Expert Reveals: Even Aristotle Thought Humans Were Smarter Than Animals

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Are humans smarter than animals? Who do we go to for the answer?

A while back I wrote a piece for BreakPoint on “When There Are No Experts.” The idea there was that we’ve developed a culture that won’t make a decision until it’s been supported by scientific experts—and we’ll insist on doing things that way even when there are no experts. In no way do I mean to dismiss or diminish the value of scientific expertise. The problem is that we’ve made it the only relevant expertise for decision-making purposes. I heard Kathleen Sebelius complaining recently about how conservatives want to limit abortion even though there’s no scientific reason for it—as if that were the only kind of reason that counts.

And so when an “expert” speaks the magic words “science tells us,” journalists pass his or her “expertise” along, even when it’s someone saying

“For millennia, all kinds of authorities – from religion to eminent scholars – have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom,” says Dr Arthur Saniotis, Visiting Research Fellow with the University {of Adelaide]’s School of Medical Sciences.

“However, science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.”

He says the belief that humans have superior intelligence harks back to the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago when people began producing cereals and domesticating animals. This gained momentum with the development of organised religion, which viewed human beings as the top species in creation.

“The belief of human cognitive superiority became entrenched in human philosophy and sciences. Even Aristotle, probably the most influential of all thinkers, argued that humans were superior to other animals due to our exclusive ability to reason,” Dr Saniotis says.

The rest of the article goes on to tell us that human intelligence isn’t higher, just different, than that of animals. Why have we not noticed this? The quote already given blames it on the Agricultural Revolution and organized religion. But there was also “the drive of the Industrial Revolution, “ which “forestalled any gains made in the awareness of other animals.”

Human economic advancements and religion blinded us to the fact that we’re no higher than animals.

Dr. Saniotis’s specific expertise is in evolutionary biology. And in a sense he’s right: if naturalistic evolution is a true account of natural history, then humans are no “higher” than other animals; for “higher” implies that there’s a pointer that goes up and down, higher and lower, more advanced and less advanced, whereas evolution only knows better or worse adapted, more or less reproductively successful in its environmental circumstances. Human intelligence works in our niche, dog intelligence works in a dog’s niche, and cockroach intelligence presumably works in a cockroach’s niche: and who’s to say ours is better than theirs?

Aristotle thought it was. He thought intelligence had something to do with rational thinking. I’m sure he knew how inferior we are to pigs in processing olfactory information, but he went ahead and called us more intelligent anyway.

Poor Aristotle. He had no expert around to explain, “You’re no smarter than a pig. Just different.”

So again: are humans smarter than animals? Who do we go to for the answer? Why should evolutionary biologists be our experts? Why not ask a chimp?

Hat Tip to Denyse O’Leary

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20 Responses to “ Expert Reveals: Even Aristotle Thought Humans Were Smarter Than Animals ”

  1. if naturalistic evolution is a true account of natural history, then humans are no “higher” than other animals

    True – as you say, “in a sense” – but as Heinlein put it: “As for me, willy-nilly I am a man, not a beaver, and H. sapiens is the only race I have or can have. Fortunately for me, I like being part of a race made up of men and women — it strikes me as a fine arrangement…”

    Human intelligence has several unique aspects – plasticity, language, sociality. You can believe in evolution wholeheartedly and still acknowledge that.

  2. Sure. You can do that if you want, and many do.

    What you can’t do, however, is do it without self-contradiction.

    If some people are content with self-contradiction, that’s their business. I’m not okay with it. Are you?

  3. I think I’ll withhold judgement on this issue until I hear from the animal scientists hiding in our kennels.

    Perhaps we are just one giant experiment orchestrated by dolphins.

  4. Dr. Arthur Saniotis, Ph.D. Epidemiology and Public Health, Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences.

    “I am a trained social and medical anthropologist who has worked in public health and medical science. My research interests include evolutionary medicine specialising in evoltuionary nutrition, evolution of brain and its pathologies, diet and physical activity and future evolution of humans.”

    Shows just how well educated and academically connected it takes to be this stupid. Not just anyone can come up with this kind of nonsense. It takes years and years of study.

  5. Tom Gilson –

    What you can’t do, however, is do it without self-contradiction.

    Asserting that, and demonstrating it, are two different things. And you’ve already noted you haven’t read much Dennett, so I’ll wait until you do.

  6. You can make your bare, unsupported assertions, with a dead link supporting yours; and I can make my quick response with no link supporting mine—unless you want me to go back and find the dozens of places where I’ve already written arguments, arguments that stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of whether I’ve read what you think I should have read in Dennett.

  7. Maybe you have some special access to that link, or maybe it’s intermittent. Every time I try it I get, “The specified request cannot be executed from current Application Pool”

  8. I have a friend who had to euthanize his 12 year old Cocker Spaniel, because he had developed health issues. So one day, a few years ago, he took his beloved little pet on a short walk back into woods near where he lived… One bullet to the back of the head was all it took.

    Did my friend do anything illegal or immoral? Do you see where I am going with all this?

    If there is nothing about humans that makes them more exceptional, then what’s immoral about doing to grandma, suffering from Alzheimer’s, exactly what my friend did to his pet dog? Of course I know it’s illegal, but should it be, if the naturalistic world view frame work is true?

  9. JAD –

    If there is nothing about humans that makes them more exceptional, then what’s immoral about doing to grandma, suffering from Alzheimer’s, exactly what my friend did to his pet dog?

    Last paragraph of this comment.

  10. Just because we cannot smell like pigs it doesn’t mean that we have inferior intelligence – projection abilities of the brain =/= non-projection abilities (association, intelligence), although there is evidence that the human nose is actually pretty good at some olfactory abilities, humans have far superior vision than pigs..humans obviously excel at many (if not all) mental tasks compared to pigs and other animals

  11. If there is nothing about humans that makes them more exceptional, then what’s immoral about doing to grandma, suffering from Alzheimer’s, exactly what my friend did to his pet dog? Of course I know it’s illegal, but should it be, if the naturalistic world view frame work is true?

    Humans can consent, for example I will leave notes to my relatives to have me euthanized if I become unable to consent, that is where the right or wrong part comes in. Currently the law doesn’t even allow this for consenting, chronically ill people, secularists generally advocate the legalization of very restricted and controlled euthanasia practices because there doesn’t exist a reason to disallow this (except for cases of depression being classed as a chronic illness, but that is a failure of diagnosis rather than a true challenge to the position, and it is a problem that will be resolved by empirical study).

  12. Oisin,

    What will be the dependent and independent variables in the empirical study you just mentioned? Who will decide whether the right dependent variables were chosen? On what basis will they make that decision?

  13. Aristotle also thought that babies grew entirely from the man’s sperm, and that all fetuses were trying to become male, and the ones that didn’t manage were the women. Just because Aristotle was brilliant doesn’t mean he wasn’t wrong about most things.

    Are you actually appealing to Aristotle in the same way as the journalists appeal to experts, or are you being ironic?