Dr. Ajit Varki is Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. He is a confirmed evolutionist, but at the same time, interestingly, an ardent believer in human exceptionalism. Last April, Professor Varki and Professor S. Joshua Swamidass gave a presentation at the university, organized by the Veritas Forum, called, Common Ground in Science: A Conversation Between a Christian and an Evolutionist. Professor Swamidass has written a blog article about Dr. Varki’s presentation, in a recent post titled, More than just apes.
Professor Varki highlighted two unique human traits during his talk:
First (at 6:10), humans are the only known species that has out-competed all other sibling species (e.g. Neanderthals and Denisovans) to spread into every habitat across the globe. As far as we know, this has never happened before in the history of the planet. [Varki explains that orcas are the closest parallel, but even this is not quite the same.]
Second, the human mind is unique, and nothing like it has been encountered in all our planet’s history. Varki explains “Wallace’s Conundrum.” Alfred Russel Wallace was the equal co-discoverer of evolution with Charles Darwin, but grew in doubt of evolution because of the exceptional nature of the human mind. As Varki puts it (at 8:30), “Humans are very very unusual in our abilities and these abilities were already present 70,000 to 100,000 years ago in Africa.”
Human beings’ ability to colonize the globe in a very short space of time is indeed a remarkable feat. The one thing that worries me about Professor Varki’s argument is that it seems to imply that Neanderthals and Denisovans don’t qualify as human beings. However, in their review of recent research, titled, On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences (in Frontiers in Psychology, 4:397. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00397), Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson make a very powerful case that the Neandertals’ advanced cultural behavior, coupled with their vocal capacity to produce language, suggests that they did in fact use language, and that they were truly human. My own view, which I have discussed elsewhere, is that Heidelberg man was the first true human being.
In the 1860s, Wallace’s conundrum was explained away by Darwin and Huxley, by appealing to the notion of exaptation (reuse of a structure for a new purpose). A brain that evolved for navigation might incidentally acquire the ability to do transfinite mathematics. A brain that evolved for communication might accidentally pick up the ability to compose sonnets, as its verbal skills undergo further refinement by the process of natural selection. Professor Varki doesn’t buy this explanation. He points out that since all of the races of man possess the mental abilities that distinguish us as human, they must have been present at least 70,000 years ago. “That means that all the mental abilities to do calculus, astrophysics, symphonic music, and philosophy, and theology, and Veritas Forums, was already there.” This is nothing like a normal case of exaptation.
For me, the highlight of Professor Varki’s speech was an illustration he gave to refute primatologist Frans de Waal’s claim that there’s nothing special about human beings. Varki refutes de Waal’s logic with his “dictionary experiment” [brackets and bold emphases mine – VJT]:
If you read Frans de Waal [in the New York Times] this Sunday, he says, “Chimpanzees laugh, they can be tickled, they can show remorse.” He goes on and on about it. It’s true. They should be very similar to us, right? We had a common ancestor with them. So I’m not surprised. But basically, then he says, “Well, there’s nothing special about humans.” So my exercise that I told them about [at] dinner last night was [this]. Many years ago, [when] my daughter was young, we were flying across the Atlantic – uh, the Pacific. We had a long plane ride, and nothing to do. I think she was eight or nine or something. I had a dictionary. I said, “Take a dictionary and start from A, and stop when you find the first thing that’s uniquely human.” And within 45 minutes, with a little help from me, she had gone to Z. So I said, “OK. Take the letter S and start.” And we started [writing down] everything, from skating to spelunking to surfing to swimming … on and on. We gave up. We filled a page and then stopped. So the point is that we humans do a lot of things that other animals don’t.
The immediate response to that is, “That’s not fair. That’s a human dictionary.” All right. Fair enough. So my answer to that is “OK. Make a chimpanzee dictionary. The chimpanzees can’t do it, so you’ll have to do it… But, make a chimpanzee dictionary, [and] write down all the things that chimpanzees have ever been known to do, and it’ll be 1% [of] the thickness of the human dictionary.
The dictionary experiment is a great way to show just how unique we are, as animals. Professor Varki is a scientist who has no doubt about the fact of evolution, but he is equally certain that the human being is an animal like no other.
In the course of his talk, Professor Varki addresses the question of what is unique about human cognition. Several other animals, he says, can recognize themselves in a mirror; but what makes us special is our ability to impute thoughts to other individuals – in other words, a theory of mind. I would have been interested to hear how Professor Varki ties this claim in with the thesis of his recently published book, Denial (Twelve, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2013), that what sets us apart from other animals is the uniquely human ability to deny reality, even in the face of inarguable evidence – including the willful ignorance of our own inevitable deaths. Varki contends that humans evolved the ability to deny reality, because without it, they could not have thrived as a species.
Readers of this blog may disagree with some of Professor Varki’s statements – for example, his affirmation of methodological naturalism, his belief that evolution explains the theological problem of animal death and suffering (death, yes, but suffering? I’m not so sure), and perhaps, some of his opinions about religion. However, what struck me about Professor Varki’s talk was his great courtesy towards people with views which are different from his own. Despite the fact that he is not an adherent of any religion (he describes himself as a seeker), Varki speaks with great respect about the phenomenon of religion and about the person of Jesus Christ, whom he regards as a historically unique individual.
This much is certain: even with the academic groupthink prevailing in many of our universities today, it is possible for a highly respected scientist to stand up and boldly affirm that human beings are exceptional creatures. And that is a fact that I find heartening. I was also heartened to hear Professor Swamidass freely discussing his religious faith at the Veritas Forum. The spirit of open dialogue still lives, and long may it continue.
What do readers think?