Are There Things Only Humans Can Do?

As part of a recent discussion on human exceptionalism, I put some thought into the question of human uniqueness and what science has to say about the peculiarity of humans. Our first tack was to brainstorm potentially unique human faculties.  Here are my notes.

Human faculties are either activities (processes in action) or abilities (potential processes) considered to be present in humans – potentially exclusively.

Some philosophers have claimed reason, awareness, mind, and intelligence as uniquely human. I worry that these traits are equivalent to, rather than descriptive of, humanity in much of the literature. Insofar as we define them more specifically, we find them in other organisms. Abstract problem solving appears in crows and dolphins and, interestingly, amoebae. Self-recognition appears in elephants, apes, dolphins, and magpies. Synthetic abstraction (combining abstract concepts mentally) appears in dolphins.

A second category of faculties includes agency (the ability to have done otherwise), will or choice (deciding between options), moral reasoning (thinking and choosing on the basis of value), theological altruism (thinking and choosing in a way that benefits others over self), consciousness (internal awareness), and art-for-art’s sake (as opposed to craft for the sake of utility). This list, while easier to speak of concretely in non-humans, is not open to observation. All the elements involve some internal state. Were non-humans to have these faculties, there would be no way to verify them empirically. If we choose them as the dividing line between humans and non-humans, we will need to rely on some other way of knowing (revelation? deduction? tradition?).

A third category contains faculties both specific and potentially empirical). In each case, it has been difficult to stipulate a qualitative difference between human and non-human forms. Humans have complex or “fancy” ways of doing these things. That does not rule them out as functional definitions, but it does mean we’ll need to be careful how we communicate about them. Tool use and transmission has been observed in crows. Agriculture (cultivating plants and fungus as tools) and herding (cultivating animals as tools) have been observed in ants (and here). Evolutionary biologists have, in the past, distinguished artificial selection from natural selection, but it’s unclear on what >empirical< grounds. If the difference is intent or consciousness, then it invokes internal states. If the difference is just that humans do one, then we have not aided our cause of differentiating humans. Many organisms communicate, though humans appear to transmit and rearrange far more complex concepts than other creatures. In particular, we have a rich language and the ability to generate new languages.

In a previous discussion (and here), world-domination was proposed, but cyanobacteria have arguably had a greater impact on the planet than humans, producing the oxygen rich atmosphere (3.5-2.2 billion years ago), killing off most of the other species at the time, and making Earth possible for multicellular organisms (including plants and animals). Along similar lines, we can think of space-exploration. A number of organisms have hitched rides on human spacecraft traveling to the moon and probably beyond (and here). We are also starting to think more seriously about the possibility that meteorite impacts can eject Earth rocks into space with hibernating microbes capable of colonizing other planets.

My friend, Jack suggested nuclear chemistry (causing fusion and fission reactions), which looks promising. While numerous species utilize fusion products (heat and light from the Sun) or colonize radioactive zones (and here), only humans produce nuclear energy and waste products.


4 thoughts on “Are There Things Only Humans Can Do?

  1. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why we seem to have a need to confirm human exceptionalism. One possible reading of the imago dei is simply that we’re the ones God charged (for whatever reason; the divine “mind” is mostly inscrutable to us) with behaving on God’s behalf in the world. And, of course, for Christians, it’s tied into the fact that God became human (for whatever reason) in Christ. The view that Christ saves (in the sense of theosis) the cosmos by becoming part of creation (as human, it so happens) would make humans’ similarity to other animals more interesting, I think. And that God chose to become *human* should be a cause for humility rather than a confirmation of human exceptionalism. But, of course, I could be wrong, and all of that is just one way among many of looking at things theologically.

    • Short answer: ego. We want to be God’s special species.
      Long answer: ethics. Truthfully, it matters that we think of humans as different so that we can construct a way of talking about ethics that helps us treat all humans well. So, my first answer was a bit glib. I’m not inclined to give up treating humans with a unique dignity – though I don’t think science will justify our distinction. Sometimes we need to see humans as specially in need of our care. Other times, I think we need to recognize our interconnectedness with the rest of creation – our brothers and sisters.

  2. Pingback: Do humans deserve unique treatment? | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

  3. Pingback: Meeting 4.2 – Human Exceptionalism | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

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