Are Humans A Superior Species?

Here’s a question I found in a Facebook forum recently:

Why Nature Choosed?
English almost certainly isn’t the questioner’s first language, so I’m only considering the underlying assumptions in the question(s).
Why nature choosed humans to be superior . . . ?

Why not cats, whales, or eagles to lead . . . ?

English apparently isn’t the questioner’s first language, so I didn’t reject the post outright as I often do with poorly worded social media entries. However, the question itself rests on two major assumptions, which makes the question itself invalid — unless the audience agrees with those assumptions. (In logic, this is called the “complex question fallacy” or “loaded question”. The assumptions of the question force a false choice to the responder, as in the infamous example: “When did you stop beating your wife?”)

Here, I want to address the two assumptions, both of which seem frightfully common.

To phrase the question in a more English-y way, let’s say: “Why did nature choose humans to be the dominant (superior) species?”

(I am ignoring the explanatory followup question as mere examples of other species.)

The two assumptions are (1) that humans are superior and (2) that Nature is sentient.

• Nature Is Sentient

This one is just weird to me, yet it’s strangely popular, and it’s been around a long time. (I am currently reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and he frequently speaks of Nature or the Universe as if it has a mind and as if it’s in control. Oddly, he also speaks of “the gods”; it’s never clear to me if he thinks they’re synonymous with Nature.)

I suspect it originally arose from humanity’s tendency to project consciousness everywhere — “I am conscious; therefore other things must be conscious too.” Even brilliant physicists have seen the Universe as conscious (example: Max Planck), based on their studies of the fundamental nature of the Universe.

Obviously, I can’t know whether it’s true. However, I can unhesitatingly say that we don’t know it is true.

Further, even if all of us assume some sort of sentience, conscious, or self-awareness in nature, there is little-to-no evidence that this consciousness chooses which species advance and which don’t.

• Humans Are Superior

In my opinion, though, the much more dangerous assumption is the one at the end of the question — that humans are superior to all other species on Earth.

It turns out to be a fairly popular assumption — others in the thread immediately began supplying reasons why nature chose us to be dominant. And reading back through the annals of history, philosophy, science, and religion, the assumption is really quite universal — until very recently.

The idea has a name: Anthropocentrism. The idea is thought by some to have arisen from religion — specifically the creation account in Genesis where God is quoted as saying he made humans “in our image” and said we should “rule over” everything else on Earth — though I suspect the idea arose long before writing was invented.

The idea of human superiority is in non-biblical ancient philosophy as well (source), including Greek philosophers’ idea of “the great chain of being”, with gods at the top, humans underneath them, followed by animals, plants, and minerals. If microbes had been known at the time, I assume they would have been placed just above the minerals. Completely secular schools of thought also give into anthropocentrism at times, and others are mistakenly accused of doing so (for example, humanism is often accused of being anthropocentric — it isn’t, but that’s a topic for a different day).

A myriad of reasons are offered for thinking this way. Humans have intelligence, language, self-awareness, civilization, technology, bigger brains, opposable thumbs, etc. Others insist it’s due to special creation, or the existence of a soul. I’ve even heard it defended with this circular reasoning: “Humans are the dominant species; therefore we’re superior.”

Because of our traits

The line of reasoning that we’re superior because of our traits is faulty because either (1) those traits exist in other species too, or (2) they’re not necessarily superior traits, or both.

We now know that other species rival us in intelligence (and the definition of “intelligence” is spurious at best, even when restricted to human-specific measurements of it), that many species communicate with languages — though not written languages — that some are self-aware, that many others have opposable thumbs, and that we’re not unique in our brain-to-body-mass ratio. Bonobos and chimpanzees, for example, exhibit several of these traits, including language, tool use (technology), self-awareness, etc., and even lemurs are surprisingly human-like. If we replace “language” with “communication”, then even bacteria are doing it, in a way. Self-awareness is something we really can’t measure in other species, until and unless we can communicate across the species barrier — for all we know, trees are self-aware in some way we don’t understand, but until we can ask that question of a tree, and get an understandable answer, we just don’t know.

Whether any of those traits are “superior” is at best a subjective qualification. Is it superior to build cities the way we do, or to build underground the way ants do? We are certainly better (superior) at building our kinds of cities, but in what way is our kind of city better/superior? We are better than beavers at damming rivers, but in what way is damming rivers better than not damming them? We are better than other species at driving cars, but what about driving cars is better than not driving them? This line of questioning can be applied to nearly any activity or characteristic.

Because we were created and/or have a soul

The second line of reasoning (special creation, and/or souls) breaks down almost immediately, since neither is backed by evidence — in other words, we’ve only added more assumptions to back up the first assumption, making the question even more faulty. The idea that humans came about differently than other animals has been entirely debunked by the past 200 years of scientific discovery, especially genetic research. And no one has ever been able to show that anything like a “soul” exists. It will be a different discussion altogether if we someday discover empirical evidence for souls in humans alone and find none in any other animal. (I currently know people who believe some other mammals — dogs and cats — have souls; I haven’t asked them what they think about other mammals like horses or gazelles, chimps or orangutans, etc., or where they draw the line between the haves and have-nots.)

Because we dominate the planet

The humans-as-dominators argument is based on another big assumption. It’s arguably not true.

We’re certainly not dominant in terms of biomass — termites alone outweigh all the humans alive, as do Antarctic krill. Prokaryotes, as a group, have 300,000 times the mass of all humanity. (Heck, even much of the mass of humans is made up of non-human, microorganism cells, and it’s increasingly being considered plausible that they’re actually in control of us.)

In terms of overall timelines, humanity is one of the least dominant of species. Bacteria have been around for three billion years; dinosaurs roamed for hundreds of millions of years before some of them went extinct and others evolved into today’s birds. Sharks have been in our oceans 420 million years, and whales about a tenth of that time. Insects emerged more than 400 million years ago. And this says nothing of plants; trees and ferns have existed for hundreds of millions of years as well. Humans have been here only a few hundred thousand years.

If you picture the entire timeline of Earth as a 24-hour day, humans have existed about four seconds, while dinosaurs lasted about an hour and fish have been around about three hours.

Humans, like most other creatures, are adapted to particular climate zones, atmospheric pressures, and food sources. Unlike the mealworm, we can’t survive by eating Styrofoam. Unlike alcanivorax, we can’t eat crude oil. And compared to the tardigrade, one of the most amazing creatures on Earth, we aren’t very impressive at all — tardigrades can live in extreme heat or intense cold, with almost zero atmosphere or under great pressure such as found in the ocean’s deepest trenches, and can survive without food or water for 30 years.

And as much as some of us would like to, we can’t live forever, like certain jellyfish, the bristlecone pine, and others. In fact, the only “immortal” cells in humans turn out to be the kind that cause cancer.

We can’t see in the dark, navigate by sonar, hear in ranges that other animals can, perform photosynthesis, regrow limbs, or any number of other things that other “lesser” animals do. We’re not the fastest, biggest, or strongest. We can inhabit only a very thin layer of atmosphere and only at certain latitudes (except with the help of VERY recent technology). Unlike most other species, we’ve made embarrassingly questionable decisions like living hundreds of miles away from our primary food sources, depending on people we don’t know to pump fresh water into our homes, and creating incredible amounts of waste.

There are actually very few categories in which humans outdo every other species. One is causing the extinction of other species. We are very, very good at killing. The fearsome sharks of the world kill less than a dozen humans per year, but we kill 100,000,000 of them every year. One hundred million. For every animal that sometimes kills humans — spiders, snakes, dogs/wolves, etc. — we kill far more of them in any given time period. And we’re certainly the only species that intentionally breeds more of other species, just so we can kill them.

Another is tool use. Yes, many other species use tools, but none of them come close to what we’ve done with them. And what we’ve done with them is reshape the face of the Earth, causing mass extinctions and global climate change — dangerously altering the very ecosystem that we need to survive. This can’t very well be seen as “better”, though perhaps “dominant” works here.

We also write. That is one category in which humans appear to be completely unique (not counting the painting elephants). Beginning with cave paintings and rock carvings, we moved on to metal engraving and eventually papyrus and paper — and then to today’s digital information. We may be the only species that will record our own demise in real time.

Conclusion: There is nothing that inherently sets mankind apart from other species as superior or better than other species. If any type of living thing is dominant on the Earth, it is most likely still the single-celled creatures.

• Conclusion

If one does accept the two basic assumptions in the original question, the answer is probably still unknowable — unless “Nature” someday talks to us and explains why she chose humanity. But I think the two assumptions are so shaky that the question itself shouldn’t have been asked.

Also, I noticed late in this train of thought that the questioner’s username was “Sham”. For all I know, it’s a common name in some other language/culture, but in the English-speaking world, it could easily be indicative of a fake account.

  1. I can’t know whether it’s true.we don’t know it is true.for all we know…we just don’t know.the answer is probably still unknowable.

    When did you become such an agnostic? (I haven’t seen you at the meetings.)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Ha! I’ve heard about the agnostic meetings — that no one shows up because no one can possibly know anything about them. ;-)

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