Human Exceptionalism

More on Secular Bases for Exceptionalism

Human exceptionalism seems so self evident to me that I am somewhat nonplussed that it is even considered debatable. Yet, a growing chorus adamantly deny that humans are entitled to a special status. But many would-be exceptionalism debunkers seem to be skeptical as a means of achieving a particular end.

Some, for example, want us to act exceptionally toward other species, or yearn to intelligently redesign ourselves into post humanity, and see human exceptionalism as standing in the way of the great project. Others hate religion and denigrate exceptionalism as a method to undermine faith.

We all know that religious belief supports exceptionalism. But there are also bounteous secular approaches to embracing our unique status, as well. This 2004 article from Spiked (“What Makes Us Exceptional?”) provides an interesting analysis, in which Sandy Starr points to evolutionary differences (unusual speed in brain development) as well as our capacity to move beyond natural selection and change ourselves culturally and impact the world “in a deliberate fashion.” A few key quotes:

“Over the course of human history, we have been successful in cultivating our faculties, shaping our development, and impacting upon the wider world in a deliberate fashion, quite distinct from evolutionary processes. While evolution by genetic mutation and natural selection can be shown to follow certain patterns, this process lacks the capacity of human society to formulate specific and conscious goals…

The latest discoveries about our biological evolution…appear to point to the opposite conclusion, confirming rather than denying human exceptionalism…As Kenan Malik, author of Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature, argues: ‘We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws.’ Our biological evolution provides necessary, but insufficient, conditions for our further development through society….Since our humanity consists in more than our biology, biology alone cannot account for how we came to be human.”

It’s a good article and I think this is an important discussion. If we deny human exceptionalism, it seems to me that the cause of universal human rights is on very thin ice.


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