To Be a Species is to Be Special

John S. Wilkins considers the argument  that humans are somehow more than “just animals.”

The evolutionary view of human capacities is that they have precursors in ancestral traits, and these precursors can be found in other animals. Dogs, corvids, cetaceans, primates, and a host of other animals display moral, cognitive and conscious behaviour. Humans are special indeed in their capacities. But, and this is what what Tallis [a proponent of this view] overlooks, so are all other animals. The word “special” is merely the adjectival form of “species”. To be a species is to be special. Sure, humans are special in their own way. So is a cat, a mole or a mouse. If the target of your explanation was a mouse, then you would explain it having its abilities and social behaviours in terms of evolved dispositions inherited from ancestors. You may as well say a mouse is special in ways other animals (including humans) are not. Otherwise we couldn’t even tell it was a member of a species, by definition. Unless there are properties that mark it out from other species, it would be folded into other species.
So too with humans. If we were not different in our traits from other primate species like chimps, then we would be chimps. But we have our own special traits, and so we and chimps are distinct species. So the argument is a kind of fallacy (affirming the consequent). Humans can be special and yet be animals, just like every other animal species.

I get it. Yes, we’re just like all other animals in that we’re essentially bags of meat consuming and excreting and multiplying, but then again we also have cities and symphonies and iPads and literature and universities and corporations and spaceships. But all those things, they are our eagle’s wings, our bat’s sonar, our cephalopod’s camouflage.

And with them we rule the universe!*



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