High Noon In The Age Of Bacteria

It occurs to me that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and will be engulfed by the sun in another 4.5 billion years. Bacteria have been around since almost the beginning. The oldest fossilized bacteria being from around 3.8 billion years ago. I do not know whether bacteria will continue to survive right up until the sun goes nova. So, we’re roughly at the mid point for life on this planet.

So what? (Please keep reading. I’m coming around to a very important point in my long-winded way.)

Well, many people speak of the ages of trilobites, fish, reptiles*, dinosaurs, and mammals. This is a fallacy. As you can see in this proportional tree of life, the vast majority of species that exist on the planet today are species we call bacteria. Further, as you can see in the full Steven Jay Gould article in which I found Carl Woese’s tree of life, Planet of the Bacteria, in the conclusion, more than half of the planet’s total biomass is bacteria.

Further, it gets difficult to even think that with respect to multicellular life, this is the age of mammals. All one need do is consider that nearly half of all vertebrate species are ray finned fish, or that extant dinosaur species still outnumber extant mammal species two to one (8-10,000 living bird species versus 4-5,000 living mammal species). And, yes, birds are dinosaurs, at least if you use the scientific definition of dinosaurs as being members of the taxa dinosauria.

Why should I care?

Well, science has shown time and again that no matter how you look at things, humans are not special.

Why should I care whether humans are special?

There is good reason to care whether humans are in any way special. If, for example, we were specially created and were given special power over the planet by a creator, one might easily believe that whatever humans do is what humans were intended to do. Everything was put here for our benefit.

This is not the case.

No creator, or at least no intelligent creator, would be so wasteful. Why create 100,000,000,000 galaxies and 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets just to put humans on one little rock somewhere in the uncharted backwaters of one medium sized otherwise uninteresting galaxy.

If there is something about us that really makes this the “age of humans” where we rightfully deserve a special place on the planet, then too, humans might be perfectly within their rights and perfectly moral while destroying everything else in their path.

This too is not the case.

We are part of a continuum of species. An wonderful book by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond entitled The Third Chimpanzee does an excellent job of showing the animal precursors to both our physical, and more importantly, our mental characteristics. The number of things that are truly unique about humans is shockingly small. Further, there are none that make us fundamentally different than any other species on the planet.

All of this means that we are no better than any other species on this planet. We share this planet with a host of other species all of whom are as valuable as we are. Further, some have far greater survival prospects than we do. In general, if you want to see which of something will last a long time, look at that which has already lasted a long time. This is true for Broadway shows. If a show has been running for three years, it is more likely to run for another three than a show that just opened last week. So, if you want to know which species are most likely to be around in a hundred million years, look at those that already have been. Check horseshoe crabs at 400,000,000 years. Check turtles at 200,000,000 years. Check sharks at 360,000,000 years. Don’t bother to look to silly humans that are relative newbies on the block at only 200,000 years.

What about the wonderful intelligence of humans? Isn’t that special?

Maybe. However, even in this we are not truly alone. Many species show a high degree of intelligence. Whether this is relevant to our moral obligation to these species is highly debatable. And, I even have a thread to debate just that, our moral obligation to other species. Please check my Moral Considerability thread for more on that. However, here are some examples of surprising degrees of animal intelligence.

So, in conclusion, since we’re not special, except for being especially destructive, we have a moral obligation to the other species with whom we share this planet. This is important. This should help us make important decisions. Here are some examples:

  • Is it moral for me to buy an enormous SUV even though I never drive off-road and even if doing so will likely kill off polar bears? No.
  • Is it moral for me to buy endangered rainforest hardwoods instead of looking for the sustainable forestry certification on my lumber? No.
  • Is it moral for a slaughterhouse to be run in such a way that animals are processed so quickly that they are already being hacked to bits while they are still conscious and alive? No.
  • Is it moral for me to literally wipe my ass with old growth forest? No.
  • Is factory farming of animals where they lead miserable lives moral? No.
  • Is it moral to eat veal that I know was kept in a little box so that it could not build any muscle and would thus be very tender? No.
  • Should we create laws that protect animals from abuse? Yes.
  • Should we create wildlife corridors so that animals other than humans can live the animal equivalent of the good life and have enough space to maintain a healthy population? Yes.

These and so many other moral questions become shockingly easy to answer as soon as one realizes the interconnectedness of the species on the planet and most importantly that humans are not special!

* Reptile is a non-scientific term. The taxa for the group would be saurapsid, which includes all descendants of reptiles, such as dinosaurs. Since the term reptile explicitly excludes all members of the taxa dinosauria, despite their descent from reptiles, the term is non-scientific.

Last note: I set the slug (URL) to humans-are-not-special. Please let me know if you think ‘Humans Are Not Special’ would be a better title for this. I will not change the slug either way to avoid invalidating links to this page.


8 Responses to High Noon In The Age Of Bacteria

  1. Mark says:

    There are different ways in which a thing may be considered special. To humans, humans are special. This usage is roughly equivalent to something being important or extremely desirable. The way in which you use “special” in this post leads me to believe you are using the one that indicates something which is not fundamentally different from everything else in some capacity. Is this correct? I thought clarification might be a good thing.

    Also, on the issue of the moral status of those actions you listed, I think it will depend upon one’s moral system, unless there is an objective or universal morality, which is extremely questionable (coming off our conversation with Evanescent).

  2. Misanthropic Scott says:


    Yes. In this post, I am using special to mean fundamentally different and in some way better or more important.

    I am, of course, giving my own opinion of morality. I do not claim there is a universal code. If there were, there would be no need for the discussion. We’d all just be congratulating ourselves on our perfect morality. By my standards, human morality towards the other species with whom we share the planet have been and still are abysmal.

    I think that on the specific actions I listed though, I picked things that in today’s moral zeitgeist and again in my opinion should be considered universally immoral. I also updated the SUV bullet to clarify that I do recognize that there are some people who drive off-road regularly and may need that amount of ground clearance. It is not necessary for getting to the mall. And, being unnecessary and harmful to other species (as well as funding terrorism with every extra gallon burned) makes it immoral to buy one unnecessarily.

    Does that sufficiently clear up my position?

  3. bobbo says:

    Hey Scott:

    Some inconsistency here. You constantly post your opinion that (human) intelligence cannot be defined and yet you post quite often about how: “Many species show a high degree of intelligence.”

    How does humans not being special lead to a moral obligation to support and maintain biodiversity? I thought we agreed earlier that very pragmatically, a healthy biome was in our OWN interest, and I’ll accept that as a “good” morality, but not as a generality, only as that biome supports human beings==as in, lets kill off smallpox virus, and as bacteria is your thing this post, lets kill off any one of them that infests human brains or eyeballs. I’m sure the biosphere would continue?

    Why bring religion into this? You KNOW the mind of god? Talk to any religious type and he will tell you we are special because we are made in the likeness of god and he loves us. You switch from a religious to non-religious point of reference without any skid markes.

    Good to catch up on your postings.==I’ll look some more.

  4. Misanthropic Scott says:


    You are correct about my opinions on intelligence. Good catch. It’s a difficult word because it means so many different things. As someone once said of pornography, ‘I know it when I see it.’ My problem with many definitions of intelligence has to do with the inherent human centrism in them. I think there was a good definition offered on a cagematch thread. A yes, here it is, “The ability to quickly integrate new knowledge with what’s already stored, and synthesize new ideas and hypotheses.” It was posted by KD Martin on The science of human racial differences vs. anti-scientific PC dogma.

    This definition, which is quite good IMHO, is incredibly difficult to quantify even within the human species, let alone across species. However, there is good evidence that whenever most humans make assumptions about the intelligence level of another species, the assessment made far underestimates the intelligence of the non-human species. I would also say that humans often overestimate the intelligence level of our own species.

    How does humans not being special lead to a moral obligation to support and maintain biodiversity?

    That should be easy to answer. If we are not fundamentally different from other species, they are entitled to moral treatment by us. This is true regardless of their use to us. For me, they have moral considerability in their own right. It is that simple. Does everyone deserve the same moral treatment? Probably not. Probably some humans, e.g. murderers, do not have the same level of moral considerability as other humans either. Looking at the do unto others standard of morals, I would not want to be locked up for the rest of my life, but have no qualms about locking up a murderer for the rest of his/her life.

    As for your assumption that you know which species can be removed without damage to the biosphere, I would suggest that, given your examples, you are likely correct, but extrapolating to any assumption that humans can remove wide swaths of the biosphere without ill effect would be highly arrogant, and likely incorrect.

    My reason for bringing in religion as one example of why some people, incorrectly IMNSHO, believe humans are special is exactly as you state. I don’t get your reference to the skid marks. I was giving examples of why people think people are special. Religion is an answer that to which many subscribe. Oh, and you know that I do not know the mind of god. I’ve made that clear any number of times. One cannot know the mind of a myth.

  5. BubbaRay says:

    As an astronomer, there are times when looking at the wonders and mysteries of the Universe, an overwhelming feeling of insignificance permeates the psyche and literally just “freaks me right out.” Maybe other species look at the night sky and wonder, I have no data or even a hypothesis.

    And yes, although a pro, I’m not jaded like some of my colleagues who haven’t actually looked through a magnificent medium aperture scope with their eyes in many years.

    So, are humans special? That’s a tough question, but I’ll state this:

    We are a way for the Universe to know itself, and possibly the only species on the planet capable of such abstract thought. I can’t know for certain, but that’s my assumption. Do other species understand zero or infinity? We can’t know.

    In other areas, I don’t think we’re more special than certain aquatic life like dolphins, whales, or more special than gorillas, chimps, etc. or , etc. Or maybe even cats.

    Is that clear as mud? I thought so. As Carl Sagan pointed out in Cosmos and Contact, if our beautiful planet is the only one that supports life, that sure would be an awful waste of space.

  6. Mr. Fusion says:

    that sure would be an awful waste of space.

    That reminds me of a certain Pope, …

  7. Lucifer says:

    wow… great article 🙂

  8. bobbo says:

    Lucifer–By accident, I clicked on your name rather than the subject in the right panel of recent posts and I am currently caught up in the debate between HTWW and tfoot. I don’t like the personality contest the Youtube seems to emphasize, but both sides have some kernels in the ocean of irrelevancy. Nice change up from my normal haunts.

    I don’t know whether to thank you or ask Scott to ban you from this blog. YOU make a mockery of any attempt at time management!! Since Scott won’t ban you, = = = thanks???

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