When I was younger, so much younger than today, what we were told made humans exceptions—that is, outside the natural order, different from animals—was that God made us in His image, no wait, it was opposable thumbs, no wait, it was tool-use, no wait, it was language, no wait…
The claim of human exceptionalism is a metaphysical and theological one. It is a radically dualist disjunction between the (putatively) natural and the supernatural realms, between the human body/mind and the spirit, between, as Descartes argued at what is considered by many to be the start of modern philosophy, humans who have a soul and animals which are mere mechanisms. The boundary markers of human exceptionalism have continued to be moved, however. Each time that one criteria or another is confidently declared as the sharp dividing line that justifies human dominion over the natural world, upon closer examination it becomes fuzzy, if not breaking down completely—sometimes simply as false, sometimes as only sharp by our own definition.
Claims of human exceptionalism are fundamentally arbitrary, despite their long basis in Western, i.e., theologically inflected thinking. They only seem natural because they are so habitual, a point made by the old children’s rhyme about eating peas with honey: “I eat my peas with honey. I’ve done it all my life. I know it may sound funny, but it sticks ’em to the knife.”
All this is by way of comment on yet another step in the receding horizon of human exceptionalism to be found in this morning’s “The Stone” column by Roger Scruton “If We Are Not Just Animals, What Are We?” in the NYTimes.
We human beings do not see one another as animals see one another, as fellow members of a species. We relate to one another not as objects but as subjects, as creatures who address one another “I” to “you” — a point made central to the human condition by Martin Buber, in his celebrated mystical meditation “I and Thou.”
Aside from rather muddling up Buber’s mystical, i.e., religious and non-empirical, declaration of a distinction between the “I–you” relation and the “I-Thou” relation, and the all-too-human propensity for objectifying others as in tribalism, racism and war (oh, yes, and professional sports), there is a prejudice, literally a prejudgement, made evident in the title by use of the phrase “just animals.” The point of the column is to show that we are not “just animals” but something else, something exceptional. And that claim is supported by reference not to evidence, but to Buber’s theological assertion (which I admit seemed very sweet and reassuring when I first read it some three and a half decades ago).
If we stop to ask, how does the author know that animals have no sense of individual selves in relation to one another?, it might seem rather obvious that he doesn’t. He is trying to move the goal post yet again in an effort to retain the privileged status bequeathed up on us by our exceptional status—as the especially beloved of God’s creatures, or who have opposable thumbs, or language, or tools, or now supposedly a unique sense of self-identity in relation to others.
Yesterday, while driving around doing errands, there was an article on KQED fm about language research with spotted dolphins. Each dolphin has its own unique “name-whistle.” And, not only does this suggest an analog to a sense of individual identity, but dolphins will use it when the named dolphin is not present, suggesting abstract thought processes. But, if we stop arguing from the presumption of human exceptionalism and the belief that it only needs to be properly located somewhere further away on the playing field, such analogs indicate that the distinction is one we make, not empirically based. And since they’re our convention-based goal-posts, we can move them wherever we want in order to make sure that we’re not just animals.