This post is a direct refutation of the narration by Dr. Nick Gylaw in the documentary “The Superior Human?”
If you have time it may help to watch the first few minutes of the documentary before continuing with this article, although it is not necessary:
A few nights ago a friend of mine sent me a documentary titled The Superior Human?. According to IMBd it was released in 2012 and according to YouTube it currently has over 130,000 views. Here is the basic premise (via IMBd):
A documentary that systematically challenges the common human belief that humans are superior to other life forms. The documentary reveals the absurdity of this belief while exploding human bias.
More background: this was sent to me because I was accused of being a “human supremacist”. Apparently being a human supremacist includes thinking that our species is “unique” or “special” or “superior”. To be clear, I do not think our species is superior in the Aristotelean sense (i.e., that there is a pyramid or hierarchy of life and we are the end state or goal of evolution).
Do I think we are superior? Well that is a loaded word and one that I personally would not use. But in terms of intelligence? Yes. We are certainly the most intelligent species that has ever existed on Earth. But we are not superior when it comes to speed, strength, vision, hearing, and a litany of other biological traits.
Do I think we are “special” or “unique”. I think high intelligence is unique. I think the history of our biosphere demonstrates that it is likely an exceptionally rare trait and one that is very seldom selected for. I also think intelligence is a game changer for life and has cosmic significance.
Finally, before I directly discuss the documentary, I want to first state two things:
1) The narration of this documentary is extremism stimulated by the fact that our species is being environmentally irresponsible.
2) The documentary constructs a narrative insinuating that you can’t both care for the environment and have respect for all life, while also believing that humanity is a unique evolutionary phenomenon.
In regards to the first point, I understand (and share) their disappointment with our current A) energy infrastructure and B) food production system. However, the difference between my perspective and their perspective is very clear. They portray humans as universally immoral and objectively bad for the planet. The truth of the matter is obviously more complex. Humans are no more immoral than any other animal. All animals behave as humans have when “times are good” (i.e., resources are high). Over the past two centuries we have dramatically increased our life expectancy, access to food, energy, health care, medical technology, etc. The average human on Earth today lives in a world of abundance relative to the average human on Earth in the year 1800. Although these trends are fantastic (and likely to continue) they have been accompanied by the rampant and irresponsible destruction of the planet (i.e., deforestation, fossil fuel consumption, etc.). However, we are a new global species. We are intelligent but it is very difficult to organize a global civilization. A global civilization requires lots of energy and lots of resources. I am very hopeful that we will transition to a new energy economy this century and that moving forward we can continue to create a world of abundance while also creating an environmentally sustainable global system.
In regards to the second point, humans are evolutionarily unique. It is true that all species are technically unique because the same species don’t evolve twice, but it is still true that several human traits have never evolved before. That is just a fact. I am allowed to find it fascinating that the universe produced a collection of atoms that understands it exists and can figure out the processes that produced its existence; while still caring about the environment and having respect for life.
To the documentary:
In “The Superior Human?” the (really annoying) narrator discussed 18 points apparently “disproving” that humans are unique and “proving” that we are essentially bad for the planet. Since the data and logic employed for each point was so poor, it will be fun to rebut each one of them:
SIDE NOTE: After the 18 points the documentary features actual academics discussing important animal rights and environmental issues. These academics don’t say anything particularly wrong, or unscientific. My problem is with the ridiculous narration.
18. Having a Large Population
Claim: Humans believe we are superior because we have a large population. Narrator goes on to cite other organisms that have larger populations.
Refutation: No serious academic believes that humans are superior because of our population size. In fact, I have already written extensively about how it would be ideal for the population to plateau (and that it is on pace to by mid-century). Also, it is not our population size that is special. Our population size is special only insofar as we have the biggest population size when controlled for body size. It is special that an organism of our size is able to maintain such a large population for so long. It takes intelligence. Bacteria and ant colonies (for example) have much larger total populations but they are able to support them because they don’t require as much energy to stabilize them. No megafauna (like us) has ever accomplished this. It is interesting. But population size doesn’t, by itself, make us superior.
17. Having Long Lifespans
Claim: Humans believe they are superior because we have long lifespans. Narrator then goes on to cite organisms that live longer.
Refutation: What is unique about humans is not that we live for a comparatively long period of time for an animal of our size. What is special is that we have displayed the remarkable ability of “artificially” extending it (I’m using artificial in this context but usually avoid this because the natural/artificial divide is superficial). In short, there are longer lived species than us, but they do not invent technologies to extend their lifespans. In the paleolithic the average human lifespan was below 30. Today it is in the 70s. In the future, it could be much much longer. We have the theoretical ability to achieve negligible senescence. As a result, we are the only species with the possibility of prolonging consciousness indefinitely. That is unique and interesting.
16. Creating Art
Claim: Humans think they are superior because of art. Narrator then shows an elephant painting an image of an elephant.
Refutation: As I have stated before, evolutionary scientists have shown many behaviours exhibited by humans to be on a continuum of complexity, rather than distinct. Art is one of these behaviours. Other animals can make art. I visited a chimpanzee sanctuary in Montreal where the chimps regularly engaged in finger painting. They drew pictures of other chimps (just like the elephant in the documentary drew an elephant). This is impressive and interesting. It doesn’t change the fact that humans can make a more complex diversity of art. It doesn’t make me a human supremacist to say that. It makes me someone who cares about facts. And I can still respect elephants and chimpanzees even though their potential artistic ability is much lower than any humans potential artistic ability.
Claim: Humans think they are superior because they make buildings. Narrator then shows that some organisms can construct buildings that are larger than human buildings when you factor in building-to-body size ratios.
Refutation: The size of human buildings are not what make them special, no legitimate academic thinks this. Again, evolutionary scientists have known for a long time that termites and ants are eusocial insects that can build complex structures. We have also known for a long time that they have been building them for millions of years. That is good for ants and termites. But what makes human buildings different (and more interesting for a scientist like me) is that human buildings are constructed from accumulating social knowledge and therefore, our structures change and increase in complexity over time. The structures that ants and termites build have remained the same for millions of years. This is because an ant hill or a termite mound is an extended phenotype. Humans may one day be able to build structures on other planetary bodies. That is interesting to me. Ants and termites will continue building the same structures in minimally varying landscapes for the rest of their existence. That is less interesting to me. It doesn’t make me think any less of ants and termites.
14. Living in Houses
Claims: I’ll just quote the narrator in this one:
If ants, termites, birds, built houses suitable for humans perhaps human supremacists would give them greater value.
Refutation: Scientists that study animal buildings are impressed by the structures they can build. Again, the structures built by humans are different because they evolve dependent on memetic information. It is theoretically possible for other animals to do this as well (i.e., chimpanzees, birds, etc.) but it has yet to be observed. No scientist thinks less of other animals because they don’t build structures that evolve. But a lot of scientists are interested in understanding how and why human structures do. It is an interesting evolutionary divergence.
13. Having opposable thumbs
Claim: Humans think they are superior because they have opposable thumbs that are used to build things useful for humans. Narrator then states that since apes have opposable toes this must make apes “twice as better” (compared to humans).
Refutation: No one thinks humans are superior because they have opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs happen to be a very useful adaptations for manipulating the world around us. However, all primates have opposable thumbs. It is a universal primate trait. But even still, this does not mean that primates are better animals than non-primates. It means that primates have an advantage over many animals when it comes to manipulating their environment. And apes have opposable toes because they have adapted to an arboreal niche. Our ancestors lost this function because of an adaptation to a terrestrial niche. It doesn’t mean that one adaptation is “better” than another. No scientist thinks this. It just means that we are adapted to different niches.
12. Using Tools
Claim: Human tool use destroys the planet, whereas animal tool use does not. Narrator then states that animals live “quite harmoniously with nature” without needing extensive tool use.
Refutation: It is quite ironic that throughout a documentary rebutting “human supremacists” the narrator spends most of his time peddling “non-human animal supremacy”. Human tools can destroy the planet. They can also allow us to support billions of people in an environmentally sustainable way if we develop the right technologies. Human tools also help us live healthier and wealthier lives. It is our technology that provides us with an opportunity to leave natural selection behind. Animals on the other hand are in a constant life-and-death struggle for survival. That is how biological evolution works. Most animals do not survive birth, let alone survive long enough for old age. Most animals die violently and brutally. This is because they do not have advanced technology. It doesn’t make us inherently better than them. But from an evolutionary perspective it is interesting that a species (us) can lift themselves from the very brutal process that allowed for our existence.
11. Using Reasoning
Claim: Humans believe they are better because of our reasoning ability.
Refutation: Humans have a higher capacity for reason than any other animal. That doesn’t mean that other animals can’t reason. It doesn’t mean that humans are inherently better. It means we are better at reasoning in the same way that a cheetah is better at running.
10. Walking Upright
Claim: Humans think they are superior because they are bipedal. Narrator then shows other animals who are also bipedal.
Refutation: This is similar to the opposable thumbs argument. Bipedality is an interesting adaptation that evolved in the Australopithecus genus ~4-6 million years ago. It doesn’t by itself make us better than other animals, but it was an important exaptation on the road to high intelligence. It doesn’t mean that any scientist thinks that other modes of location are inferior. In fact, whenever I hear scientists talk about nature they always marvel at different modes of location and how interesting they are. I share this sense of wonder. Bipedality is important for our evolution, it doesn’t have to be for every organisms evolution.
9. Living in Societies
Claim: Humans believe they are important because they live in complex societies. Narrator then goes on to state that other organisms live in “bustling” societies. He then condescendingly states that:
perhaps for societies to be deemed successful for certain humans, they need to be relatively new and grow to a reasonably large size in a rapid population explosion.
Refutation: This is quite similar to the “buildings” argument. Humans and many insects have constructed very complex societies. Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has called these societies hallmarks of “eusociality”. The difference is again that the eusocial insects are born into their social roles within the colony. They do not learn their social roles. They are not modifiable. In the case of ants there are actually biological castes. That is fine for ants. Human society is more interesting to me because our society is built on a memetic structure. This means that our roles are socially contingent. As a result, they change quickly over time. In the 21st century our societal structure is going to change immensely on a global scale. This is important to learn about because it will help us intelligently direct our future social fabric in a way we can collectively deem acceptable. In contrast, ant societies don’t change quickly. They evolve slowly over time. That is fine for ants, but human societies are different. And on a final note, our societies aren’t “deemed successful” because of our exponential growth. No scientist thinks that.
8. The Ability to Kill all other Life Forms
Claim: Humans think they are superior because they can kill most other life. Narrator then takes our worst attribute as proof that we are like a virus to the biosphere.
Refutation: We possess the ability to significantly damage the biosphere. If we collectively wanted to do this I would be very upset. But we don’t want to collectively do this. Our goal isn’t “destroy the earth”. If my generation tells us anything our goal is “let’s create a sustainable and healthy planet”. I went to graduate school with people who are currently dedicating their lives to saving the biosphere. And no scientist I know thinks we are superior because we have the ability to destroy the biosphere. All scientists I know think that we should do everything we can to avoid this.
7. Teaching and Learning
Claim: Humans believe they are better at teaching and learning than other animals. The narrator literally says one sentence about this before moving on to point six.
Refutation: Humans are objectively better at transferring social information from one individual to another. That doesn’t mean we are the best animals. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn about other communication systems. Some animals can communicate complex information through chemical pathways that humans can’t. That is interesting. It is also interesting that humans are good at communicating with memes. And we are the only species that has clearly demonstrated systematic and purposeful teaching. Again, it doesn’t mean we are the best. It just means that was a key evolutionary development for our species.
Claim: From the narrator:
Some argue that the accomplishments of the apes are not equal to humans on the basis that they are simply learning human sign language and inventing new words based on the human sign language. But they do not speak one of our current popular verbal languages, so it is unlikely that certain people will be interested.
The narrator then goes on to tell us about advanced chemical communication systems possessed by other animals. Then he states that humans shouldn’t think that our communication system is special because of this.
Refutation: All the great apes have very complex communication systems. Primatologists have done a great job of understanding these systems in the wild and in the laboratory. However, all evidence does indicate that they are not as complex as human communication systems. This is just an objective fact. It is a difference between our species and the apes. It doesn’t make chimpanzees bad at being chimpanzees. It just makes them poor at communicating abstract thought. And as I said above, there are advanced communication systems in nature that humans don’t have biological adaptations to understand. That is interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that our system allows for the acquisition and storage of more information about the natural world. Termites can use chemical pathways to built termite mounds. The have used the same pathways for millions of years to do pretty much the same thing. Humans can use memes to continually learn more and more about reality. This is more interesting to me because it gives our species the ability to accomplish anything permitted by the laws of physics, if given enough time.
5. Other Life Forms Rely on Instinct
Claim: Humans believe they are superior because they don’t rely on instinct:
perhaps they believe that a humans DNA are simply decoration and do not contribute at all to how a person functions.
Refutation: Again, no credible scientist believes this. Scientists who study humans find their evolution interesting because we evolved via biocultural evolution. This co-evolutionary relationship between biology and culture has never really happened before in the history of life on earth. Of course humans have instincts. Only a fool would deny that. But our instincts are expressed through complex cultural constructions. Understanding how that functions is important. It doesn’t make us superior, but it is unique.
Claim: Human culture is worse than animal culture. Narrator gives examples of humans successfully raised by dogs and examples of chimpanzees unsuccessfully raised by humans.
Refutation: Yes, the narrators claim is as ridiculous as it sounds (and horribly offensive). He gave an example of a girl named Oxana Malaya who was raised by dogs and argues that she was better off for it because “dogs did not have alcoholism in their culture and did not neglect the little girl”. I don’t even know where to start. Is it obvious enough why the examples are ridiculous? Humans should not be raised by other animals. And undomesticated animals (like chimpanzees) should not be raised in human society. We are different species that require different social upbringings. And yes, alcoholism is a terrible crutch that some humans have. If a child is in an abusive home due to alcoholism they should be removed from the home and raised by responsible parents. It honestly sounds like the narrator is arguing for feral upbringing in this point. Ridiculous.
3. Being at the Top of the Food Chain
Claim: Humans teach other humans outdated and simplistic hierarchical systems of nature.
Refutation: Yes, the Aristotelean view of nature of a very simple hierarchy with humans at the top is wrong. Scientists know this. Hopefully all biology classes teach about how there are complex interactions between organisms within different landscapes and ecosystems.
Claim: Human intelligence can be rivalled by other species on intelligence tests. Narrator goes on to say that other animals would be no better off if they were to trade their unique adaptations for a human brain. And then the narrator displays a quote by Stephen Hawkings re: intelligence:
I believe intelligence is probably overrated. It’s not necessarily a good thing for a species survival.
Finally, the narrator then talks about how intelligence is used to judge an organisms value.
Refutation: First, no other species has demonstrated comparable intellectual capacity to humans in almost any quantifiable category. Chimpanzees and dolphins come close for a few traits (i.e., memory). Second, of course other animals would not be better off if you just swapped their uniquely evolved and specialized trait for the human brain. That is a ridiculous proposition. No scientist actually thinks that. Third, what Hawking is pointing out is that biological evolution has no forethought and as a consequence intelligence is usually selected against (i.e., “not necessarily a good thing for a species survival). Something like speed or strength has more immediate survival utility, which is why those traits are far more common. Finally, it is disappointing when people think intelligence is a key criterion for judging an organisms value. That doesn’t mean it is wrong to study and understand human intelligence.
1. Consciousness and autonomy
Claim: Humans think we are superior because of consciousness (i.e., we are self-aware and/or have a mind). Narrator goes on to show how this type of thinking has led to animal cruelty.
Refutation: It is interesting from a scientific point of view that humans are self-aware. We still don’t understand consciousness well and I am not an expert on consciousness. Obviously, people who argue that animals can’t feel pain etc. as a result of believing that animals aren’t self-aware are wrong. We don’t know for sure if any other organism is self-aware but we do know that they feel pain. As a result, we should treat them with respect. It is still interesting to study human consciousness and understand what makes our consciousness different from the consciousness of other organisms.
The type of thinking proposed by Dr. Nick Gylaw is destructive and divisive. Pointing out the worst aspects of humanity and ignoring scientific data to argue that humans are not unique is just counterproductive to the entire environmental and animal rights movement. This type of thinking also produces pessimism and fear mongering about the future, as opposed to optimism and solutions. What we need are solutions to our current environmental problems, not fear mongering. Dr. Gylaw and this documentary don’t help anything. They just create groups of uneducated anti-human activists that think our planet’s solution is human extinction. As I said above, the academics that are featured in the documentary after him don’t say anything particularly unscientific or divisive.
I’m done my rant now. Let’s work towards a brighter future without the destructive perspective of Gylaw and environmental extremism. His perspective is inaccurate and solves nothing.
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