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Tom Bethell and human exceptionalism: Only humans can be arrogant

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From David Klinghoffer, noting Tom Bethell’s objection to one self-defeating complaint about “human exceptionalism,” that it involves the sin of hubris, or pride, at Evolution News and Views:

The accusation of arrogance is self-defeating on its face. Only humans are capable of arrogance or of seeing themselves as superior to other animals. Animals cannot rise to that level of abstraction. Do cats or dogs think themselves superior to humans? (Well, dogs don’t, but I’m not so sure about cats.) The criticism of arrogance itself rests on human exceptionalism.

Yes. The remark about cats is a joke, obviously. Some cats appear haughty to us because we read our own feelings into their way of carrying themselves. This is the error of anthropomorphizing: “to ascribe human form or attributes to (an animal, plant, material object, etc.).”More.

Bethell, author of Darwin’s House of Cards: A Journalist’s Odyssey Through the Darwin Debates, is right, of course. The cat in the accompanying photo is showing watchfulness, not arrogance (as a human reading its facial expression might suppose). A cat’s sense of hierarchy is devoid of abstractions like arrogance; it turns on defensible physical position and territory.

Note: A cat can stare at another cat from a given position for hours in such a way as to make a statement (something like: I am here in this spot and I am watching you, and I am not leaving… your next move might start a fight… ). Hierarchy can thus be established with few dangerous fights, leaving more time for the serious business of hunting and napping. It is one reason cats are hardly an endangered species.

Human exceptionalism in brief: We can see it from the cat’s point of view but no cat ever saw it from a human point of view.

See also: Nearly 50% Americans now think humans arenot special

and

Are humans driving new burst of evolution? Evidence cited is unclear Has it been decided that fluctuating, reversible changes are evolution in action? Then what do we call non-fluctuating, irreversible changes?

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One Reply to “Tom Bethell and human exceptionalism: Only humans can be arrogant

  1. 1
    bFast says:

    The lack of comments on this thread is interesting. I personally find it very difficult to make claims about what animals experience. Do I hold to human exceptionalism? Absolutely. Humans are lightyears ahead of every other creature in virtually every way except headcount.

    However, as an observer of animal behavior, I do wonder if animals universally are without arrogance. Consider for instance our dog Tigger. This little guy was born believing that he was at the top of the pecking order. He had an alpha soul. Did he think that he was superior to us people? I actually think he did. (I know “anthropomorphising” — but is the other possibility, anti-anthropomorphising just as much a possibility?)

    Tigger seemed pretty sure that he was superior to cars because when he ran out after cars they invariably slowed down for him. We know that the drivers were being concerned for Tigger’s welfare, but he didn’t understand that. He thought he was superior — or at least his behavior was consistent with that thought. One day a car did not respond. Tigger became past tense.

    Can I support the belief that only humans suffer from the malady of arrogance? Well, I can’t.

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