Human Exceptionalism Undermined? (Updated)

While my brother and Wesley Smith discuss this brief analysis of the importance to human exceptionalism by Leon Kass at his place, this provocatively titled piece of news has started to make the rounds: Chimps are More Evolved than Humans.

Of course, what they mean by “evolution” is itself interesting:

The results, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were surprising. Chimps had 233 positively selected genes while humans had just 154, implying that chimps have adapted more to their environment than humans have to theirs.

“It’s human egotism to put us on a pedestal,” says molecular anthropologist Morris Goodman of Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. “I was attracted to the paper because it seemed to be chipping away at this desire to make us all that extra-special. At the molecular level, humans are not necessarily exceptional in terms of the adaptive changes.”

The conclusion that Zhang’s team draws–that chimps are more evolved than humans–are debatable, of course:

Not everyone is convinced that Zhang’s team has drawn the correct conclusion from the gene analysis. Humans and chimps are so similar that it is difficult to determine whether the genes are the product of positive selection, says Bruce Lahn, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago who studies the genetic basis of brain evolution.

“It is very rare that there will be enough changes in such a short lineage to tell us there is positive selection,” says Lahn. “I’m very surprised that they claim these are positively selected genes. I would guess if they tried to publish each of these genes as an example of positive selection, there wouldn’t be enough supporting data for the majority of them.”

The idea that having more “positively selected genes” erodes human exceptionalism is itself dubious. The idea that human exceptionalism stands or falls on the structure or development of the species’ DNA seems overly reductionist. Why should we privilege the structure of the gene over the creation of the Mona Lisa? We must admit both (the latter of which has clearly not been approached by the best of chimps).

One thought: the attempt to undercut human exceptionalism by appeals to genetics seems driven by a desire to place humans and chimps on the same level. This would purportedly raise the status of the chimp. But if the doctrine of creation is right, such a distortion of the natural hierarchy of beings could only end up devaluing the role of chimps by giving them a purpose in the structure of creation that they do not have. What would this look like in practice? I have no idea, but it’s an intriguing thought that I’m going to continue to consider.
One thing is clear: it’s time to move How the Leopard Changed its Spots to the top of my reading list.

email
  • http://www.warrenfalk.com/ Warren Falk

    Seems that we just had this discussion right here on Mere-O a few weeks ago. Here are some thoughts.

    There are multiple ways to interpret “more evolved.” Consider several examples: (A) “evolved better” (B) “evolved more often” (C) “been subject to evolution longer” (D) “has a longer chain of ancestors” (E) “changed more” (F) “more able to survive in its environment” etc.

    This post seems interesting because we humans expect headlines to be interesting and so we tend to assume the more interesting interpretation from an otherwise ambiguous headline. So we see “more evolved” and our minds instantly read “better evolved” because that’s way more sensational.

    This post (and linked article) might lead one to believe that Morris Goodman has interpreted Zhang’s findings to mean that chimps are superior to humans, when this is not what he is saying. Instead, his comment says that there is not some absolute pedestal on which any species belongs. In context, he means in science, it is not useful to presume that humans are atop some evolutionary hierarchy.

    I think that the blog post is misleading. To put the “conclusions of the paper are debatable” line right after Morris’ quote would lead one to think that the conclusion of the paper was that “humans are not exceptional” and the following criticism by Bruce Lahn was criticizing that idea, but a close read reveals that as inaccurate. Bruce Lahn is only criticizing Zhang’s conclusion that the genes were “positively selected” not any conclusion reached by Goodman.

    Unfortunately, this confusion is continued and amplified by comments like the following:

    The idea that having more “positively selected genes” erodes human exceptionalism is itself dubious.

    and

    the attempt to undercut human exceptionalism by appeals to genetics

    Whereas these could be true statements, I think one has to read into the paper what isn’t there to arrive at them.

    The point of the paper was not to undercut human exceptionalism. It was to put it in its place, and its place is not in science. Science doesn’t answer “why” or “ought,” so a questions such as “Why should we privilege the structure of the gene over the creation of the Mona Lisa?” is not a question science will ever answer.

    The point I made in the Darwinism thread is the same. The reason that humans tend to see themselves as superior is that, as humans, we tend to ascribe some absolute to our own frame of reference. But consider the chimp’s perspective. The Mona Lisa never helped any chimp find food or fend off enemies. Likewise, it would be difficult to find a human employer who thinks the ability to grasp with your feet is useful. Science cannot make such normative claims on who is “better” in some absolute sense, but only relative to some context.

    I believe this is what Morris Goodman meant when he indicated he was pleased to see the paper.

  • MatthewLee

    Warren,

    Thanks for the comment. I updated the post to remove the unclarity about what was being contested. I agree–it was misleading, though I didn’t intend it to be so.

    That said, I think the interpretation of the Goodman quote could go either way. He doesn’t specify in what way he thinks we desire to make humans “special”–scientifically, or morally or otherwise. I certainly did read it as referring to human exceptionalism because that’s what I’m thinking about these days, but I agree that it is ambiguous. I am not deleting the post because, well, that’s lame. I wouldn’t be surprised, all the same, if my interpretation is actually right. : )

    I agree that undercutting human exceptionalism isn’t the point of the paper. The question is whether the conclusions can be taken to do so (which I think Goodman might be doing, depending upon what he means by “special”).

    As for your claims about science, I agree that “Why should we privilege genes over the Mona Lisa” isn’t in the domain of science. But I don’t think that stops many people who hold to scientism from thinking that it does. In fact, at UChicago I met one such (highly educated!) individual who told me that he didn’t think we needed to read any books that were more than 60 years old, as books older than that were no longer relevant to the social or empirical sciences. I think that more people than we might realize are (implicitly) of this orientation.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  • http://www.warrenfalk.com/ Warren Falk

    I’m sure I agree with you. There will always be some who conclude what they want to conclude, sadly, and they will probably always be many.

    Consider that until relatively recent history, “down” was considered absolute and a spherical earth was scoffed by those imagining upside-down people on the other side. Even more recently “motion” was considered absolute and the earth was considered the absolute center of the universe. Both are silly thoughts nowadays.

    Humans tend to imagine absoluteness in their own perspectives that isn’t really there. So when evolution was hypothesized and seemed to be confirmed, many, many humans immediately assumed themselves to be the absolute top of the evolutionary ladder, and eugenics was born.

    You could be right about Goodman’s intent, but I think that when he said “…it seemed to be chipping away at this desire to make us all that extra-special,” that he was articulating frustration with this human tendency.

    Don’t get me wrong. Humans are obviously exceptional in their ability to understand and their sense of moral duty. However “exceptional” does not mean “better” in any absolute sense. For example, just as “environmentalists” think it is their moral duty to preserve the environment, eugenicists think that it is their duty to rid mankind of its diseased and lesser-human races. I hardly think of this as “better.”

    This is the non sequitur to which your brother refers, I believe.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Not exactly, Warren, but close. The non sequitur I address is the leap from “humans are unique” to “dignity requires uniqueness.” I show that, even in a theistic worldview, that’s simply not the case.

    Because I’m fond of analogizing: it’s like saying that baseball is great, but the existence of cricket threatens to undermine baseball’s greatness.