What is Central About Humans?
Tibor R. Machan
The newspaper I read regularly carried a story on June 20th, 2007, from Cox News Service, under the byline of a Bill Hendrick, reporting on a finding at Emory University’s primate center that "the local customs that define human cultures also exist in the world of chimpanzees." The story goes on to say, "That means that humans aren't the only animals with culture, said Frans de Waal...." The evidence for this is that when a couple of chimps began to use a new method for mutual cleansing, in a while the entire group adopted the method but chimps outside the group kept to the old ways.
The first question is, is the report itself accurate—science writing among journalists is quite often sloppy and unreliable. This would not be the first time that a journalist’s account of what a scientist is doing and believes his or her work demonstrates differs considerably from the original. In this case, at least, my impression is that the reporter is trying to be provocative, although this may also be the case with Professor Frans de Waal.
Consider that while having cultures may be important about human beings, it is not the essential fact about them. Nor does it seem that “customs … define human cultures.” What is essential about intact human beings is that they think conceptually, with abstract ideas, theories, principles, long range, etc., and so forth. If chimps had the equivalent of human cultures, they would engage in such thought processes and generate from them a host of undertakings and institutions that they quite evidently do not. For example, if chimps were to have developed the sort of cultures human beings have, they would be, among other things, engaged in teaching graduate level primatology courses, doing primate research, and so forth.
Until some animals build universities, museums, court houses, publishing companies, concert halls, and the like, we may be sure that human beings are quite—indeed, fundamentally—different from all other known animals. The alleged findings reported about the chimps at Emory University’s primatology center really do not suffice to overturn this idea in the slightest.
Now remembering that journalists do not always give accurate reports about the work of scientists—at times because such work isn’t all that revolutionary or even exciting and journalists refuse to resist the temptation to embellish the actual science they have run across—what is so annoying about this report is its implicit misanthropy.
Most of us must have noticed the glee with which some contemporary commentators announce that human beings are nothing special and, if anything, quite a despicable part of nature. Environmentalist are full of this stuff, some even looking forward to the extinction of the human race. Artists in the early parts of the 20th century were in the habit of depicting people in very unflattering ways; even some renown composers preferred making music sound weird instead of beautiful, just to make the point, one may assume, that people often create God awful music and do not deserve much admiration for what they have done.
In other fields of human interest, too, many people have yielded to the misanthropic temptation. And some of that is understandable in light of certain entirely unrealistic claims that have been made in behalf of human beings—for example, in certain religions. Ancient and discredited cosmology has tended, also, to give humanity an unreasonably exalted position in the world. So some debunking certainly made sense, for a while at least. Indeed, old Aristotle led the way when he made the remark that “If there is anyone who holds that the study of the animal is an unworthy pursuit, he ought to go farther and hold the same opinion about the study of himself.”
Nevertheless, again following old Aristotle, it is best to be moderate here, as in many other areas: just because human beings are not gods, it doesn’t follow by a long shot that they aren’t what used to be called “the crown of creation.” Nothing even in Darwin denies this—indeed, the genius evolutionary theorist himself reflected on the matter at considerable length without becoming a misanthrope.
Finally, just because for the time being human beings are known to be nature’s favorite—what with their free will and incredibly powerful mentality rendering them capable of unlimited creativity—nothing guarantees either that everything they do is swell or that no species of living beings could be discovered that will displace them from their prominent position in the scheme of things.