Human Exceptionalism is Not “Smug”

Sigh. Human exceptionalism isn’t about biological distinctions between us and other species. It is about differences that are morally relevant, such as moral agency, creativity, rationality, the quest for meaning, etc. The elephant’s trunk may be exceptional, but it doesn’t add or subtract to its moral value. Our unique capacities–whether in kind or in quality, since the quality is so vast it is akin to kind–matter.

HE is under constant attack these days. Latest example: A book review in the Wall Street Journal of a new tome (How We Do It) that traces the apparent similarities between human and primate reproduction, by ecology professor Marlene Zuk. (This post is about the review, not the book.) From, “Human Exceptionalism:”

Rather than develop stories about how human sexual behaviors might have been adaptive in the past, Mr. Martin persuasively argues that understanding the diversity of reproduction across mammals is essential to understanding it in humans. He repeatedly whisks away our smug sense of human exceptionalism and at the same time links many seemingly unrelated aspects of our biology to reproduction. 

How is HE “smug?”

Even if human females went into heat (as it is popularly called) like animals, that wouldn’t take away a jot or tittle of our exceptionalism. Only we have duties, for example. Only we can be held morally (and often legally, a unique human concept) to account for abuse.

Indeed, there is much about our behavior that would seem to surpass evolutionary whipsawing. From a piece I wrote for First Things:

Recognizing our special status is essential, in my view, to the creation of a better world. Take, for example, our moral impulse to prevent cruelty to animals. This is certainly not genetically determined. Indeed, it seems to me that preventing cruelty to animals is distinctly un-evolutionary—in the purely materialistic sense of that term. Why should we even concern ourselves with what happens to other species so long as it does not harm us? Elephants care very much whether a lion tries to kill one of the herd’s calves but are quite indifferent when the same lion rends the zebra. It takes a special and exceptional species to care enough about “the other” that we will sometimes even protect them from human harm when it makes our own lives more difficult. (For example, California sea lions are protected in law despite the fact that they compete fiercely against us in exploiting the salmon fishery.)

Zuk takes another shot at the uniqueness of man:

Why, for example, do women have a single-chambered uterus, compared with the two chambers more commonly found in other mammals (even those that, like humans, typically produce only one offspring at a time)? And why does the fertilized egg implant deep in the uterine wall rather than simply adhering to the surface? Scientists still don’t know the answers, perhaps because until someone like Mr. Martin comes along to contrast humans with our primate and other mammalian relatives, they might not have even seen a problem to be solved. It’s in viewing ourselves along the continuum of primate evolution that our own uniqueness—and lack of it—becomes apparent.

When a chimp can write a book review, and be held morally to account for tearing the face off a woman, come talk to me about how we are just another animal in the forest.

The smell of a deep misanthropy is in the air. Many evolutionists (among others) want to tear us off the pinnacle–even though doing so would have catastrophic consequences for human freedom and thriving (as I have written elsewhere).

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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