OK, this post is a bit of a change to the usual stuff I write about, mostly Star Wars and Spock n’ that.
It’s a piece I wrote for the Pod Delusion podcast that was aired today (Friday 12th Aug 2011) about why I think humans are not more important than other animals.
For those not in the know, the Pod Delusion is a weekly show featuring political commentary, scepticism and other well-worded and insightful outrage at the world. I’ve made it sound boring, but its not. Listen here, it’s intelligent and witty, and you’ll quickly feel your hackles rising, but in a good way. (I’m in episode 97 around the 35 minute mark, if you’re interested).
A couple of weeks ago the Mancunian singer Morrissey said this at a gig in Poland:
Rightly, most people were appalled, and Dr. Tom Williamson, a biologist and supporter of Norwich City, presented a piece in last week’s Pod Delusion in which he stated that Morrissey’s comments were so heinous because humans are more important than other animals. You can listen to it here, and read a blog post he wrote here.
I disagree with Tom, so wrote this in response…
Last week Tom Williamson rightfully criticised Morrissey for his insensitive and deliberately incendiary comments comparing the recent massacre in Norway with the killing of animals for human consumption. Whilst I agree that Morrissey’s comments were appalling, I disagree with Tom’s argument that they were appalling because humans are inherently more important than animals.
Morrissey’s statement was deplorable because death isn’t about comparison. If your grandmother died and a friend said something like “well, one death is bad, but think of all the death’s in Iraq, that’s much worse”, then you’d probably be pretty pissed off, because one death doesn’t trump another, they’re all bad; trying to compare them is offensive and a little idiotic.
To demonstrate the importance of humans, last week Tom asked if you would rather save a baby or two mice in a cage from a burning house? As, he claimed if species are equally important, then surely you’d pick the mice, as they outnumber the baby two to one. I suspect almost everyone would choose to save the baby though. But this doesn’t demonstrate the greater importance of humans. I don’t think humans are more important than mice, but I would save the baby rather than the mice, because I’m human, and I prefer humans to mice (except Piers Morgan obviously). To me this question has nothing to do with objective species importance, and everything to do with species bias. It’s easier for me to see other animals’ die rather than humans, because I am human, not because we’re more important.
So why don’t I think humans are more important?
Well, the argument for the primacy of humans typically runs along the lines of “we have achieved a greater level of sentience, intelligence or technology than other species”; therefore we are the master-race of Earth. As Tom says, we are the only species that has been to the Moon… as far as we know.
I understand this argument, but have little sympathy for it. Our intelligence is one possible evolutionary adaptation to the struggle for survival. There are many others though. You could equally well argue that flight is the most important evolutionary adaptation. No, birds haven’t been to the Moon, but equally, no human has achieved unaided flight. Is intelligence more important than flight? Important how? Human intelligence can hardly be said to have benefited the majority of the species we share the Earth with, it’s mostly just benefited humans, and rats.
What I’m getting at here is that deciding that intelligence is the superior evolutionary adaptation is a purely subjective one, but one that humans are probably biased towards, because it’s the adaptation we excel at the most. It’s a bit like a champion javelin thrower deciding that they are the best athlete in the world, as its clear to them that the javelin is the superior athletic event, when the rest of us clearly know its ice dancing. This is a subjective and biased judgement, as is the judgement that humans are the most important species.
I believe this notion of the importance of humanity derives from the popular misconception that humans are the pinnacle of evolution. But this is a nonsensical, and quite frankly, religious idea, as evolution is a random process with no design or direction, humanity was not the destiny of evolution, because evolution has no destiny.
Furthermore, I find it hard to consider a species as important when we have existed for such a minuscule amount of time geologically speaking. Particularly when we show no real aptitude for long-term global-level planning and coordination, humanity may well prove to be a rather short-lived species and to be a brief footnote in the evolution of life on Earth.
I might be more inclined to believe that human intelligence is the crème-de-la crème of evolutionary innovations if it was put to good use. Sure, we’ve been to the Moon and invented curry, but we’ve also spawned Justin Bieber and mayonnaise. You could very easily argue that humanity, and our intelligence, is actually the most damaging evolutionary innovation nature has spawned, we are after all, making quite a big mess of our planet’s biosphere, and show no signs of stopping. I’d love to believe humans have a galactic destiny spreading intelligence and curry throughout the galaxy, but the odds are it won’t happen. We’ll probably stay at home and make a bit more of a mess instead.
So please don’t think that I prefer other species to humans, or that I’m some kind of environmental extremist who hates humanity for its destruction of the ecosphere. But please don’t also jump to the supposedly obvious conclusion that humans are inherently more important than other species just because we have iPads. Think a little more deeply about why you feel we are more important, and if it’s really justified.
Now, back to the curry and ice dancing.
PS. I hope this isn’t seen as an attack of Tom himself. Whilst I’ve never met him, I do follow him on Twitter and suspect that we’d agree on most things, just not this, and I have absolutely no “beef” with him. You can find Tom’s blog here.
PPS. I know this is potentially an extremely divisive topic and I’m sure that many people won’t agree with me, if you don’t then please feel free to comment below, but I’d appreciate if you refrain from personal attacks and abusive language, unless its really funny.