Re: Are we "special"?

Noel Dickover (
Thu, 05 Dec 1996 10:18:03 -0500

Rohinton Collins wrote:
> Noel Dickover <> wrote in article
> <>...
> > I think one would have a hard time showing that a human is "special" if
> > looked at only as a single entity. Understanding that "special" is a
> > very subjective term,
> Exactly, which gives the question "Are we special?" absolutely no
> scientific validity.

Agreed, but that's very different from saying its useless to ponder or
that scientists would not be interested in this sort of question. This
almost gets into a realm of things which are very interesting yet very
difficult to analyze scientifically. To have scientific validity,
something must be repeatable in origin so that it can have the ability
to be tested and falsified. This is why the studying of social systems
scientifically is so difficult. For most types of questions, they do
not allow cause-effect type analysis. They are in effect, very complex,
constantly changing, non-linear systems. Does this mean that because
the knowledge we may gain from studying these phenomena is not truly
scientific we should not be interested in studying them? Or that
scientists doing true science would not be interested in understanding
these type of phenomena?

> > I think that the specialness is completely embedded
> > in our social structure and language. The fact that we can discuss
> > events that happened in the past or might happen in the future sets us
> > apart from almost all other species (last I heard there might be some
> > questions as to whether certain whale species can do this). This allows
> > us to adapt to a wide variety of habitats, including possibly in the
> > future, habitats not located on earth.
> We may be better than other species at doing this, but we certainly aren't
> the only species able to do this. Bees can describe where flowers may be
> found by dancing. Many animals can predict events based on past experience.

While other animals certainly learn from past experiences, they cannot
share their past experiences. Our oral tradition (and now written
tradition) allows us to capture information about our surroundings for
generations. We can share past experiences and can share predictions of
future events based on past experiences. While a bee can describe where
a flower is in the present, it could not share a prediction (assuming
that bees could think in future terms) that it thought the flowers would
be south of there next year, for instance.

> > Leaving aside the point that an infant would not survive without this
> > social structure, I think we would find that a human that was raised by
> > itself would not display a lot of special properties.
> You mean culture?

Sure. We are a social animal. We do not survive out of the social
structure. My point here is that examining or disecting a human's parts
invididually will no more tell us about its behaviour or its evolution
than would dissecting a bee apart from its hive. Its social structure
is a critical survival mechanism which definitely will have an impact on
its course of evolution.

> > Physiologically,
> > we are not very special, but within our social structures, I think its
> > pretty easy to make the case that we are at a minimum, very different,
> > (which we interpret to mean very special) from anything else on this
> > planet.
> Every species is 'very different' from every other species on this planet,
> especially from its own point of view.

Yeah, sure. OK, I'm sure we could go into this relativistic arguement
all day, but the point here, as we discuss this issue in our heated
homes/offices on computers, that send electical impulses through phone
lines to other computers called newservers, which others download, is
that our uniqueness has allowed us to create some pretty facinating toys
and some pretty interesting methods of communication, and allowed us to
do things to no other species has done. We are only evolving socially
now, and doing so at a surprising rate. Our patterns of communication
are still changing. That in itself, I think (subjectively to myself),
is pretty damn special.

> > > The major differences between human and chimpanzee brains are relative
> > > size and the degree of interconnectivity. These differences can in
> > > principle be the result of differences in developmental timing
> > > (heterochrony) or allometric relationships.These in their turn can be
> > > the result of mutations in only a few (regulatory) genes. The
> > > differences do not require millions of mutations.
> >
> > -snip-
> >
> > Kinda sounds like Bateson's "difference that makes the difference".
> What? Gerrit was trying to emphasise the effectors of evolution. Evolution
> builds on what its got, it adds with small increments (mutations). It will
> find the easiest/smallest mutation in order to get the desired result.

Yes, I think that's the point Bateson was making as well, although I
would have to think about that desired result thing. Very small changes
can lead to very large effects.


Noel Dickover