some opposition to, for example, self-driving cars. People are confused when they can’t make eye contact with a car’s driver. They make assumptions as to why certain material shows up in their Facebook feed. Etc. I’m not working on cars, but am working on on systems that don’t violate human assumptions.


The authors of this review and the books reviewed are not proposing a return to that sort of literal anthropomorphism; they are calling for a less dogmatic, more realistic look at the evidence.

It would be something of a problem for evolutionary theory if every scrap of conscious and intelligent behavior was exhibited by Homo Sapiens alone. The current situation is probably a contingency of history: between now and the last common ancestor of us and chimpanzees, many species have come and gone, with some of them leaving evidence of intermediate cognitive abilities.


The view more or less described by the article probably has its (most recent, at least) origin in Descartes. Cartesian metaphysics posits two kinds of things in the universe, namely, mind and matter. Mind is associated with thought, desire, emotion, sensation, consciousness, etc. Matter, of course, is not. Of all life on earth, only man is a composite of mind and matter. Non-human animals are therefore mindless which is to say devoid of emotions, desires, sensations, consciousness, etc. This view, I claim, goes against common sense. Try telling anyone who owns a dog that Spot is merely a machine devoid of emotions, desires or consciousness.

In the context of intellectual history, this Cartesian view is rather recent. Aristotle, for example, describes plants, animals and human beings quite differently in De Anima. In his analysis, human beings entail all faculties that are essentially proper to animals, and non-human animals entail all faculties that are essentially proper to plants; the entailment is transitive so that the faculties essentially proper to plants are entailed by human animals. For Aristotle, animals are living things that possess the faculties of locomotion. The only faculties that essentially differentiate human beings from other animals are the intellectual faculties. So in this sense, human beings are "exceptional" in the sense that among the animals, they alone are known to possess intellectual faculties, but it is not so extreme as the Cartesian position. Still, it is an important difference with important consequences.


The author is, to put it mildly, mistaken to say that "most of our science, philosophy, and religion" assume a hard division between humans and other animals.

Most of our religion? Yes. Most of our philosophy? Maybe. Most of our science? No. Wrong.

How could anyone post-Darwin write what this author has written...unless the person is utterly ignorant of anything approaching modern biology?!


> Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” But Ludo, mind if I ask how much time you’ve actually spent with lions? Thought not. Because that’s rubbish, at least in the sense that humans and lions couldn’t possibly have common ground for a conversation. Wittgenstein can beat me in any logico-philosophical contest of his or anyone else’s choosing, but he hasn’t spent as much time as I have hanging out in the bush with lions.

How can I take this seriously now...


Preposterous really, it should be Ludi, not Ludo.


> I try my best (although it is difficult) to eat mostly vegetarian.

But presumably you don't hold lions to the same ethical standard.

> what we do with live stock and factory farming is obviously unethical.

I don't disagree, but it is specifically the belief that it is unethical that makes us special.


I've been watching Black Mirror recently and have reflected on this - human exceptionalism. We'd like to think of ourselves as gods, or almost-gods, and with technology we are surely achieving some god powers. But we always seem to fall back to misery just when we thought we've conquered nature - human nature, animal nature.

The greatest lesson we'll ever learn is our own insignificance in this world. Only then will we stop fighting the world, and indeed each other. Only then will we stop destroying, and accept our true place and destiny among all living things.


I really like Black Mirror.

Not to distract from your point, but I feel like the writers need to broaden their dystopian topics to other forms of tech. They also miss the "punch line" on many of their episodes, they line things up so perfectly and then don't commit.

It's almost a let down not to see things crumble completely.

For example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shut_Up_and_Dance_(Black_Mirro...

The ending should have been streamed lived to the masses, like a virtual "dog fight". That would pull the entire world into the story and force the intelligent viewer to think about how even as a bystander we are all part of the problem.


Maybe the "Great Filter" is the acceptance of insignificance by technologically intelligent lifeforms:

Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people. - George Bernard Shaw.


These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. We can simultaneously accept the world as it is yet work to make it what we wish it were.


Living an insignificant life and living in misery are not the same thing.


Almost the opposite; one of the things that most bedevils successful humans is the drive to make their lives significant.


Yup. I just saw Happy People: A Year in the Taiga [1] about heart of Siberia where hunters live a solitary life of hard labor and independence most of the year. They have very little impact on the world, but I think most people are generally ignorant of things like their Co2 footprint. Significant or insignificant goes many ways..

[1] https://m.imdb.com/title/tt1683876/


Given the ethical dilemma presented in this article, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that cannibalism is acceptable.


I have twice the biomass of the average human. Should I get two votes?


Humans should have reconsidered their place within the global ecosystem well before the twenty-first century, but our limited longevity and innate myopia, along with rapacious capitalism and religious dogma, kept us from doing so. Now we've destroyed the one thing that sustains us, and to what end?


The article argues that we because our existing differentiation between humans and those others, we need a revolutionary change, meaning a large change.

That last bit is very nicely done rhetorically. But I don't see any actual argument in the article that the practical effects of the philosophical shift have to be large, or even will be large.




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