Human Exceptionalism

Human Exceptionalism: Intelligence of a Different Kind

Scientific American (of all places) has an article boosting human exceptionalism on the cognitive front.  Rather than our smarts being merely the same as that of animals, only more, our intelligence is of a different kind From “The Mind,” by Mark Hauser:

But if our shared genetic heritage can explain the evolutionary origin of the human mind, then why isn’t a chimpanzee writing this essay, or singing backup for the Rolling Stones or making a soufflé? Indeed, mounting evidence indicates that, in contrast to Darwin’s theory of a continuity of mind between humans and other species, a profound gap separates our intellect from the animal kind.

We are, as I understand it, the youngest species, maybe a few hundred thousand years old. And yet, we have developed capacities beyond anything seen in the billion years or so that intelligent life has existed on this planet.  Some will say a very rare evolutionary leap came about due to environmental factors.  My pals at the Discover Institute might say it resulted from design and execution.  The faithful would say that is how we were and are created.  Some might think all three were involved.  It doesn’t matter how, for human exceptionalism.  It just matters that it is what it is.

Hauser identifies four intellectual properties that are uniquely human:

The first such trait is generative computation, the ability to create a virtually limitless variety of “expressions,” be they arrangements of words, sequences of notes, combinations of actions, or strings of mathematical symbols…

The second distinguishing characteristic of the human mind is its capacity for the promiscuous combination of ideas…

Third on my list of defining properties is the use of mental symbols. We can spontaneously convert any sensory experience—real or imagined—into a symbol that we can keep to ourselves or express to others through language, art, music or computer code.

Fourth, only humans engage in abstract thought. Unlike animal thoughts, which are largely anchored in sensory and perceptual experiences, many of ours have no clear connection to such events. We alone ponder the likes of unicorns and aliens, nouns and verbs, infinity and God.

These are distinctions that make a moral difference, in our value–and of course, in our uniquely human obligations to others, animals, the environment, posterity, and ourselves.  For example, our one-of-a-kind (at least on earth) intellects may be why we are the only true moral agents in the known universe.  These are different that mere physical distinctions, such as the hawk’s eyesight.

And here’s a good point:

How these ingredients are added to the recipe for creating culture varies considerably from group to group, however. Human cultures may differ in their languages, musical compositions, moral norms and artifacts. From the viewpoint of one culture, another’s practices are often bizarre, sometimes distasteful, frequently incomprehensible and occasionally immoral. No other animal exhibits such variation in lifestyle. Looked at in this way, a chimpanzee is a cultural nonstarter.

Of course, we’re the only species capable of viewing beheavior as “immoral.”

This is one reason I found myself so moved viewing the cave 25,000 year-old art at Pesh Merle in France.  These people were questing for something beyond themselves.  They clearly sought meaning.  They were us.  They were downright exceptional.


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