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.
- Animal Cognition on Wikipedia — Often a good place to start, rarely a good place to stop.
- Monkeys Perform Arithmetic As Well As College Students
- Animal Intelligence — How brainy are they? — A good general article with a number of examples.
- The evolution of animal ‘cultures’ and social intelligence — Peer reviewed and not free. I thought the abstract sounded very interesting, but didn’t pay for the article.
- Crows and Jays Top Bird IQ Scale — I would have expected African Grey Parrots.
- Animal Intelligence blog — A blog devoted to the topic. Many articles, often with references. Don’t believe blogs, but do follow their links and evaluate each, as I hope you do with this blog too.
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.