I believe in human exceptionalism. I believe that human consciousness, creativity, intellect, imagination and other characteristics are emergent qualities with no true analogy in the animal world. I believe this as a matter of religious faith (imago Dei), but even more so as a scientific principle. In fact, I have always believed that human beings were special, far more than naked apes, even when I was an atheist.
In recent years, being pro-human has gone out of style. We now hear that humans are nothing terribly special, that various animals can do everything we can do and more. Some even state that humans are essentially bad: greedy, uncaring, destructive and dangerous to the planet.
It might come as a shock to some, but the truth is that science is not always objective and free from cultural and social influences. Nor are scientists. There is therefore a strong tendency among many scientists following current cultural trends to find scientific arguments supporting the Theory of Human Mediocrity. I will give one example.
What we know (or knew at one point) about the history of Homo Sapiens is that they emerged as a species about 200,000 ya, in Africa, and didn’t do very well for a long time. Their numbers declined, partly as a result of climate change caused by some major volcanic eruptions. There is genetic evidence that our species might have been on the path to extinction, with populations reduced to about 2000 to 10,000 individuals world wide. By 50,000 ya that had changed. The population exploded, and so did human technology. Humans began the long process of colonizing and then ruling the entire planet. They displaced all other extant hominins, and started on the long road to domination of the world-wide environment. For a long time, the evidence showed that this change was dramatic and relatively sudden, and it was called the Upper Paleolithic Revolution (UPR). Jared Diamond described this as “The Great Leap Forward” in his book The Third Chimpanzee.
But the UPR is in current disfavor, and according to some, has been debunked. The problem with the UPR is that it conveys a sense of something unusual, something special about modern humans. Whether it was due to a mutation or an act of God, the UPR goes against the concept of people being just another boring species that evolves slowly, step by step, in a long continuum. And so now we hear about evidence that Neanderthals had all the attributes of Sapiens, that Sapiens and other Homo species had advanced cultural attributes like language, burial of dead, and diverse stone technologies long before 50,000 ya. In fact, many paleontologists seem to be joining a race to see who can find the most evidence pushing back the origins of modern human behavior as far as possible.
All of this research is aimed at disproving the currently out-of-favor idea that people are exceptional. I don’t know if the newer results are really better than the older models or not, because quite frankly, I don’t trust agenda-driven science. It may in fact be true that Neanderthals were thinking about the philosophical implications of mathematical theory, or the aesthetic parameters of complex artistic forms, and so on. It may be true that the change from non-speaking, not completely human behavior to us was slow and gradual. I actually don’t think that matters. What does matter is that the change happened. We are not naked apes. How we got the way we are is of great interest, and the question deserves to be addressed without bias, or preconceived ideas.