Why humans are NOT more important than other animals, apart from to ourselves

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:

“We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown, with 97 [sic] dead. Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried shit every day.”

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.

I actually still quite like Morrissey, but his comment was dreadful

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.

Piers Morgan, would I save you from a burning building… or push you into one?

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.

So many different types of wrong, where to start?

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.

Earth’s most intelligent species, hard at work

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.

13 Responses to “Why humans are NOT more important than other animals, apart from to ourselves”

  1. 1 Nic August 12, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    A shorter argumentation could have been the following: had you asked the mouse, whether it would try to save two babies or a mouse from a burning house, and provided you could’ve understood the mouse’s answer, it would’ve gone like that: “That’s a stupid question to ask, moron! What would I be doing with two human babies? Sell them on eBay? Leave me alone now, i’m on my way to Piers’.”

  2. 2 mark churilla October 17, 2012 at 4:00 am

    love you’re logical presentation and agee

  3. 3 Alisha January 12, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    I love this post. 🙂

  4. 4 Kathy February 22, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    I agree 100%.

  5. 5 Jim Nickson April 11, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    Humans are far more likely to have a negative effect on the world than they are to have a positive effect on it and the effect that humans have on the world is generally larger than the effect that non-humans have on the world so if i am ever in a situation where I can prolong the life of a non-human animal of some kind and let a human die I will almost certainly let the human die. A dog may consume flesh but it does not factory farm, cats may fight amongst themselves but they will not start wars. humans are the only animals that enslave, they are the only ones that start wars, they are the only ones that turn a blind eye to the suffering of others even though they know they can help, and they are the only ones that factory farm. As far as I’m concerned most humans ought never to have lived.

  6. 6 Autumn April 13, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Normally, I’m a very sensitive person and my feelings get me into all kinds of humiliating situations.; they practically control me. But one thing that I stand for 100% and would not allow anything to interfere with is justice. And your right, humans and animals are equals, what they lack in intelligence, they make up for in purity and instinct. If I saw a baby and mice burning In a building, who would I choose? Either way i would be saving an innocent, so ill have to find other ways to decide. If I save the baby, will I affect the world negatively? Yes, odds are that human will mess up a lot growing up, and increase in pollution and global warming. If I save the mice, there is much more of a chance that they will live without harming the world at all. I guess I’d choose the mice, but I’d really rather save both.

  7. 7 anjalisisodia May 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    I truly agree with you. Going to share your article with others as almost all of them think man is superior.

  8. 8 andrew March 20, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Hi great post. There is no question about bigger importance of one or another. Humans are strongers predators that are, unfortunantely messed up. We do things that no wild and healthy animal would do. We are sick. Now, if I had to pick one, I would save babies (unless mice would be critiacl to my survival). However, in a situation where I’m forced to choose human I don’t know (that is not a part of my pack), or my dog I would certainly save my dog 100% of times (unless life of that human is critical to my survival and life of my dog is not, still that would be a tough decision saving one from other pack). All that talk about greater importance of human life and our superiority comes from religion… So, I think George Carlin would say something interesting in this subject.

  9. 9 Lashawnda July 11, 2014 at 1:46 am

    Howdy! This post couldn’t be written much better!
    Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will send this post to him.
    Pretty sure he’s going to have a very good read.
    Thank you for sharing!

  10. 10 Alex August 6, 2014 at 2:29 am

    There are many versions of the “burning house” argument, including
    A human and a cat are about to be ran over. You only have time to save one. Which one do you pick?
    A human and a dog are drowning, and you can only save one. WODYP?
    But I’ll just call it the “burning house” argument.
    Really, the burning house argument can make me go from happy and jolly to a-hole FAST. I HATE that argument. It baffles me that people actually think it’s a valid argument that humans are more important than animals. It shows we care more about ourselves more, NOT that we are ACTUALLY more important. “We care about ourselves more, therefore we are more important” is circular reasoning.
    I saw a video that said how animals are treated in the slaughter house is like the holocaust. One person said it’s disgusting to compare it. I wish I would’ve replied because if you think that 11,000,000 human deaths is worse than billions of animal deaths and it’s “disgusting to even compare” then that angers me and it still does even though it was a few years ago.
    I love hearing humans admit that they are not the most important species on the planet. We are more important to ourselves (as the burning house argument demonstrates) but we are not more important altogether. 🙂 I hope you don’t reject comments with angry outbursts…

  11. 11 anniewrinkles01 June 2, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Loved your blog. You stated everything very clearly and logically.

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