by Heather Clague
It is interesting that the question of consciousness comes up when thinking about human exceptionalism, but I agree with you that there is ample evidence that many animals have forms of consciousness that we can easily recognize as sentient experience worthy of our empathic inquiry and moral consideration. We cannot rest arguments that humans are unique on the presence of conscious experience. Also, even if we do have mental capacities not shared by other animals, as you have pointed out, every species is ‘special’ in it’s own way, and it would be a mistake to valorize our particular peacock tails over the miraculous adaptations of each species to its particular set of selection pressures.
But if I am ready to say that we aren’t aesthetically or morally special, there is no denying our exceptionality in terms of evolutionary success. We have the largest biomass of any single terrestrial species, and if we include the biomass of domesticated animals, humans and the animals under our dominion have the greatest biomass of any species on Earth. Is it not reasonable to wonder at what about ourselves has allowed this to happen? Our cognitive and social-emotional capacities may not seem that much different than those of chimps, but whatever that difference is has been enough to allow us to swarm and drive them nearly to extinction.
I believe the capacity that has allowed us to separate ourselves from other creatures is our particular capacity to cooperate. This ability emerges from an interrelated set of faculties that extend beyond mere consciousness, and include language, sophisticated empathy and motivation for intersubjective sharing, moral sense and cultural transmission. We can find animal examples of these individual skills, but none come close to the degree manifest by humans. At some point, a large enough quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference. Had humans not stumbled into settled agriculture and the industrial revolution and taken over the world, I do not believe that chimps would have done so. Planet of the Apes was never a possibility. It is ironic, then, that the capacity that has allowed us to achieve near complete domination is based on our ability to feel that this domination may be wrong.
Is this group then not an opportunity to articulate a sophisticated morality that appreciates our mental capacities and acknowledges our modern social and environmental perils? We are living at densities our brains and bodies did not evolve to handle, and we are most certainly altering the globe through climate change and mass extinction. We evolved an ability to feel concern for others to serve our reproductive self interest; I take the view that effective ethical behavior is a form of enlightened self interest. Should we extend our moral concern to non-human creatures and the environment? To people we don’t know living places we will never visit? I’m afraid we have to; it’s become a small world, and as this horrific ebola outbreak is showing us, what goes around comes around.