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Are humans superior to other species?

   

by Titus Rivas

"Someone with a speciesistic, antroposophic philosophy assumes an essential difference between humans and other species. He or she attributes qualities to humans, that make him superior to the rest of the animal kingdom, and lends a special status to this. Hereby, this can be a bodily characteristic like walking upright, whereby, we have our hands free to affect our environment in a far reaching way."

Physically not the best
Moreover, antroposophic authors do not deny that human is physically inferior to other species in various respects. All our senses have animal counterparts which have a much bigger range. Think, for example, of the dog's nose, the elephant's hearing, the cat's whiskers with which they can scan their surroundings, or the eagle's eyesight. Some species even have sensory abilities which we humans do not share at all, like the perception of electrical fields, or echolocation1).
Motorially considered, we are also surpassed by all kinds of animals, which, for example, can run or swim much faster than us. We treat the airspace with airplanes and other flying machines, but naturally we miss the organic wings of birds or bats.
Qua general physical constitution, humans are less well adapted to specific ecological circumstances, so that our survival depends on clothing and other forms of shelter. Of course, the fact that we are not bound to a certain environment, has been favorable to our evolutionary success, because the human species can survive almost everywhere. But, the fact that we can adapt to different environments, is primarily due to our mental abilities and not so much to special bodily features. As to our average lifetime we are still being surpassed by for example tonga turtles and cockatoos. We can try to prolong our lifetime by genetic modification, but then again, only because of our intelligence.

Summarized, we can maintain ourselves as a species just fine with our bodies, but pure physically, we achieve less well than other species in many ways.

1) Downer, J. (1989). Supersense - Bijzondere zintuigen van dieren. Kampen, 1989: La Rivière & Voorhoeven.

     

Mental toppers
Already in ancient times, human was being defined from his striking mental abilities. Even Latin name Homo Sapiens Sapiens refers to this, even two times.
This does not mean that there are no other species that can match us cognitively. Meanwhile, we know for centuries, that animals are precisely grossly underestimated psychologically. Think, for example, of the ability of self-recognition by anthropoid apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies, which points to a highly developed self-consciousness. Or think about the use of tools by for example primates and corvids.
A certain level of abstract reasoning generally appears in the animal world more often, than what in particular western philosophers have traditionally thought. The thesis that humans are intelligent and animals are not, or that other species are completely driven by irrational urges, has finally become outdated2).
However, there are domains in which the human being, up to now, has no equal, at least on earth. Even though animals in general are more intelligent and psychologically complex than we previously thought, our symbolic systems, like spoken and written human languages, have advanced abstract thinking, and the exchange of thought. This has been the basis of the development of human culture and technology. Our evolution has, therewith, become a cultural evolution for an important part. The parallels concerning this with animals are, without a doubt, surprising and impressive, but a successful combination of mental characteristics as human knows, still seems unique. The average human being, compared with most other species, really seems to function at an extraordinary high level of mental complexity and self-reflection. Even when we are not the smartest in every respect, we belong with the 'toppers' for sure.

2)Rivas, T. (2011). De onvermoede rijkdom van de dierlijke psyche (The unsuspected riches of the animal psyche).  Prana, 185, 10-18.

     

Moral superiority

A high level of abstract thinking makes it possible to systematically chart the interests of other beings, and to take that into account. This has enabled concepts like human rights and animal rights, and therewith, finally, the vegan lifestyle. Animals regularly show compassion towards other animals, and in such cases they also feature a sort of moral consciousness. But only humans have, as far as we know, processed their moral insights into explicit and negotiable ethic systems.
Does this mean that the human being is 'naturally' morally superior to other species? Unfortunately, not. The presence of moral norms does in no way guarantee that humans treat others well in practice. This is an old misunderstanding that goes back to Socrates. Insight in the good does not implicate a good walk.
With no other being one can find so much meaningless violence, vindictiveness, cruelty and sadism as with humans. This forms the basis of the curious phenomenon of the misanthropy, the aversion that some feel for humankind, even though, of course, they are part of humankind themselves as much. Humankind has a big moral potential, but we can certainly not collectively claim moral superiority. If we count the amount of wrongdoings, we are probably the most immoral species on earth. Although it is possible that there are also other species (like killer whales) that are capable of conscious acts of cruelty. But humans are without doubt the worst in their ruthlessness towards congeners and other species3).

Precisely the fact that we are relatively so intelligent, makes it so poignant that humans not always use their ratio to sufficiently take into account with their fellow beings.

3)Please note: I certainly do not advocate a species targeted moral judgment of humankind. In my opinion, just morally, it does not make sense to judge someone on the fact that he or she is part of humankind, instead of the caliber of his or her moral behavior. I, here, only follow the logic of the anthropocentrism.

     

Spiritual sublimity
As seen in this way, the traditional Christian thought that only humans have access to a spiritual domain is at least curious. Precisely the members of a species that is notorious for it's lack of compassion, would, naturally, have an immortal soul, while this would not be applied to it's animal victims. More unjust is barely possible.
Rationally speaking, it is, thus, more likely that we are all of the same order at the spiritual level. That all animals with an inner life possess a transcendent aspect or a spiritual dimension, is also for humans nothing more than fiction. A spiritual sublimity, which is exclusively bound to humankind, has not been credible anymore since Darwin, because evolutionally speaking, humans are animals as well. Psychological qualities have no longer been our privilege, so that the same should apply to spiritual attributes.
In stories about holy men and women that exercised attraction on animals, you often see this awareness of spiritual kinship. For example, it is not a coincidence that the death anniversary of Franciscus of Assisi is celebrated as 'animal day'. He considered all animals as his brothers and sisters. Many mystics have, for comparable reasons, advocated more consideration towards all 'Gods creatures'.

     

What does it actually matter?
Like other species, homo sapiens has special characteristics in which he can distinguish. Some of these characteristics, especially have to do with the ability to adapt, this to optimize his "biological" success. But, we also have mental attributes that, undoubtedly, rise beyond bodily survival and propagation. Because many of these attributes, like self-consciousness, are also present with other species, we are not unique in that. What does seem to make us exceptional, is the combination of mental attributes, our symbolic languages, and our cultural creations. One can try to make psychological abilities equal to physical adaptations to the environment, so that, for example, the human language competence equals the long neck of the giraffe. That, indeed, happened, to prove that the human being, in these kinds of respects, is not more developed than other creatures. But this is only convincing, when you wish to reduce reality to a pure physical process. Everyone who acknowledges that there is more than that, should also acknowledge that the human being is extra well endowed.
We are more capable than many other species, but does this also mean that we are superior to those other species? Considered purely functional, maybe we are, like a modern computer is superior to an old game console, because this computer simply provides more opportunities. But not in the sense of that we are intrinsically worth more than other species. If that would be the case, then a professor would be worth more than a baker. A mentally deficient person would be worth less than someone with average intelligence, and (most) children would be worth less than adults. In that sense, it is well regarded, not even possible that someone's intrinsic value is superior to that of another. All animals that have subjective experiences are absolutely worth the same on this level, and should be treated accordingly. What you are capable of, perhaps defines your use, but your use certainly does not define your intrinsic value or dignity4).
Thus, there is every reason to be glad with our human potential and to make advantage of it, also for the purpose of other creatures. We should even be proud of the positive accomplishments of ourselves and other human beings, when we really have put effort into it, and adequately made use of our nature5). But only when we do not feel worth more than the rest.

This article has been published in V Vegan Magazine, spring 2012, no 92, pages 26-27.

4)Regan, T. (2004). The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press.

5)The owning of abilities as such, is not a merit yet, unless one has acquired these abilities himself. The constructive use of it, is true.

Titus Rivas, Msc, argues that veganism is a reasonable, moral choice that has nothing to do with extremism as such.
This is a collection of published articles which have all been written from this perspective:

Laughing at animals

Do animals have a consciousness?

Do animals have much to tell?

Nice doggie! Affection in the Animal Kingdom

Animal-friendly dairy consumption?

Killing Young Animals for Human Consumption

The denial of injustice: existential anxiety as a source of the underestimation of animal suffering

Blaming the victim

Joan of Arc

Quichottisation

Conversion versus Guidance

Duende, flamenco and bullfights

Spirituality, engagement and commitment to animals

Are humans superior to other species?

Islam and ethics concerning animals

What is so 'extreme' about veganism?

Pioneers of animal emancipation

Does left-wing animal rights activism lead to terror?

The attitude (eating) behavior model projected behind veganism

 
Author:Titus Rivas
 

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