Uniquely Unique – Useful or Meaningless?

I noted when doing my own “review” of Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” that the main reason I was reading and reviewing it was because it was to be the subject of Massimo Pigliucci’s next “in depth book club” review. In this in depth series he tends to review in detail chapter by chapter, and Massimo’s review of Laland’s chapter 1 is now published. Interestingly the focus is precisely one of only two I highlighted. The uniqueness or otherwise of humans.

Laland – “The fact remains that humans alone have devised vaccines, written novels, danced in Swan Lake, and composed moonlight sonatas, while the most culturally accomplished nonhuman animals remain in the rain forest cracking nuts and fishing for ants and honey.” (p.10)

Pigliucci – As I reported recently I was accused of “arrogance” when I stated this simple conclusion during a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Science. But the fact remains true, regardless of pious and well intentioned pleas for getting ourselves off the evolutionary pedestal. As Kevin says later in the chapter, yes, in a trivial sense every species is “unique,” but humans are unique in a highly interesting way, which is not comparable to the uniqueness of dolphins, birds, or what else. Indeed:

Laland  – “Herein lies a major challenge facing the sciences and humanities; namely, to work out how the extraordinary and unique human capacity for culture evolved from ancient roots in animal behavior and cognition.” (p.11)

Pigliucci – As I have pointed out, even brilliant biologists like E.O. Wilson don’t get that culture isn’t going to be reduced to biology, and therefore that the humanities are not, and never will be, a branch of the biological sciences.

I agree, there is a trivial sense in which every species is unique. The numbers and distribution of hairs on the abdomen are in some sense unique for every species – drosophila or human – and indeed each may be some combination adaptive and/or vestigial. Nevertheless unique. Less trivially, I summarised it like this:

“I like [Laland’s thesis] in the sense that it does support the idea that the human mind is a qualitatively distinct and uniquely different kind in a world of many sentient species. It’s not exceptionalism in the sense that it couldn’t have been otherwise, that humans were in any sense necessarily predestined to be that species. But let’s face up to facts and responsibilities. Here we are.”

Eventually Pigliucci concludes with Laland’s assertion that

The evidence appears to point to the conclusion that human intelligence and culture evolved in a particular way.

Whether the expression “uniquely unique” says any more than unique in a particular way is semantically moot. Either way our particular uniqueness is in having a sense of responsibility for an extended environment beyond our immediate experience as individuals. As I said that’s a unique “kind” of thing – the only example of its kind – in the (known) evolved cosmos.

It’s the very opposite of arrogance. Seems we’re all in agreement?


Also published on Medium.

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