Friday, November 24, 2006

Human Beings: Just Another Species of Animal

The following is another “My Case Against God classic,” which originally ran shortly after I first published The Pro-Fetal Ownership Argument. In the following short essay, I attack one of society’s most sacred myths: The idea that humans have a greater intrinsic worth than the rest of our plant and animal brethren. To me, life is life—whether human or aardvark. Enjoy!

As a relatively new blogger, maybe I should hold off on making excessively controversial statements. Maybe I should stick with ideas that are palatable to the general atheist public. Then again, maybe I should not. After posting The Pro-Fetal Ownership Argument, it spread fairly rapidly around the blogosphere. Some Christians had the occasion to look it over, and I kept hearing the same complaint ad nauseam: It does not take humanity into account. It seems Christians, and indeed some of us brights, entirely are wrapped up in this notion that humans somehow are special. In this post, I will state my position: Intrinsically speaking, humans are no more special than any other form of life (animal or plant).

I reached this conclusion not through philosophy, but rather through science. For those who have read many of my writings, please bear with me as I repeat one of my central claims. Evolution taught me the intrinsic equality of all living things. Evolution teaches that there is one Tree of Life. Universal Common Descent, quite literally, means that every living thing has a common ancestor—the first form of life. Since there is only one Tree of Life, every living thing is a branch or a branch from a branch [from a branch]. As such, I cannot conceive of a method by which one form of life would become more intrinsically valuable than another life form. Of course, Christians might cite the fictions of “special creation” or “ensoulment,” but I am not here to argue about fictions.

From whence would humans get this alleged increased intrinsic worth?

Many times, human-enthusiasts will cite some of our unique characteristics, such as sentience, complex emotions, and a sense of right and wrong. Personally, I think such arguments betray a deep, ingrained speciocentricity. We, as humans, note a bunch of our characteristics and then deem them “value-adding” traits. Why? The answer is obvious: We, as humans, have a self-interested stake in our own survival. Therefore, we have selfish reasons for fabricating the notion that humans have greater intrinsic worth.

Other species also have unique traits:

A snail can sleep for three years.

Hummingbirds are the only animal that can also fly backwards.

The only two animals capable of seeing behind themselves without turning their heads are the rabbit and the parrot.

Dolphins sleep with one eye open.

A giraffe can clean its ears with its 21-inch tongue.

Ants do not sleep.

Why is possessing complex emotions a “value-adding” trait, while sleeping with one eye open is not? Why is possessing a sense of right and wrong a “value-adding” trait, while never having to sleep at all is not? The answer is wholly predictable: In both cases, humans possess the former and lack the latter. Our notion of “value-adding” traits is based on speciocentric self-interest. This is not to say these values are arbitrary; they absolutely are not. However, they bear no relationship to intrinsic worth, as they come from an inherently biased perspective. Thus, the conclusion would be humans are more valuable to humans by virtue of their humanity. Just like frogs are more valuable to frogs by virtue of their "froginess."

I have no problem with the “humans are special” assertion when presented in that form. When one admits that the “humans are special” argument is based upon speciocentric self-interest, I have no objection. I take issue when people introduce the word “intrinsic,” asserting that, whether one is a human or an aardvark or a beaver, humans have more worth. I would call that the very definition of speciocentricity, and a notion entirely lacking a basis in science.

Having settled that, I pose a question: If the notion of humans valuing humans more than other life forms solely is based upon self-interest, why is it so immoral to shun that notion? To deny the “specialness” of humans is to be unselfish. Indeed, those that blather endlessly about how special humans are actually are engaging in selfish behavior [“Promoting the supremacy of humanity is in my survival interest, and I will do whatever is in my survival interest.”] Those individuals certainly are acting in accordance with Natural Selection, though. But that, of course, is supremely ironic, since those who promote the supremacy of humanity often deny Natural Selection, the very scientific basis for their manifest speciocentricity!

I have no prepared conclusion to present. However, perhaps this essay will serve as nutritious food for thought.


Anonymous nowoo said...

I tend to agree with your argument. I wonder what you think of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. They believe that if human overpopulation is causing the extinction of many other species, possibly even making the earth unable to support human life, then voluntarily going extinct by simply not breeding is a much better option.

4:37 PM EST  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

RE: " The idea that humans have a greater intrinsic worth than the rest of our plant and animal brethren."

Humans have a greater intrinsic worth to OTHER humans.

We are species selective.

Cats might consider that cats have a greater intrinic worth. if it came to providing food for their kittens or providing food to a littler of puppies, the kittens would probably have more intrinsic worth.

I think we have species bias and that this is probably quite natural.

This inherent natural behaviour should NOT however, be an excuse to belittle the value of other life.

7:37 PM EST  
Blogger Jonathan Blake said...

Perhaps a bit late, but to add to what beebeepitsme said, let me propose a thought experiment.

Lets say you are starving on a desert island with no other food available except a comatose pig and a comatose human. Given that either victim is just as easy to kill as the other, that neither is more prone to transmit disease, and that both are of approximately equal nutritional value, which would you kill and eat?

Given that the human is your mother?

To express no preference for one lifeform over the other in this situation is perhaps rigidly logical, but denies something very intimately human. It also works against the forces of evolution which give rise to the Tree of Life. Evolution would seem to work best when we have a natural hierarchy of empathy, preferring lifeforms with similar genes.

Your premise is speaks very absolutely. I've learned to distrust absolutism in all forms. It seems to be the hallmark of unexamined belief. It feels good to believe in absolutes; it's so comfortable. But it rarely reflects true contemplation of the situation.

1:10 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to be stupid about it and get into semantics, nothing has "worth" because both intrinsic and assigned worth are illusions.

That being said, haha, lets create some worth...

I find evolution fascinating. Its the reason the animal kingdom exists, its where our minds and bodies came from.


...I personally assign the highest worth to the process of evolution.

I believe humans have more worth than other life because our brains hold the best key to increasing evolution's pace... we're already doing this. We are adding to ourselves, and modifying ourselves - millenia from now we will be an entirely different species. It doesn't matter if we destroy every other lifeform along the way... we won't miss it anyways, we'll be making beauty and complexity of our own.

This all assumes we don't destroy ourselves with nukes etc

4:10 AM EDT  
Blogger Jason said...

I like your thoughts and you are pretty forceful with your argument. One possible reason why we should value humans over other species is simply in the fact that we're the only species that understands the concept of value. This might sound like a circular definition but it isn't.

Let's break it down.

It is important to examine life to see if certain species are more valuable or worth more than others.

If this act is important (and therefore valuable) then it must be valuable to have the ability to make this kind of decision.

Human beings are a species that has the (vaulable) ability to perform the act of valuing.

Therefore humans are worth more than species that cannot make value judgments.

I don't particularly agree with this line of argument, but I think it is a decent one to counter your strongly worded discussion.

In general though, I'm with you. 99% of people, including us atheists, are also speciesist.

Good day.

6:03 PM EDT  
Anonymous Charles Brewer said...

There is no such thing as a true atheist. Everyone believes in something. An atheist is one who believes in nothing. With that fact out in the open, I continue to dispute the arguement set forth.

Humans are superior to animals in that humans have souls while animals do not. We can know right from wrong.

I do not agree with the whole evolution thing or the one Tree of Life for evolution. Humans are set apart from animals in that, as I stated before, we have a soul.

God created us from the dust of the earth. Adam was created that way and so are we. God gave us life by breathing life into our nostrils. God gave us a soul. He also gave us the choice to accept him or to reject him. To accept him is to have eternal life with him. To reject him is eternal damnation in the bottomless pit of hell.

Hell is a very real place. It is as real as you or I. All those who reject Jesus Christ will go to hell, like it or not.

This case I am presenting to you is true and for God, not against him. If you want to blaspheme, curse, or otherwise prohibit the work of the Lord, you shall regret it.

God is no respector of persons. He loves us all the same. We are all poor, wretched sinners that can be saved by the grace of God through faith, not that of yourselves, lest any man should boast, it is the gift of God.

I am not here to entertain you. I am here to tell you about the one true God. Do not reject his mercy. You will end up in hell forever away from him if you do.

By the way, you can't cross over into heaven once you have been cast into the lake of fire for eternity away from God. Heaven is a perfect place where no sin can enter. Those sinners who are saved are covered by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for all humans. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. That is in the Bible. You should read it sometime.

If I have offended anyone, I will not apologize. All people need to hear the good news. You can make fun of me all you want, but you shall not hinder me from my work.

12:48 AM EDT  
Anonymous Dan said...

In your first paragraph, you made a gross factual error.

You wrote: An atheist is one who believes in nothing.

An atheist is no such thing.

An atheist is a person who lacks belief in god. Atheism denotes a lack; it speaks nothing of any positive philosophical positions.

6:49 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that there is no God, and that we are just another species. However, I disagree that we do not have a greater worth than the other animals. Human beings are the only species with a brain that allows us higher level thinking and consciousness, a level other animals are nowhere near. The fact that we can contemplate our existence on the internet, through technology no other animal could possibly create, shows that we have a greater worth than other animals, if you value creation and cognitive ability that is. No other animals are anywhere near our cognitive ability.

2:34 PM EDT  

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