Tibor R. Machan
It seems to me that among too many scientists and champions of science there is a pointless misanthropy afoot, as if somehow to defend proper science against its pseudo variety one needed to take humanity a notch or two. It seems to be doubtless that human beings have special (enough) capacities, attributes, and so forth that classifying them as quite unlike all other animals known to us makes eminently good sense. Just take a few examples of what makes them so: it is human beings who do science, not dogs or orangutans or crows. It is they who build museums, produce movies, write novels, teach courses in anthropology and biology, etc., etc. Yes, people also are known to be quite destructive and, as Aristotle said some 2500 years ago, "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." But while we are all animals, there is a lot that is quite different about people, different from other animals, and much of it is quite beneficial, even admirable at times. (Think of the works of Newton, Einstein, Mozart, Hugo, Degas, among others, in support of this point.)
In a recent essay, in the magazine Science News (8/29/09, p. 5) by science writer Bruce Bower about how crows use sticks, stones, etc., as tools, much is made of what crows can do as something that "has debunked the traditional view that tool use is a defining human characteristic." Unfortunately, no example is given of any traditional view Mr. Bower may have in mind but, in any case, the one that defines human beings by reference to the capacity to use tools is at most just one and certainly not the only traditional view. (Bower's subsequent reference to one of Aesop's fables in his essay--in support of a separate point--"in which a thirsty crow plunked rocks into a pitcher to raise the water level," indicates clearly that some traditional views see nothing odd about nonhuman animals using tools.)
Now, just because some traditional views elevate human beings toward some superhuman status, it doesn't follow that human beings do not in fact belong above many if not all the rest of the animals in the hierarchy of living beings. Who can reasonably deny that people do far more interesting and complicated things than at least the bulk of other animals? I mean, it amount to sticking one's head in the sand to deny this. And such self-imposed ignorance is quite unbecoming of scientists, even science writers. After all, the evidence shows, even in what scientists themselves, as well as science writers, do that people are special. But then so is an eagle in comparison with, say, a slug. Indeed, what is all too evident, as we look around and study the world, is that there is a great deal of diversity and among all the diverse living beings some have capacities to do far more complicated and indeed valuable things than do others.
I believe if writers like Bower concentrated more on reporting and avoided gratuitous polemics, Science News would be a better magazine of science. There is now altogether too much misanthropy in the world, including in too many science magazines! As to what human beings should be defined as, certainly at least one tradition states is that they are essentially rational animals, which means they survive and flourish mainly by their capacity for conceptual awareness, for thinking by means of complex ideas, theories, etc. And this does seem quite right, does it not?
Yes, there is a continuum involved here. But between what crows and other nonhuman animals can do a vast distance exists before one gets to what humans can, such as editing magazines, building museums, and running research centers in the great variety of disciplines Science News, among other magazines, covers.