Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Stephen Jay Gould on Human Exceptionalism


A reader of my recent article in National Review Online about Peter Singer's approval of research conducted on monkeys, misunderstood me as perhaps not caring about cruelty to animals. I care very much about such matters, of course, and mentioned in my reply that treating animals humanely is a moral duty arising out of our exceptionalism as a species.

My correspondent inquired how I define human exceptionalism, and sent along a very interesting opinion piece by the late Stephen Jay Gould, in which the author espouses a distinctly evolutionary understanding of the exceptional difference being human makes. From "The Human Difference," New York Times, July 2, 1999 (no link available, my italics):

"[E]volution does provide a legitimate criterion of genuine and principled separation between Homo sapiens and any other species. But the true basis of distinction lies in topology and genealogy, not in any functional attribute marking our superiority. We are linked to chimpanzees (and more distantly to any other species) by complete chains of intermediate forms that proceed backward from our current state into the fossil record until the two lineages meet in a common ancestor. But all these intermediate forms are extinct, and the evolutionary gap between modern humans and chimps therefore stands as absolute and inviolate. In this crucial genealogical sense all humans share equal fellowship as members of Homo sapiens. In biological terms, with species defined by historical and genealogical connection, the most mentally deficient among us is as fully human as Einstein.

"If we grasped this fundamental truth of evolution, we might finally make our peace with Alexander Pope's location of human nature on an 'isthmus of a middle state'--that is, between bestiality and mental transcendence."

That's one way of looking at it, and a fine one it is, too. Some might add "spiritual transcendence" and they would also be asserting an eminently defensible position. Frankly, I don't care how or why it happened, the full story about which may never be fully knowable. I only care that we recognize the extraordinary difference being human makes. If we do that, and if we follow the corollary to human exceptionalism, namely human universal moral equality, I think we will be on very solid ground.

Thanks very much to my correspondent for sending the Gould piece along.


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