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.

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8 Responses to Humans

  1. Jon Garvey says:


    Whatever anyone says (and it sure as hell won’t be the animals saying it!) humans will continue to act as if they are exceptional. The only question will be whether they act as responsible custodians of creation, or as self-indulgent wastrels.

    Meanwhile, I’m not sure what difference it makes to comjecture that two or three previous species may have had some features of exceptionality – they’re not around to consult or compete.

    • Jon

      The point I was trying to make (and clearly not well) is that there is a strong movement among the modern adherents of militant atheism to promote an anti humanist agenda, asserting that human beings are truly nothing more than slightly more technological primates, who can also speak to some extent. This meme has spread throughout our culture, into environmentalism (the world would be better off without humans) and a good deal of political and cultural, as well as academic philosophy. I dont like it one bit. I dont remember who said it (Im sure it was someone on your side of the pond) but this attitude of “nothingbuttery” is pretty destructive in my view, and could have catastprophic consequeces. It even shows up in the first paragraph of your comment. How could any species be considered to be “self indulgent wastrels”? That is the biological definition of all living creatures. The very fact that we humans tend to think of ourselves (but not sharks, bunny rabbits or cats) in that way is pretty good evidence to me of human exceptionalism.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        Sy –

        I hope I didn’t give the impression of disagreeing with you. I was endorsing your post, and pointing to the self-contradiction of those who deny exceptionalism.

        On A N other website, a skeptic posted a reply to a piece on human exceptionaism by saying that like all exceptionalism – Christian, American, etc – it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. He failed to notice that it only leaves a bad taste in human mouths.

        Almost Iowa’s post reminds us that with exceptionalism comes responsibility, which is true, and consistent with the biblical concept of the divine image. But “wastrels” aside (and they’re just as exceptional in the world of life) humanity has never been more aware of its power to destroy and its responsibility not to – which was, if I remember, the message of your book Where We Stand (plug).

        I agree with you that that emphasis must be stressed, not allowed to be replaced by a lie – but in the big picture, I suspect deep down we know what we are.

  2. Almost Iowa says:

    From great exceptionalism comes great responsibility. I like the idea posed in the film Bruce Almighty where God takes a vacation and hands off the job to a human. In many ways, I think that has already been done…. so what are we going to do about it?

  3. SheilaDeeth says:

    I wish being “part of” and being “exceptional among” weren’t treated as if they were mutually exclusive concepts.

  4. Aniko Albert says:

    I know we have talked about this before, but I’ll try to make more sense this time. 🙂

    I think there are two distinct ideas in your post. One concerns a shift in Western culture from seeing humans as “the crown of creation” or the “pinnacle of evolution” – a polished, perfected, unique end product of whatever process filled this planet with life – to a view in which we are not all that unique, not all that “special”, and perhaps nothing much to celebrate after all. Other living things are special, too, in their own way; there is no behavior that we used to claim as unique to us that hasn’t been found among animals; there are too many of us and, being selfish and short-sighted, we’re destroying the very environment we and other living things need to survive. Like most of our ideas, this line of thinking easily slides into the absurd: every step we take destroys habitat, every breath we take pollutes the air, animals are in fact morally superior, and the planet would be better off without us. And, as usual, it’s easy to show – and satirize – the contradictions and the absurdity. As you said before, what does it mean that the Earth is “better off”, and “who” will make that determination? Will wolves and seagulls call a conference to discuss their different takes on the matter? Will they write tomes of dissertations to elucidate the truth of their respective positions? Will the wolves hold a grand celebration with hors d’oeuvres and a new symphony written for the occasion, while the seagulls (and the rabbits that do not end up on the wolves’ table) compose elegies in iambic pentameter about the good old days? In other words, ultimately, at least at some level, I think (almost) everyone understands how we differ from all other animals. 🙂

    As is always the case with cultural trends, the Theory of Human Mediocrity (TOM?) comes with a tangle of interconnected ideas. Strongly connected are postmodern skepticism about progress and perfectibility, New-Age notions of the supremacy of nature, and an atheistic-naturalistic aversion to any idea of direction or teleology in evolution. Much less connected, I think, is the question of when, and in what Homo species, specific behaviors (that it turns out we all sort of do recognize as unique) first appeared. As you say in your last paragraph, we really don’t NEED a sudden saltational event like the UPR in our history in order to discern human uniqueness or embrace Imago Dei. We know the changes happened, because we are here, and we are the way we are. In fact, a purely synchronic view suffices (as it did before we knew about evolution). The palentological details are exciting scientific questions, but such findings do not affect our understanding of who we are, just as our view of a squirrel will not change depending on whether it evolved slowly and gradually from its rodent ancestor or with a sudden leap somewhere along the line.

    So I don’t think the paleontologists who seem to be in a race to find human-like behaviors further and further back in time are necessarily motivated by the TOM – they are probably just typical scientists hoping to find something significant and new. 🙂 And if there is some cultural bias in some cases, the self-corrective processes of science will take of it in the end. I think. 🙂

  5. Well, who knew that writing a blog post would lead to a change in my world view? My wife Aniko’s comment (which followed an earlier discussion we had at home) has made me realize that its quite likely that my concern over the scientific exploration of the origin of man is not really relevant to the issue of human exceptionalism, no matter what is discovered. This is a great relief, because I really dont like being angry at scientists (unless they are truly are guilty of bias, which is very hard to tell).

    Also Sheila’s comment struck home. She is right that there is good reason to separate the fact that we are part of the natural world from the fact that we are exceptional among the natural world.

    And of course, Jon, as usual is totally correct, and it was only my somewhat exaggerated defensiveness on this issue that led me astray.

    So thanks to Aniko (to whom I owe a lot more than just thanks) and Sheila and Jon for helping to straighten me out. And as for Greg (the guy who lives Almost in Iowa), every comment from you (even the non funny ones) is a treasure. Thanks all. I have a lot to think about.

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