A Facebook friend recently posted a Freidrich Nietzsche quote: “The world is beautiful, but has a disease called man.” When I was in college—which is to say when I was very young and naïve—I had a twenty-minute love affair with Nietzsche’s ideas after reading him in a philosophy course.1 Luckily, I quickly came to my senses. Dyspeptic German philosophers don’t do anybody any good. Although I agree with him that the world is beautiful, the second part is horse pucky.
It is a core of my beliefs that human beings are the best form of intelligence and the hottest thing going for about three parsecs in any direction from here. Many other species on this planet exhibit intelligence: most species of dolphins, whales, elephants, octopi, and a number of smaller mammals. Hell, even my dog has a basic, recognizable, communicable form of intelligence. Intellectual capacity is not an on-off switch but a spectrum. On that basis, humans are at the top of the heap, the far end of the scale, the smartest of the bunch.
Why? Is that my human chauvinism speaking?2 Not at all. We’re at the top because we are the ones doing the studying and evaluating among all these other species. We are trying to understand dolphin and whale communication systems, decipher their languages, and determine what—if anything—they are communicating. So far, we have a lot of tantalizing ideas, but no obvious consensus. And that’s not because we aren’t really trying, don’t really care, or haven’t put some of our best minds into the study.
For other animals—and I use the term advisedly—we are still gathering data and, generally, reacting with surprise. Elephants form well-ordered societies, have strong familial and interpersonal relationships, and exhibit an artistic sense. Octopi, which are the only mollusks we know with a big brain, are clever and almost intuitive. However, all of these attributes are components of human intelligence and social order. So maybe we are anthropomorphizing—that is, seeing and interpreting a human element where none exists—about the nature and skills of these animals after all.
All of these animals have the capacity to react to their environment. They can observe in a limited fashion, analyze to some extent, learn and remember, and move away from danger and toward safety and stability. These are qualities that most other animals—think of the wild panic during a stampede ahead of a brush fire—have only in limited amount and that plants have not at all. But complex as dolphin speech might be, nurturing as elephant mothers might be, and clever as the solitary octopus might be, none of them has developed any kind of technology beyond using sticks to poke at an ant hill or a flat rock upon which to break a seed pod. None of them is going to build a radio or a rocket ship anytime soon.
You can argue that advanced technology needs the right environment and the right bodily morphology. We can make radios because we don’t live in the sea, where the study of electronics is pretty much a lost cause. And we can make sophisticated tools, weapons, and rockets because we have grasping hands, opposable thumbs, and limbs that provide usable amounts of leverage. Dolphins and whales don’t have this. Octopi have dexterity and strength, but nothing as precise as ten fingers working in coordination.
Humans also have self-awareness. We know what we are—at least most of us do, on a basic level—and we recognize ourselves as individual beings separate from each other and from our group. Dolphins and some whales have this: if you strap a funny hat on a dolphin’s sleek head, then provide its tank with a mirror, the animal will go over and regard itself to see how it looks. The dolphin knows itself as unique among others of its kind. But no amount of coaxing can get my dog to see that the “other dog” in the mirror is actually her own reflection. Dogs might have “we” and “us” in their inner vocabulary, but their sense of “I” and “me” is limited to the point of non-existence.
We humans value dolphins, whales, and dogs—indeed, most animals that aren’t trying to eat us—because we think of them as pure souls, without the impulse to break rules, choose wrongful actions, and exhibit variable behaviors including meanness and cruelty. We think that the ability to do evil is the special nature of humanity, and that this calculated ability makes us less than the animals. But in reality, all animals are operating according to their natures and by instinct, not by reasoning. When an elephant goes rogue, or a tiger becomes a man-eater, it is not because the animal has chosen to break a rule or violate some internal code of ethics. It is merely reacting to some environmental factor or hormonal conflict that may be complex but is ultimately natural, not reasoned.
It is the special strength of humans—derived from our ability to see ourselves as separate individuals and reason about our place and our status in the group—that we can have a system of morality, and that we can choose to break with it for non-environmental, non-hormonal, non-natural reasons. We can see another person’s property, understand their rights to it, and still decide that it would be better in our possession. We can see another person take action, think deeply and feel strongly about the implications of that action, and take complementary action ourselves—perhaps supporting, perhaps opposing, sometimes even killing that other person—to effect an outcome we believe to be right and proper.
Human morals don’t come from nature or instinct. They derive from the shadow-play of ideas and meanings, a model of the external world we see around us, which takes place inside our heads. And then this model comes back out into the world, mixes with the models and ideas of other humans around us, and takes shape in the form of customs, laws, courts, and punishments upon which a group of people can agree, under which they can operate, and in obedience to which they may lose their property and even, sometimes, their lives. Dolphins and elephants may have intricate and supportive social structures—so do bees!—but none of them to our knowledge participate deliberative bodies, hold courts to try cases of transgression, and exile or execute prisoners.
This is not a failing of humans, that we can choose to do wrong and must punish our perpetrators, but instead the sign of a deeper intelligence than any other animal displays. The fact that we can have personal failings, and then feel bad about them, and work to correct them, is a form of strength. We are the animal that thinks about itself, judges itself, and strives to be and do better. We are the animal that can learn and evolve its own behavior, its society, and its morality without first experiencing a genetic mutation that drives our adaptability to the environment or the interplay of our brain chemistry and bodily hormones.
It is popular these days to see primitive man, unsophisticated humans, and people who live in the wilderness, as existing in some superior state of being. Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in the “noble savage,” the human and the social group with no concept of sin, of right and wrong, and so who could live in a state of harmony with each other and with nature. Such a person—who would only be possible in a human body without a functioning concept of self—never existed. Societies living in the distant wilderness, untouched by Western colonialism and Judeo-Christian traditions, are no more pure, polite, loving, and in tune with nature than modern humans living in steel and concrete cities under complex social rules. Tribal clans and hunter-gatherer societies are rife with taboos, tensions, jealousies, and murder, just like any other human association. And any respect they have for nature as a social value comes from the same reasoned sense of self-preservation that drives a modern environmentalist to sort his municipal solid waste and stop dumping his chemicals in the river.
It is also popular to imagine that any other human-scale intelligence which might come to Earth from out among the stars will represent pure souls without the taints of aggression, greed, and anger.3 After all, any species that can cooperate to master the incredible energies needed to drive ships across those vast distances—and not blow themselves up in the process—must be superior to grubby old humankind, right? But again, monocultures, groups that live in perfect harmony, that neither permit nor experience differences among their members, that have no concept of self as different from other, are unlikely to be very creative. Societies advance by having some individuals invent and rebel. Individuals imagine different ways of doing things, question the status quo, and occasionally work against it. Perfect societies are static societies. Static societies do not invent fusion engines and go off on interstellar travels.
Only by the darkness in human nature can you see and value the light. Only by wrong can you identify the right. This is a basic principle. Conflict and compromise among individuals in groups is a basic element of evolution. As it is here on Earth, so it will be out among the stars.
Have human beings sometimes acted barbarously? Have we experienced wars and genocides? Have we been too often careless with our environment and harmed our planet’s beauty? Of course. But along with those who act selfishly, hurtfully, and carelessly, we have people who can observe in broad dimensions, analyze in depth, learn and communicate their findings with sophistication, and move away from danger and toward safety and stability. That we can do this as a group, discussing morality, shaping customs, and writing and enforcing laws, is the special strength of human beings. We can act together by operationalizing that dream-model we make of the world. We can act outside of our basic, instinct- and hormone-driven natures.
We are not a plague on this planet. We are its saviors and shapers.
1. And when I was twelve, I had a brief fascination with Marx’s dictum: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” It sounds so good, right, and proper—until you think about, or learn about, how economics actually operates. About human motivations, too. Like the planet Miranda in the movie Serenity, where the atmosphere was suffused with government-supplied G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate, a world truly governed by Marx’s principle would simply lie down and die for lack of trying. In the real world, however, it takes a heap of intentional killing to bring Marxism to that point.
2. Well, some chauvinism. I am not part of the current intellectual movement that hates itself, whether because of original sin, white privilege, Western colonialism, or environmental guilt. It is a basic policy of mine not to vote for, side with, or support people who want to see me and mine dead. That’s just common sense.
3. Unless they are a race of brutal conquerors, for whom humans represent some kind of nuisance or vermin to be eliminated, as depicted in alien-encounter movies that also partake of horror movies. Personally, I think anyone who crosses the gap between the stars to land here is going to be just as fascinated by us humans as we will be by them: both of us will have something strange and new to study. Of course, accidents may happen, and misunderstandings and feuds may break out between the two intelligent species. But I don’t think you have to travel a dozen light-years to pick a fight or to find valuable resources and steal them.