How can anyone deny human exceptionalism? A New York Times story reveals that scientists have found the remains of a “paint factory” in which exceptional humans in Africa used ocher for symbolic purposes 100,000 years ago. From the story:
Of special importance to the scientists who made the discovery, the ocher workshop showed that early humans, whose anatomy was modern, had also begun thinking like us. In a report published online on Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers called this evidence of early conceptual abilities “a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition.”
The discovery dials back the date when the modern Homo sapiens population was known to have started using paint. Previously, no workshop older than 60,000 years had come to light, and the earliest cave and rock art began appearing about 40,000 years ago. The exuberant flowering among the Cro-Magnon artists in the caves of Europe would come even later; the parade of animals on the walls of Lascaux in France, for example, was executed 17,000 years ago.
The cave people in South Africa were already learning to find, combine and store substances, skills that reflected advanced technology and social practices as well as the creativity of the self-aware. The paint makers also appeared to have developed an elementary knowledge of chemistry and some understanding of long-term planning earlier than previously thought.
Self awareness. Symbolic thinking. Searching for meaning. Moral agency. Abstract thought. Noetic exploration. Advance planning. Creativity. Artistry. The list goes on and on.
No other species in the history of the known universe–or during the hundreds of millions of years of intelligent life on this planet–ever exhibited the exceptional natures that emerged (whether due to creation, intelligent design, or undirected evolution, it doesn’t matter) in our early ancestors. These unique attributes distinguish us from all other life. They are differences with a moral distinction.
Human exceptionalism seems self evident to me. Denying this truth is not only dangerous, but is either reductionist in intent for ideological purposes (which in itself, is exceptionalist) or reflects an irrational and ennervating self loathing–which, come to think about it, is exceptional too.