Dogs, Cats, and the Myth of Human Superiority
What makes us human isn't one thing alone but a combination of ingredients.
Posted Oct 23, 2020
It's no secret that dogs and cats dream. Although — since we cannot wake them up and ask them if they have been — we do not really know for sure. Other animals may, too. If you have been following the line of reasoning I have been proposing here in my blog, "The Human Animal," you also know I agree with those who say dreaming is another way of thinking. It is not just a sleepy way of passing the time when you have nothing better to do.
But if animals dream, and if dreaming is another way of thinking, then what is it about us that makes us special as a species? Or is the claim that Homo sapiens is special just a biblical hand-me-down legacy and a classic example of human self-aggrandizement?
The myth of human superiority
Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and tipsy barroom patrons have been arguing since the beginning of time, or so it would seem, about what it is that makes us not just the king of the beasts, but the top dog in other ways, too. For some, the answer has been that we were created by God in His own image to have dominion over the world and all its lifeforms including "every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 26). At least since the European Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the popular explanation has been that we are obviously creatures of superior intelligence — provided we take the job of thinking things through seriously enough to be a credit to our kind.
I am writing this commentary on the human condition in early October 2020. Given all that has happened this year alone, I don't think it is too easy to dismiss what I am now going to say as just the grumblings of an old curmudgeon. Without wanting it to sound like a condemnation of the entire human race, there is a lot of evidence suggesting we have not been taking the job of being brilliant seriously enough.
The easy explanation would be, of course, that some of us are bright and some of us are frankly stupid. Yes, an easy answer. But also not a useful one.
However comforting it may be to claim that others are stupid when they say or do something arguably stupid, the more truthful explanation is more universal. We have not evolved as a species over many millennia to be bright if being bright means we are walking computers capable of performing advanced calculations and reaching accurate predictions about future events and developments.
Instead, as my son and I have discussed in some detail in our new book on understanding the human mind, the human brain is a biologically assembled pattern recognition device that seeks to make sense of the world in the here and now. In the interests of being able to do so, we have become unusually skilled as a species at working together to make the world we live in artificially more predictable — and more easily negotiable — than Mother Nature tries to make it. Or as my son and I like to say, Homo sapiens is brilliant at least in doing one thing very well: dumbing down the world around us to better fit our needs, desires, and fancies.
Although the two of us rarely talk about this way of thinking about human intelligence as a Devil's Bargain, there is no doubt in our minds that our species pays a price for the convenience of living in a world that is easier and more user-friendly than it would naturally be. As I have argued previously in this series in "The Human Animal," all of us are basically just creatures of habit. More often than not, we are not even aware of how often we rely on what we have come to assume the world is like ceteris paribus ("all other things being equal"). Yes, someone as obsessive as that great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes may find it hard to deal with a world that is stable and easily predictable. Few of us, however, would claim we are channeling the fictional Mr. Holmes.
Therefore, if we humans are not in truth all that smart or all that different from other reasonably alert species on Earth when it comes to being both insightful and also foresighted about the likely consequences down the road of the choices we make as we travel from the cradle to the grave, then what is it that makes us human rather than, say, just another medium-sized but largely hairless primate?
The real human advantage
In an earlier commentary, I listed the combination of five things that my son and I see as setting all of us off as a species from the rest of life on Earth. Collectively we call them The Great Human High-Five Advantage.
As already promised, each of these five will be discussed in a series called "The Human Advantage" between now and the end of the year — although between now and then I will have other things to talk about, as well.
In combination, these five evolved human talents have made it possible for us to do some things well, some things not so well, and other things not at all.
I won't list these five once again here since they have already been described briefly previously. However, I am confident you will agree with me that how these five both limit what we can easily do as human beings while also empowering us to create opportunities we otherwise wouldn't normally have is a tale well worth telling.
Next up — The Human Advantage No. 1: What Babies Tell Us About Ourselves