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Marc Bekoff

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Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism

Posted: 08/05/11 05:21 PM ET

"Man in his arrogance thinks of himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. [Yet it is] more humble and, I believe, true to consider him created from animals." (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

Nonhuman animals (animals) are magnificent and amazing beings. They clearly have wide-ranging cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities. We can learn a lot from them if we open or minds and hearts to who (not what) they really are. We should be proud of our citizenship in the animal kingdom. Scientific research is changing the way we view other animals. We don't have to go beyond the science or embellish what we know to appreciate how they express their intellectual skills and emotional capacities. We're clearly neither the only conscious beings nor the sole occupants of the emotional and moral arenas in which there are also some surprising residents including honeybees, fish, and chickens. Surely we have no right to intrude wantonly into the lives of other animals or to judge them or blame them for our evil ways.

When we say animals are conscious and smart we mean they know what to do to adapt to ever-changing environments. The versatility and flexibility of their behavior show clearly they are not machine-like automatons, but rather actively thinking and feeling beings. Donald Griffin, often called the "father of cognitive ethology" (the study of animal minds), postulated that the ability of animals to adapt to unpredictably changing conditions showed they were conscious and able to assess what needed to be done in a given situation. It's not a question of if animals are conscious but rather why consciousness has evolved.

There are sound biological reasons for recognizing animals as conscious beings. Charles Darwin stressed that variations among species are differences in degree rather than kind. There are shades of gray, not black and white differences, so if we have something "they" (other animals) have it too. This is called evolutionary continuity and shows that it is bad biology to rob animals of the traits they clearly possess. For example, we share with other mammals and vertebrates the same areas of the brain that are important for consciousness and processing emotions. We need to abandon the anthropocentric view that only big-brained animals such as ourselves, nonhuman great apes, elephants, and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have sufficient mental capacities for complex forms of consciousness.

The ramifications of how we view other animals in relation to ourselves are wide-ranging and greatly influence how we treat them. There are social, political, and environmental implications when we ignore who other animals are and think of ourselves as above and better than them. An essay by philosopher Steven Best provides a penetrating analysis of why human exceptionalism, the belief that human beings have special status based on our unique capacities, is a false view and has serious consequences because of how we (or at least some of us) conduct ourselves when we view ourselves as "members of a distinct species in relation to other species and Earth as a whole..." Best provides a comprehensive review of recent research in cognitive ethology to support his argument that we do indeed share many traits with other animals. The database grows daily and science is supporting many of our intuitions about the cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of a wide-range of animals.

Clearly, we need to rethink human "uniqueness" and dispense with speciesism. Best notes that humans do indeed show unique capacities such as writing sonnets, solving algebraic equations, and meditating on the structure of the universe, and he also points out that other animals have abilities and traits that we don't have. Speciesism, "discrimination against or exploitation of certain animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind's superiority," involves assigning different values or rights to individuals on the basis of species membership and constructs false boundaries among species. Speciesism doesn't work because it assumes human exceptionalism and also because it ignores within-species variation that often is more marked than between-species differences.

What we now know about animal minds (certainly among mammals but also among a wide variety of other species) does not support human exceptionalism and we need to factor this into how we treat other animals and Earth. Best concludes, "If humans have for so long failed to understand animal minds it is because their own stupidity, insensitivity, and deep speciesist bias have for so long blinded them." We also can add arrogance to the list of why some people think other species are no more important than dispensable objects. But the blinders are coming off. And we're learning a lot about other animals that can make us better people.

Alienating ourselves from other animals and dominating them is not what it means to be human. I often wonder if future humans will sit around and scratch their heads and wonder how we missed what is so obvious about the lives of other animals.

We are a significant force in nature. We need to be more compassionate, empathic, and humble and act with greater concern for animals and their homes. We suffer the indignities to which we expose other animals and in the end we all lose when we ignore nature and act as if we're the only animals who count, that we are exceptional and better and can do whatever we want because we can. Power is neither license to make other animal's lives miserable nor to redecorate their homes with no concern for their well-being.

Whether you agree or disagree with all of Best's arguments against human exceptionalism and their social, political, and environmental implications is immaterial. What does matter is that his stimulating essay should get us all to appreciate how fascinating other animals are and that we can no longer continue to be over-producing, over-consuming, arrogant, big-brained, big-footed, and invasive mammals who don't give other animals the respect, compassion, and love they deserve.

The time has come to debunk the myth of human exceptionalism once and for all. It's a hollow, shallow, and self-serving perspective on who we are. Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species exceptionalism, a move that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.