Van Inwagen’s laugh test

by Chris Bertram on September 26, 2005

I’ve been engaged in some correspondence which began around the question of whether or not Mark Steyn rejects Darwin , but which has switched into a discussion of the views of philosopher and metaphysician, Peter van Inwagen . Specifically, the following passage from Van Inwagen’s essay “Quam Dilecta”:

I remember reading a very amusing response made by David Berlinski to Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that modern science was rapidly removing every excuse that anyone had ever had for thinking that we were much different from our closest primate relatives. Berlinski pointed out that you can always make two things sound similar (or “different only in degree”) if you describe them abstractly enough: “What Canada geese do when they migrate is much like what we do when we jump over a ditch: in each case, an organism’s feet leave the ground, it moves through the air, and it comes down some distance away. The difference between the two accomplishments is only a matter of degree.” I am also put in mind of a cartoon Phillip Johnson once showed me: A hostess is introducing a human being and a chimp at a cocktail party. “You two will have a lot to talk about,” she says, “—you share 99 percent of your DNA.” I’m sorry if I seem to be making a joke of this, but…well, I am making of joke of this. I admit it. Why shouldn’t I? The idea that there isn’t a vast, radical difference, a chasm, between human beings and all other terrestrial species is simply a very funny idea. It’s like the idea that Americans have a fundamental constitutional right to own automatic assault weapons: its consequences apart, it’s simply a very funny idea, and there’s nothing much one can do about it except to make a joke of it. You certainly wouldn’t want to invest much time in an argument with someone who would believe it in the first place.

I’m not a scientist (or a metaphysician for that matter), but I’m not shy to ask the advice of those who are. So comments are open for general observations on the passage. I’d be interested to know, though, whether anything as unvarnished as that can actually be pinned on Gould (van Inwagen provides no reference). I can well imagine him saying that chimpanzees and humans have a great deal in common compared what they share with, say, sharks or spiders (but that’s a different claim). The other thing that occured to me is that it is rather rich for someone to propose a laugh test to rule out counterintuitive scientific generalization when they themselves believe that only human beings and elementary particles exist . My correspondent has corrected me to say that my characterization of van Inwagen’s view is inexact and that he holds that not only human beings by anything else with a “unified consciousness” can exist. So God and the angels are in too. That doesn’t really diminish my sense that when it comes to claims that are, on the face of it, laughable, van Inwagen may be a man throwing stones in a glasshouse.

{ 128 comments }

1

Keith M Ellis 09.26.05 at 9:18 am

“Berlinski pointed out that you can always make two things sound similar (or ‘different only in degree’) if you describe them abstractly enough”

I’m a little puzzled by this. My problem isn’t so much whether it’s correct, but whether it asserts anything useful. Because, in the context within which this assertion is made, it seems to me that it’s also necessarily true that you can make two things sound arbitrarily qualitatively dissimilar if you describe them abstractly enough.

For this line of thought to be useful, you’d have to rigorously identify what it means to say something is qualitatively similar or dissimilar in essence. And the assumption that this is possible, seems to me to be the assumption of Idealism. And if Idealism is true, then you can say whatever you want to say as you pick and choose your Ideals.

2

fred lapides 09.26.05 at 9:20 am

I believe the emphasis should be upon the notion NOT that we are so unlike apes etc but that we are in fact in many respects related to them and therefore ought not see ourselves as so distinctly different when in fact we share some evolutionary reactions. Hamlet, also not a scientist, noted that we are somewhere in-between angels and animals.

3

Stentor 09.26.05 at 9:23 am

It seems van Inwagen and I are at an impasse, then, since I find the idea of “a vast, radical difference, a chasm, between human beings and all other terrestrial species” to be rather laughable. I’d be willing to discuss the matter, since I’ve studied enough anthropology to know that it takes a lot of chutzpah to treat my own laugh reflex as sufficient evidence of an idea’s falseness, but it doesn’t look like van Inwagen would cooperate.

4

Ray 09.26.05 at 9:28 am

The position that only minds and elementary particles exist is pretty strange on the face of it, but it doesn’t take much explanation to make it sound more sensible. All physical objects are ultimately composed of elementary particles, so those particles can legitimately be described as the only real ‘things’. Minds are indivisible, just like elementary particles.

If that’s what you think, that minds (and he obviously would much rather say ‘souls’) are these free-floating sui generis entities, and not the product of physical effects, then it is laughable to compare apes and humans. Apes are temporary collections of elementary particles, people are _minds_. There’s no comparison.

5

Steve LaBonne 09.26.05 at 9:33 am

Speaking of stones and glass houses, religious believers in general should be very, very cautious about promoting “laugh tests.” That goes double for believers in orthodox Christian dogma, since the rather less than elevated history of how it came to be orthdox is only too well documented…

6

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 9:33 am

What is this “vast, radical difference, a chasm” supposed to consist of ? Obviously nothing physical, so presumably he means either speech, culture, or something less definable such as the possession of a soul. Well, research over the last twenty years or so has proved quite conclusively that chimpanzees do have the capability for speech and symbolic thought, and also culture – learned behaviors shared by groups. That leaves the idea of the soul, perhaps. But whatever you think of that idea, it certainly isn’t scientific. The argument sounds suspiciously anthropocentric – isn’t the “vast, radical difference” just the fact that van Inwagen happens to be a human, not a chimpanzee ?

7

Ray 09.26.05 at 9:39 am

Van Inwagen might reply that its the same difference as exists between a corpse and a living person. On a physical and biological level, the difference between the two is pretty small, but at the sme time its a vast chasm. The same could be said of an animal and a person with a mind (soul).

8

Jeremy Osner 09.26.05 at 9:42 am

Is Van Inwagen proposing that two things can only compare to one another as “similar” or “different”? Because that would be an unusual proposal.

9

Steve LaBonne 09.26.05 at 9:43 am

Bad analogy, ray; what is actully similar to the difference between a live and dead human is the difference between a live and dead chimpanzee.

10

Chris Bertram 09.26.05 at 9:45 am

Ray,

I don’t really see how it helps VI here to explain that while his view may appear strange, it isn’t when the underlying reasoning is explained. That may indeed be so, but then exactly the same defence can be offered for the humans-aren’t-so-different-from-chimps view.

11

Ray 09.26.05 at 9:46 am

By that logic, what is actually similar to a human is another human, what is actually similar to a chimpanzee is another chimpanzee.

12

Kris 09.26.05 at 9:48 am

Small, minor, petty correction, almost completely irrelevant to the point you are making: van Inwagen believes in snails, spiders, fish, trees, etc., none of which is a human being or an elementary particle. It’s not clear to me that trees meet the unified consciousness test, but he believes in them too. He also believes in all sorts of abstract objects, which are neither conscious, nor living, nor elementary particles. The only composite material objects van Inwagen believes in are living ones.

13

des von bladet 09.26.05 at 9:51 am

If only minds and elementary particles exist, and (presumably) opinions are neither, what is it we are supposed to be arguing about?

14

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 9:52 am

Some other ideas which surely fail the laugh test:

– light doesn’t travel in straight lines

– there’s a special kind of metal which causes an enormous explosion when you assemble a few kg quickly enough

– invisible “radio” waves can be used to send messages thousands of miles with no wires

– you can make a machine which does more than ten million million arithmetic operations each second (that’s 10TFLOPS)

– a heavier-than-air flying machine can fly right round the world without stopping or refuelling

Which gets us to the heart of the problem – mathematics, science, and technology get you to conclusions which are true and/or useful even though they seem laughable. So a philosopher pontificating about what is and isn’t laughable has really not been paying attention.

15

Ray 09.26.05 at 9:59 am

(11 was a response to 9, btw)
Chris, my point was that its a very short step from the absurd-sounding position to the more comprehensible position. “only humans and elementary particles exist” to “only minds and elementary particles are indivisible” is an easy, understandable change, and one could claim that the terms involved are near synonyms.
VI’s claim seems to be that ‘humans’ are more properly understood as ‘minds’ than as ‘biological machines’. Describing a ‘human’ as a ‘biological machine’ is as laughable as claiming that a ‘mind’ is similar to a not-mind. (says VI)

16

abb1 09.26.05 at 10:06 am

It is indeed a funny thought that chimps and humans are very similar – when you’re a 8-year-old child.

17

John M. 09.26.05 at 10:10 am

I’m uncertain what point Van Inwagen is actually making. Is he rejecting Darwinism because it’s laughable (from his point of view)to draw an inference from the fact that chimp and human dna is 98% odd similar? Or does he just think humans are not chimps? No reason to argue with that but the general tack he takes is to attack the implications drawn by scientists rather than to attack the fact itself – which is of course true – and thus a problem for those taking his position. Really the only questions he should answer are: 1. Do you accept the 98%+ similarity and, if so, 2. What do you deduce from this? I suspect his answers would be roughly: yes and nothing.

18

Steve LaBonne 09.26.05 at 10:10 am

Note, by the way, that VI uses the “laugh test” as a way of refusing to suppoft his position with arguments– “You certainly wouldn’t want to invest much time in an argument with someone who would believe it in the first place.” It would be hard to find a more contemptible move in an intellectual debate. It’s also the sort of thing that “Intelligent Design” proponents do all the time, especially Dembski, who fancies himself a wit. Birds of a feather, or something.

19

g 09.26.05 at 10:10 am

van Inwagen’s belief that (for instance) people exist but tables don’t
is not founded on a belief that people *are* their minds or souls, nor
on a belief that minds or souls are indivisible. His claim is that
people *considered as material objects* exist whereas tables don’t.
Kris has it right, above.

Unfortunately, for me his arguments in favour of this position themselves
fail the laugh test.

20

apthorp 09.26.05 at 10:13 am

Any thing can be made a joke. Once it is a joke, why take the question seriously? There is a deep intellectual dishonesty at work here that denies science, and indeed any form of rationality. The simple question is whether there are revealed Truths, such as the unique status of human beings, or only truths that emerge from an examination of an objective external world.

The question isn’t if geese migrating and people hopping are both motion. The question is how can we distinguish them? What, exactly, is different between humand and chimps? Only revealed truth needs rely on partial, unrefinable definitions of the sort assumed to be laugable. A point of doctrine never leads anywere but to heretic hunts.

Gellner’s “Postmodernism, Reason and Religion” should be required reading.

21

Ray 09.26.05 at 10:17 am

“van Inwagen believes in snails, spiders, fish, trees, etc.,”

What’s the distinction, some single animating principle that unifies living creatures but not tables? Or is he distinguishing between things-in-themselves and artifacts?

22

engels 09.26.05 at 10:20 am

That doesn’t really diminish my sense that when it comes to claims that are, on the face of it, laughable, van Inwagen may be a man throwing stones in a glasshouse.

But he doesn’t say that the claim is “on the face of it, laughable”, he says that “its consequences apart, it’s simply a very funny idea”. I think that’s a quite different thing to be saying.

I am afraid to think what would be left of Philosphy if the “laugh test” became standard practice.

23

roger 09.26.05 at 10:25 am

Because something is true doesn’t mean it isn’t also funny. It is true, and sometimes it is funny, that humans and chimps are closely related primates. It is true, and sometimes it used to be funny, that George Bush is president of the U.S.A. The list of funny things that are true is pretty vast — ask any divorce court judge.

VI’s problem isn’t evolution, which he evidently knows too little about to make his beliefs worth worrying about, but humor, the relationship of which to the truth table is not as self evident as he seems to think.

24

g 09.26.05 at 10:32 am

Ray: the alleged difference is between collections of elementary particles
that form “a life” and those that don’t. He has a more or less usable
definition of “a life” for this purpose, whose details I forget. You
can find the laughable details in his book “Material Beings”, available
at all good joke shops.

25

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 10:39 am

The suggestion that there is a clear divide between “mind” and “not-mind” should probably be questioned. I strongly suspect that a neurologist could show you case histories of a spectrum of traumatic brain injuries (with Terri Schiavo near the “not-mind” end), and in the middle would be a big grey area where reasonable people might disagree.

The line between “life” and “death” is similarly unclear to anyone with a moderate knowledge of current research. A recent Scientific American article discussed experiments where dogs were put into suspended animation by quickly replacing their blood with a cold low-oxygen liquid: under low-oxygen conditions, most cell activity ceases, including the activities which cause damage. The dogs can be successfully revived. This is believed to be an explanation for many cases of “miraculous” recovery, e.g. people being revived after many minutes or even hours immersed in near-freezing water, with no heartbeat and no oxygen. Is someone in that state “alive” or “dead” ? You can’t tell, you try to revive them, and then post hoc say “they recovered, so they were alive”.

26

lemuel pitkin 09.26.05 at 11:04 am

The elemtnary particles and minds thing doesn’t seem so strange to me.

In principle, we can explain the whole material world in terms of elementary particles. References to all other material phenomena are just shorthand.

When we’ve finished this, what do we have left over? Moral concepts such as right and wrong, duty, guilt, truth and falsity. All of which refer to relations between minds.

So, particles and minds. Just your basic Kant is all.

(Whetehr this is what vI is actually arguing I have no idea, never having heard of him before this post.)

27

John M. 09.26.05 at 11:05 am

Actually it just occurred to me that this whole subject is neatly dealt with in the movie “A Fish Called Wanda”. Nietzsche reading lunatic Otto (brilliantly played by Kevin Kline) is having an argument with Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) who has accused him of being an ape:

“Apes don’t read philosophy”

“Yes they do Otto, they just don’t understand it”

28

lemuel pitkin 09.26.05 at 11:07 am

.. which is why comments like Cownie’s above are so off the point. A neurologist can tell you lots of things about Terry Schiavo, but he can never tell you if her expressed prior wishes (arguendo) outweigh her parents’ current ones.

29

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 11:20 am

“.. which is why comments like Cownie’s above are so off the point. A neurologist can tell you lots of things about Terry Schiavo, but he can never tell you if her expressed prior wishes (arguendo) outweigh her parents’ current ones.”

Huh ? Of course philosophers can make useful
contributions on that kind of ethical question.
They can also make useful observations about life,
death, evolution, etc. But only if they take the
trouble to understand what they’re talking about.

30

g 09.26.05 at 11:23 am

Lemuel: No, that is not what van Inwagen is arguing; his theories concern the
question of when certain *material* things, collectively, form another *material*
thing. He says that it happens only when they take part in a particular sort of
occurrence called a “life”. This has nothing to do with the existence or otherwise
of minds, laws, prime numbers, angels, duties, computer programs, or anything else
putatively outside the range of material beings. I think van Inwagen is a realist
about several of those things, but that’s a separate matter.

31

Steve 09.26.05 at 11:37 am

Actually, since we are all about 95% water, it would be accurate to say that we are virtually identical with a glass of water. Drinking is cannibalism, I tell you!

Steve

32

Clayton 09.26.05 at 11:42 am

I can’t recall offhand whether VI is to be included here, but for you non-philosophers out there, many of us think YOU don’t think there are composite material objects like tables, chairs, corks, and screws. I’m curious to see how this does with respect to the laugh test since it is often out of deference to your superior judgment that this sort of attitude is justified.

33

soubzriquet 09.26.05 at 11:50 am

Steve: You’re teasing, and realize why that argument (31) is facile, right?

34

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 11:50 am

Since this computer, keyboard, mouse, and network
connection don’t “exist”, it doesn’t really matter
what I think because none of you can read what I
write.

I guess every discipline has its share of idiots.

35

Matt Weiner 09.26.05 at 11:53 am

What? Some metaphysicians think non-philosophers don’t think that there are composite material objects? That is the craziest thing I’ve heard all day.

36

Steve LaBonne 09.26.05 at 11:58 am

They’re very good at conjuring up imaginary non-philosophers who conveniently have exactly the intuitions requed to make their arguments work, no matter how bizarre the intuitions or unlikely that anyone actually has them. This game is not new- Berkeley was a master of it.

37

Backword Dave 09.26.05 at 12:00 pm

If minds are indivisible, how can I *know* that I’ve forgotten something, but not know what?

38

rea 09.26.05 at 12:09 pm

“His claim is that people considered as material objects exist whereas tables don’t.”

Debating him in person, there would be a temptation to pick up the table and hit him over the head with it, exclaiming, “Thus, I refute you!”

39

lemuel pitkin 09.26.05 at 12:09 pm

his theories concern the question of when certain material things, collectively, form another material thing

Hrm. It seems that the bits of Kant I remember from first-year college aren’t enough to intelligently discuss van Inwagen. Funny thing.

40

Jeremy Osner 09.26.05 at 12:11 pm

Not chimps, not water, but void.

41

derek 09.26.05 at 12:38 pm

.

Historically, philosophers have been the victims of the laugh test longer than they were the instigators: Dr. Johnson’s “I refute it thus [kicks stone]” is famous for its mockery of an earlier version on van Inwagen’s philosophy of the non-existence of material objects.

.

It’s touching that van Inwagen now uses it to do an end run around philosophy’s penis envy of science, but it’s also a bit of a counsel of despair. If the best they can do is drag science down to their own level of incredibility, how is that different from the way creationists drag science down to their level with “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!”?

.
[PS I wonder if the moderator would be so kind as to approve this post and not its earlier duplicate where I go on about someone called “von” Inwagen? I hate it when people can’t be bothered to properly spell a name that’s right in front of them]
.

42

fifi 09.26.05 at 12:48 pm

“The idea that there isn’t a vast, radical difference, a chasm, between human beings and all other terrestrial species is simply a very funny idea.”

What, if anything, is a human being?

43

wetzel 09.26.05 at 1:11 pm

The difference is that it takes a room full of chimps a very long time to type War and Peace, while a single human being can do it in about a month. Go humans!

44

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 1:17 pm

On the other hand, a single chimp can match
the value of Van Inwagen’s navel-gazing pretty
quickly …

45

Backword Dave 09.26.05 at 1:19 pm

I don’t like posting long comments, but here’s my take on PvI, from the top. The David Berlinski response is disingenuous: it takes Gould as being only a philosopher (sorry, Chris) — when SJG wasn’t talking about a single measurement which could be compared as a matter of degree, as in how much DNA do we share, but about qualitative similarities: things being there or not. And there are a lot of these. Canada geese do a lot of things when they migrate, they fly by flapping their wings, they do so with other geese, at a specific time of year, and in a specific direction. It takes at least that, and possibly more, to define “migration”: merely leaving the ground isn’t enough.
The hostess joke isn’t even funny. It’s clearly wrong as philosophy because other guests (who also share DNA) are presumed *not* to have things in common, which is ridiculous. What we mean by things in common is unrelated to DNA. There are people who feel they have things in common with animals.
There are reasons for Americans to own automatic weapons (protection from tyranny seems to be one; but that’s another issue), but I happen to think they’re not strong enough to balance the harm that such weapons cause when used by nutters. But it’s intellectually cowardly to argue that someone who believes X is not worth arguing with. Argumentum ad straw or whatever you philosophers call it.

46

Clayton 09.26.05 at 2:05 pm

Matt wrote:

What? Some metaphysicians think non-philosophers don’t think that there are composite material objects? That is the craziest thing I’ve heard all day.

When I was told by a friend and soon to be practicing metaphysician that this was what he was told by another metaphysician about the non-philosophers, that was pretty much his reaction. Followed by despair. Mine too. People believe in all kinds of stuff. And things, too. Probably less than they think but probably more than others do.

You don’t think they believe in the object composed of my ear and your monitor do you?

47

eudoxis 09.26.05 at 2:05 pm

The percentage difference between the DNA of humans and chimps does not constitute the total difference between the two. Once can know this from, for example, gene expression patterns, without imagining a soul or fanciful emergent properties.

48

MDP 09.26.05 at 2:07 pm

“Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Mankind. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words—‘mank’ and ‘ind’. What do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.”

Jack Handey

49

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 2:11 pm

“The percentage difference between the DNA of humans and chimps does not constitute the total difference between the two. Once can know this from, for example, gene expression patterns, without imagining a soul or fanciful emergent properties.”

Sure, but do you want to defend the proposition that
there is a vast difference between humans and chimps ? And if you do, then how about describing what you
perceive to be the differences. And I’ll bet the
recent scientific research will show most of your
points to be either false or trivial. Which is
probably what Gould meant.

50

eudoxis 09.26.05 at 2:24 pm

Up close there is a vast difference between humans and chimps that becomes miniscule on an evolutionary scale. Gould and Berlinski are both right.

51

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 2:34 pm

“Up close there is a vast difference between humans and chimps that becomes miniscule on an evolutionary scale. Gould and Berlinski are both right”

OK, for the third time, what is the “vast difference”
you claim to see ? It isn’t in the DNA, it isn’t
the presence/absence of speech, culture, tool-using.
It isn’t physiological. So what are you seeing that I (and many scientists,
including the formidably well-informed Gould) don’t see ?

Having a somewhat scientific mindset, I would hope we could make
statements that are precise enough to be subjected to analysis.

52

Steve LaBonne 09.26.05 at 2:40 pm

Take some 2-year-olds to the zoo and observe both them and the juvenile chimps, and you may start to be less impressed with the differences even up close.

Our elaborate culture, made possible by the freakish overdevelopment of the language areas of our brain, is responsible for what it pleases us to regard as the impassable gulf. But the raw biological differences on which that is based are actually pretty unimpressive. As expected for species which diverged so recently and which as often noted, from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint might well be classified as belonging to the same genus.

53

g 09.26.05 at 2:55 pm

The cultural differences are very large. Chimpanzees don’t, so far as we know, have (explicit) theories of physics, or poetry, or religions, or technology that advances substantially from generation to generation, or wars, or money.

The real argument here is over how much *that sort* of difference matters. Biologically, it doesn’t matter much. From some other perspectives, it does. Questions like “So, is it a big difference or a small one?” are utterly pointless: it depends on how you measure.

54

Steve LaBonne 09.26.05 at 3:03 pm

g, we were specifically discussing the claim by eudoxis that the biological differences are really greater than the DNA sequence conservation would indicate. I think that nowadays few biologists would agree with him.

55

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 3:10 pm

For most of the existence of Homo Sapiens, we didn’t
have physics, poetry, “technology that advances substantially”, or money. Those probably arrived
in the last 10000 years. Religion may perhaps
date back further, depending on how you interpret
the evidence of Cro-Magnon burials, but probably
no more than 40000 years ?

So these are *not* “differences between humans and
great apes”, they’re differences between
modern-day humans and {earlier humans + great apes}.

I’m no anthropologist, but I’m sure there are
plenty of human societies even in the 20th C
which still lack at least physics and money, and
possibly other items on your list.

van Inwagen wants to draw a bright line between
human and non-human, but each criterion ends up
drawing the line in a different place, and none
of them quite where he wants it. I’m not
surprise he doesn’t want to argue with scientists:
he wouldn’t last 10 minutes.

56

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 3:11 pm

For most of the existence of Homo Sapiens, we didn’t
have physics, poetry, “technology that advances substantially”, or money.
Those probably arrived in the last 10000 years. Religion may perhaps
date back further, depending on how you interpret
the evidence of Cro-Magnon burials, but probably
no more than 40000 years ?

So these are *not* “differences between humans and
great apes”, they’re differences between
modern-day humans and {earlier humans + great apes}.

I’m no anthropologist, but I’m sure there are
plenty of human societies even in the 20th C
which still lack at least physics and money, and
possibly other items on your list.

van Inwagen wants to draw a bright line between
human and non-human, but each criterion ends up
drawing the line in a different place, and none
of them quite where he wants it. I’m not
surprise he doesn’t want to argue with scientists:
he wouldn’t last 10 minutes.

57

Colin Danby 09.26.05 at 3:18 pm

Well, the initial question is I think much too vague for useful chat, but just to bring out the rational core: if we are investigating, say, digestion or reproduction, then yes the differences between humans and a lot of other beasts are trivial.

But if we’re interested in actual language or art or the capacity to debate ideas like we’re doing here, no non-human is even in the picture. This is what’s so obvious that it’s puzzling when people resist it. Richard Cownie gets animals into the picture only by a bizarrely reductionist definition of culture as “learned behaviors shared by groups,” and by a confusion of language with mastery of arbitrary signs, something any dog can do. (There’s an extensive, critical lit on the question of monkey language.) So yes, if we’re interested in the ability to have ideas in a way that lets one *reflect* on ideas, if we’re interested in the ability to *share* reflections as we’re doing here, if we’re interested in the ability to create cultural artifacts like songs, texts, or ritual objects that form part of a larger system and can circulate independently of their producer (like everything on this blog), then the chasm is wide. We have tons of richly-varied examples of human cultural artifacts — go to a library or museum or do a web search. Even stretching the definition of culture, what’s the best anyone can do for an example of a non-human cultural artifact? An example of a non-human idea? When you set whatever you come up with alongside, say, philosophy, which is a vast interconnected system of texts and arguments, can you call that difference anything less than a chasm?

58

Colin Danby 09.26.05 at 3:22 pm

53-57 appeared while I was composing 57, but just to be clear 56 is tautology: it’s a matter of defining humans to get the answer one wants. If you define humans as animals that span culture and no-culture, then you make them into animals.

59

Jeremy Osner 09.26.05 at 3:35 pm

it’s a matter of defining humans to get the answer one wants.

Does your definition of “humans” not include archaic homo sapiens, from before say 40000 years ago? Are they not “human”?

60

jet 09.26.05 at 3:49 pm

Humans, by many magnitudes, are more phenotypically flexible than any animal you wish to compare. There is nothing that comes close. In this regard, humans are nothing like chimps.

61

Steve 09.26.05 at 3:59 pm

Human beings are 95% water. A glass of water is 100% water. Therefore, the difference between a glass of water and a human being is insignificant.

Human beings are 95% water. A glass of water is 100% water. A glass of everclear grain alcohol is approximately 5% water (and 95% alchohol). Therefore human beings and a glass of water have more in common than a glass of grain alchohol and a glass of water.

You can all be proud of the fact that you are virtually indistinguishable from a chimp. In fact, I am beginning to agree with you.

Steve

62

Colin Danby 09.26.05 at 3:59 pm

Jeremy the trouble in moving too far back is that evidence is really scant. In terms of culture it’s likely that a lot of early culture was oral (stories, songs) or performance, which leaves no trace. And physically it’s possible that consequential differences in brains left only small or ambiguous traces in fossil remains. Since the complex thing that I want to call culture must have come into existence at some point, one can always make a larger and sufficiently archaic definition to get the result you want. That’s why it’s tautological.

Givn that, I make no apology about reasoning from what we see around us. We know of no human groups without languages or rituals, or whose members cannot learn new languages or other high-order skills. By contrast there have been numerous attempts to raise monkeys of various kinds as humans, and all you get is a relatively domesticated monkey. Chimpanzees may have 99% of our DNA but they do not write poems 99% as good as Wordsworth’s. You won’t even get a limerick. And presumably the philosopher who started the conversation is talking about humans as they are, not how they might have been.

To put it another way I could ask *what* archaeological result should cause me to disregard the rich evidence supplied by living organisms right now.

63

text 09.26.05 at 4:14 pm

The bonobo said the the chimp:
I’m smarter than you — you’re a simp.
I’ve got cultural tools,
I eat ants and throw stools,
But I can’t actually write limericks at all.

64

Kenny Easwaran 09.26.05 at 4:52 pm

I’m surprised so many people are applying the laugh test to van Inwagen’s view on the non-existence of tables and chairs, and not to his idea that at death, your body is taken directly to heaven and immediately replaced by a physical duplicate, just so that there’s something available to be resurrected.

Peter Van Inwagen, “The Possibility of Resurrection,” Philosophy of Religion, ed. Louis Pojman (Wadsworth Pub. 1994), pp. 389-92.

65

Kieran Healy 09.26.05 at 5:01 pm

his idea that at death, your body is taken directly to heaven and immediately replaced by a physical duplicate, just so that there’s something available to be resurrected

Kenny’s right: not even God is _that_ responsible about keeping backup copies of his work.

66

g 09.26.05 at 5:16 pm

Steve Labonne: perhaps you were discussing, specifically, “eudoxis”‘s claim that biologically the differences between humans and chimps are greater than the amount of common DNA suggests; but I wasn’t.

But the point that we didn’t have all those extraordinary cultural things until, say, 10k years ago or so, is a good one. But: human beings, at least as we are now, are *able* to have such a culture. It appears that chimpanzees are not; though of course that may simply indicate our inability to find the right way to tell. That, to my mind, is (from some perspectives) an enormous difference. And, from others, an unimportant one. Again, “is it a big difference?” is a pseudo-question, and the real more tightly specified questions are the interesting ones. They will not all have the same answer.

I have no idea when H. sapiens became able to have such a culture. Maybe some very subtle change in brain structure a few tens of thousands of years ago was responsible. Maybe it was much longer and we just took a while to take advantage of our abilities. Does it matter?

67

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 5:17 pm

“Chimpanzees may have 99% of our DNA but they do not write poems 99% as good as Wordsworth’s”

And neither do 99.999% of humans. So as I’ve said
before, all these attempts to draw bright lines
end up drawing the line in the wrong place.

On the historical front, 200K years ago there
clearly wasn’t any complex human culture, 10K years
ago there clearly was. Surely the accumulation of
such a culture was a gradual process, rather than
appearing instantaneously ? So during that
emergence of culture, where are you going to
draw the line ? And let’s take the hypothetical
case of a human being either with a neurological
defect, or raised in isolation, who thus never
develops higher language abilities. Which side
of the line would that individual fall ? Do I
get humanity points just for being born into the
same culture as Michaelangelo and Shakespeare,
even if I have no such talent myself ?

So this whole categorization gives a clear
answer for most cases, but not all. And that’s
just not good enough.

68

g 09.26.05 at 5:28 pm

When did this discussion come to be about whether there’s a “bright line” to be drawn, separating humans from everything else (past and present)? Most likely there isn’t; that’s well nigh inevitable unless some weirdo saltationist (or, even less likely, creationist) theory turns out to be right. But it has nothing to do with whether (according to some set of criteria or other) there’s a “bright line” between humans *now* and everything else *now*.

Likewise for humans with badly defective or damaged brains: the existence of such unfortunates says nothing about whether the human species is or isn’t dramatically different from all other animal species currently found on earth.

69

soldier 09.26.05 at 5:44 pm

I think complex adaptive systems theory and other emerging sciences can point to a middle ground. Factually, we are related to the chimp but the difference of 1-2% is staggering. Differentiation and diversification over 40K years in the human DNA is incredible. SJG is a pop scientist who was trying to sell books and came to believe his own hype. EO Wilson was much better at explaining the incredible complexity of living creatures. The National Genographic bid to genetically trace our heritage will be interesting.

70

Christopher M 09.26.05 at 5:50 pm

Van Inwagen’s example of a “funny” idea not worth discussing also strikes me as absurd, and I think it shows just how narrowly he’s setting the boundaries of discussability. “The idea that Americans have a fundamental constitutional right to own automatic assault weapons” is wrong, in my view, but it’s no more ridiculous than lots of other theories people have about the constitution. Someone could argue for that claim on a number of grounds–textual, pragmatic, whatever. Again, I’m pretty sure I (and most people) would be unconvinced, but isn’t it pretty far from the kind of idea that’s so ridiculous that it can’t profitably be discussed?

71

Matt Weiner 09.26.05 at 6:02 pm

Clayton in 46: You don’t think they believe in the object composed of my ear and your monitor do you?

I’d guess not, although if I make any more definite statements about what the folk (sorry, Teh Folk) think these guys will lynch me. But screws and tables, I definitely think Teh Folk think there are screws and tables.

So, incredulous stares all round!

That reminds me, I need to add to my post about penalties called by philosophical referees, Matti Eklund’s “Universalist Ontology” gets flagged for Illegal Formation. (Note that when I say “my post” other people come up with all the actual jokes.)

72

Jeremy Osner 09.26.05 at 6:08 pm

Since the complex thing that I want to call culture must have come into existence at some point, one can always make a larger and sufficiently archaic definition to get the result you want.

But what this implies to my way of thinking, is that culture must have developed organically, as an evolutionary process — if there were some binary ontological division of “humans” vs. “animals” then there would have to be a clear historical divisive point, where either (if there is common descent) some individual of an animal species, had a child who was a human; or else, an animal species was “ensouled” or whatever it takes to become human. It seems to me that the very fact that no such clear division exists — that language and ritual developed over the course of tens of thousands of years — implies that humans and animals are the same essence. I regret that I am not better schooled in philosophy or biology, to be able better to communicate this reasoning, which seems pretty intuitive to me.

73

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 6:09 pm

“When did this discussion come to be about whether there’s a “bright line” to be drawn, separating humans from everything else (past and present)?”

That happened when VI said there’s a “chasm” between
humans and other species. If that metaphor means
anything, it means humans are on one side, other
species are on the other side, and there’s nothing
in between.

“Likewise for humans with badly defective or damaged brains: the existence of such unfortunates says nothing about whether the human species is or isn’t dramatically different from all other animal species currently found on earth.”

Seems pretty important in figuring out what we’re
talking about. If your definition of human is
“those with high speech and culture abilities”,
then it excludes quite a few members of the
species. Since VI is in theology, I strongly
suspect that his concept of the “vast difference”
is related to the possession of a soul, rather
than any specific identifiable or quantifiable
abilities. So some people here might think
they’re agreeing with him while they actually
hold very different views.

Anyway, the fact that we can’t tell what VI is
talking about might be regarded as sufficient
condemnation. But then I guess metaphysicians
don’t worry too much about clarity.

74

Jeremy Osner 09.26.05 at 6:15 pm

And just to be clear — I would certainly not deny the importance in our world, of the things which you describe as making us human. I just don’t think we’re made of a different essence as VI seems to suggest.

75

text 09.26.05 at 6:18 pm

“[re: Wordsworth] And neither do 99.999% of humans.”

Untrue. Wordsworth is not so hot. Perhaps you should say: neither do 95% of humans. But 100% of chimps don’t have that ability. In fact 100% of chimps don’t even have the abilities of a Byron. I think you see where I’m going.

“you dumb bonobo” the chimp replied
I’ve got culture right out the backside
I eat ants with a stick
and I play with my prick
but I can’t write a limerick for shit either.

76

Colin Danby 09.26.05 at 6:25 pm

Ditto g’s very clear remarks. Obviously there have to have been transitional cases, however fast or slow the transition was. The point is simply that *at the moment* the gap is consequentially large. Monkeys are also distantly related to bacteria, but are now consequentially different.

*You can*, Richard, with a little training, write a passable poem, maybe even one as good as #63. You *can*, with a little training, read and perform Shakespeare and understand what people who are now dead meant when they wrote about Shakespeare, and appreciate Shakespeare’s relation to previous playwrights. You *can* appreciate that you and people like you have a history. The difference between you and Wordsworth is, I maintain, of qualitatively far less importance than the difference between you and the cleverest little monkey we can find.

I spent part of the summer in suburban New Delhi where rhesus macaques abound. No question they’re smart. Devious, sometimes vicious. I never saw this, but it’s said that they’ve learned to steal laundry from the clothesline and barter it for food.

To Jeremy: I don’t understand what you mean by “essence.” I’m not VI and am not defending his entire system. I don’t think that the entire secret of our humanness has to be buried in our DNA either.

77

text 09.26.05 at 6:28 pm

aside from the typo, 63 was not so bad, and 75, even better. Credit where credit is due. Besides, we are making the same point, only I in limerick form.

78

Colin Danby 09.26.05 at 6:38 pm

I liked them both, text — you’re a credit to your species.

79

Backword Dave 09.26.05 at 7:22 pm

Jet: “Humans, by many magnitudes, are more phenotypically flexible than any animal you wish to compare.”

Citation(s) please.

I raise you. Fifty bucks? Two witnesses?

80

Bro. Bartleby 09.26.05 at 7:23 pm

We all use the ‘laugh test’ whenever we laugh. And why do we laugh? To create a separation between ourselves and the object of our laughter. The standup comic may act foolish, we laugh, thus demonstrating to all those around us that ‘we laughers’ are apart and superior to the actor of foolishness. Laural & Hardy do pratfall, we laugh because we feel superior, knowing we would never act so foolishly. The master comedians, like George Carlin, turns the tables and exposes us to our own foolishness, and again we laugh, because the very exposure educates us, and in a flash we separate ourselves from the foolishness of others and laugh! How smart we are, not like Chevy Chase who does the same stupid thing over and over and over again, and never learns! So we laugh at the monkeys, because we are superior; we laugh at the foolish among us, for we are superior; we laugh in the face of nothingness, for I am superior! Hahahaha … God knows it’s funny!

81

Jeremy Osner 09.26.05 at 7:26 pm

Colin — fair enough. By “essence” I just meant “stuff”, “we’re made of the same stuff as chimps”, where it seems to me like VI thinks we are made of a different type of stuff.

What’s interesting to me is speculating about how culture might have started to arise among a group of animals approximately the same as chimps.

82

Jeremy Osner 09.26.05 at 7:28 pm

Bartleby — chimps and bonobos also laugh, I believe — I wonder if they do it for the same reason?

83

Bro. Bartleby 09.26.05 at 7:38 pm

Bro. Jeremy, I think not. To ‘feel’ superior, one must have self awareness, not in the here and now sense, but in the eternal sense. As you may have noted in my ’80’ example, God has the last laugh.

84

eudoxis 09.26.05 at 7:41 pm

More directly to Chris’ question, Gould commonly made the point that the difference between humans and our closest relatives was one of degree; that there was no particular barrier between humans and chimps. The naked quote above isn’t wrong from a scientific viewpoint, but the fact that there is such a quote to begin with, in the context or the polarized non-scientific arena, makes Van Inwagen suspect. The comments, like #64, make it clear that Van Inwagen is trying to lay claim to a metaphysical barrier between humans and other species. From a molecular biologist’s standpoint, however, the greatest difference between humans and chimps lies in that space between genotype and phenotype, especially in differential gene expression in the brain.

85

Slocum 09.26.05 at 7:42 pm

The idea that there isn’t a vast, radical difference, a chasm, between human beings and all other terrestrial species is simply a very funny idea.

That is true. The often trumpeted genetic similarity between chimps and humans may tell us interesting things about our shared evolutionary history, but it tells us very little about phenotypic similarity (which, after all, is what we’re interested in).

Yes, chimps have culture (of a sort) and tools (of a sort) and can be taught rudimentary bits of language. And they have friends and enemies, alliances, leaders and followers. And they share other social behaviors and emotions with humans (Frans De Waal is excellent on this stuff). But the chasm remains.

For example, great apes are threated because they aren’t very adaptable. If their favorite habitat disappears, they tend to disappear with it. Humans, on the other hand, can and do live virtually anywhere and everywhere on earth — even underwater and in space for long stretches of time. The idea that we’re very similar because they have tools (reeds to stick in an anthole) and we have tools (iPods, Mars rovers, etc) is really pretty silly.

None of this means that great apes aren’t valuable and fascinating creatures that should be protected nor that we may gain insights into human behavior by studying our similiarities and differences. But going to the zoo and coming away with the idea that chimps and humans are similar requires a willful sort of blindness. Look around — the zoo is an artificial human-built environment full of intricate human designed devices and animals captured and transported from all over the globe by humans.

Steyn’s point, I think, is that the “we’re really not so different” position is more a political position than a scientific one. And about that, I think he’s right.

86

jet 09.26.05 at 7:51 pm

Backword Dave,
Specific Terms? And depending on the definition of animals, either of us could win. Since we were discussing primates in particular, definition number 2 sounds fair.

And why do you have to get all serious and bring Dawkins into this? I thought we were discussing who has a bigger dick, chimps or men?

87

Seth Edenbaum 09.26.05 at 8:22 pm

So is the glass half full or half empty?
It would seem more important to come to some understanding as to how people with such divergent opinions might (do) coexist.
The question itself is minor.

As I ask repeatedly concerning arguments about constitutional interpretation:
don’t tell me how it should change, describe for me how it does change. Less imagination and fantasy, more observation.

And as the son of staff and board members of the ACLU I wonder if the author of the quote isn’t winking at his audience even more than most imagine.

88

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 8:47 pm

“The idea that we’re very similar because they have tools (reeds to stick in an anthole) and we have tools (iPods, Mars rovers, etc) is really pretty silly.”

Let’s try a little change:

“The idea that Europeans and Native Americans are
very similar because they have tools (spears, bows)
and we have tools (violins, ships, firearms) is
really pretty silly”

You can get yourself in a lot of trouble making
these kind of arguments. Tools are tools,
culture is culture, I’m not any more or less
different/superior to other apes because someone
in China happened to discover gunpowder a few
generations ago. Or because apes don’t think
about theology.

89

Richard 09.26.05 at 9:47 pm

I’ve a followup post here. Excerpt: “Several commenters seemed to buy the old fundamentalist’s canard that only an immaterial soul could explain human exceptionalism. To avoid metaphysical extravagance, then, they seem forced into the absurd claim that humans “really” aren’t that different from other animals. But this is silly — the real problem lies with the first premise. The fundamentalists are mistaken: naturalism is entirely consistent with human exceptionalism…”

P.S. Does CT have trackback? I couldn’t find the URL to ping…

90

Colin Danby 09.26.05 at 9:47 pm

#88 is just silly. We have a substantial science of culture which gives us a rich set of categories that embrace Europeans and Native Americans but not apes, not to mention historical experience. Malinche learned Spanish because she was a culturally-adept human being, as was Cortes.

I am *not* like Richard Cownie because we can both hit things with a stick. I *am* like him because we can learn the same language and have a rich conversation in it, whose results matter to us.

91

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 10:12 pm

“The point is simply that at the moment the gap is consequentially large. Monkeys are also distantly related to bacteria, but are now consequentially different”

I would say the gap is very small, *but* has
large consequences. A large difference almost
always has large consequences; a small difference
sometimes has large consequences.

92

Richard Cownie 09.26.05 at 11:03 pm

“I am not like Richard Cownie because we can both hit things with a stick. I am like him because we can learn the same language and have a rich conversation in it, whose results matter to us.”

This high-falutin’ stuff about language and culture
is all very well, but as a father of 3-month old
twins, I’m confronted with hard biological reality
every day (and night!): we are mammals first and
foremost. They’ll talk and walk upright someday,
but babies start out as little apes.

93

soubzriquet 09.26.05 at 11:22 pm

Steve: #61 is inane. Are you just stirring the pot, or do you not understand the difference between molecules and DNA? Honestly? I called you on this before….

94

Bro. Bartleby 09.26.05 at 11:55 pm

Bro. Richard, the difference between your 3-month old twins and ‘little apes’ is ‘potential’ — what your twins possess and what the little apes don’t. Leaving high-falutin’ stuff behind, I would say your twins have a very advanced CPU, not simply ‘hardwired’ — for the human brain isn’t hardwired, it is ‘fluid-wired’ with the potential to grow evermore complex, not only from generation to generation, but within the lifespan of each human brain. But that very advanced CPU has little potential without the software to drive it. As research on feral children have shown, the potential of the human brain is wasted, the ‘wild child’ advances very little beyond a very clever ‘little ape’ … alas, given a mother, that baby immediately begins to ‘download’ software to drive that CPU, and a father and immediate family adds more software for the tiny brain to process and adapt to, and the neighborhood provides even more variety of ‘programming’ to the CPU to work with, yet the fledgling CPUs in your twin’s skulls haven’t even begun to reach their potential. Ever more circles of community input more software into the tiny brains, software that becomes ‘fluidware’ that interacts with itself. Slowly from potential springs forth a mind, and even yet more potential is ever present and awaits that which will feed it. And what became of our dear ‘little apes’? I would say, forgive me if this offends anyone, that they have not the ‘image of God’ as we humans have. It is we humans who are created in God’s image. But feel not sad for the little apes, for they are not offended by any of this. –Bro. Bartleby

95

Keith M Ellis 09.27.05 at 12:29 am

Jet:“Humans, by many magnitudes, are more phenotypically flexible than any animal you wish to compare.”

Rarely have I seen such a trivially falsifiable statement asserted with such confidence. Though, as it happens, this thread contains some gems.

When did CT’s commenting get to be so facile? As I said in the very first comment, I don’t even know what it means to say something is the “same” or “different”. Why are you people arguing about the distinction between humans and chimps in an idealistic sense while failing to explain just what exactly a “human” and a “chimp” are?

96

Andrew Bartlett 09.27.05 at 1:47 am

The problem that I have with the VI passage quoted in the blogpost is that it appears to reject all discussion of similarity and difference. If similiarity and difference is just a rhetorical game, then we really ought to be talking of ‘chasms’ between chimps and bonobos, and snails and slugs, and so on. If he VI believes this, fine.

The chimp/human discussion is also misleading. It is not about whether chimps and humans are similar or different in some isolated sense. These are not the only two categories of objects in the universe. Does is really make sense to say that chimps are no more similar to humans than a chair? It is when we consider other objects (even if we only consider them implicity) that we make statements of similarity and difference; it is only in this context that such a statement makes sense.

These statements are matters of human judgement, but this is no radical statement. And in our judgement, we do see, at whatever level of investigation we turn our gaze upon, greater similarity between humans and chimps than we see between chimps and other objects, even most other living objects. Statements that do nothing but mock (as opposed to simply reminding us of the essential part played by) enculturated human judgement in divining similarity and difference either need to be grounded in a rejection of ‘similarity’ and ‘difference’ or they are made in bad faith.

97

Richard 09.27.05 at 2:19 am

Oops, my link in #89 doesn’t seem to work properly. One more try:

http://pixnaps.blogspot.com/2005/09/humans-matter-and-mattering.html

98

Steve 09.27.05 at 4:58 am

I don’t quite understand the fuss about VI’s comments. It all depends on the point that Gould was trying to make. If Gould wanted to establish the truth of evolutionary theory by claiming that there is a similarity between humans and apes, for example, then we might, legitimately, reply that his account of similarity relies on various claims about evolutionary theory. We might say that the argument is laughably circular. If, on the other hand, he wanted to make some kind of moral point, then there may be important dis-similarities between humans and apes, relative to our moral concerns, such that it is laughable to get an ought from these claims of similarity.

I want to stress here – I think evolution is correct and that we can get all sorts of interesting claims about morality from evolutionary theory. However, VI may be right both to say that a) it hardly seems pre-theoretically obvious that humans resemble apes (you need a lot of biology, perhaps including evolutionary biology) to get that claim, and b) that for moral purposes, the differences between humans and apes may mean more than the similarities. Of course, the argument is still flawed as, insofar as I understand the deabte, one can show human-ape similarity without relying on evolutionary theory. However, it’s not a crazy response, although, I admit that for VI to use an argument from ridicule seems, um, ill-advised, to say the least.

99

Chris Bertram 09.27.05 at 5:12 am

Steve.

1. We don’t know what point Gould was trying to make since all we have is van Inwagen’s unreferenced attribution via Berlinski. Indeed we don’t even know if there was a remark by Gould!

2. It is false that you need a lot of evolutionary biology to make the judgement that apes are quite similar to humans. At least it is false in the trivial sense that pre-Darwinian writers made such a judgement, perhaps most famously Rousseau in a well-known (and brilliant) “note 10”:http://un2sg4.unige.ch/athena/rousseau/jjr_ineg.html#10 to the Discourse on Inequality.

100

Steve 09.27.05 at 7:25 am

“Steve: #61 is inane. Are you just stirring the pot, or do you not understand the difference between molecules and DNA? Honestly? I called you on this before….”

Of course its inane. That’s the point, because it is a very similar argument to the “humans and chimps share X% of DNA, therefore there is no significant difference between them.” I could just as easily say “humans and chimps are both carbon-based. therefore there is no significant difference between them.” We are now actually arguing that “three year old humans and chimps both share the desire to defecate and lack of social skills, therefore there is no signficant difference between them” as if it is a serious argument!

I think its obvious that the whole “there is no signficant difference between humans and chimps because DNA blah blah blah” isn’t a real argument, and it isn’t presented to be taken seriously as a real argument. Rather, its essentially ‘cover;’ “all living beings are equal” is a religous statement rather than a scientific statement. Changing it to “all living beings are equal because DNA% blah blah blah” gives that religious statement the rhetorical scientific big words gloss for the speaker to pretend he’s not just expressing his faith (because we are the reality-based community, after all. Faith is for rednecks).

Steve

101

Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 7:32 am

Perhaps if we spent less time congratulating ourselves on how marvelously special we are, we might stand a better chance of surviving for more than a few additional generations.

102

Andrew Bartlett 09.27.05 at 8:20 am

Steve, the ‘percentage of DNA’ argument, while not a serious argument in itself, is not the same as the ‘carbon-based’ argument you compare it to. As I said in my post above, most of the glib responses to the % of DNA argument ignore that these arguments are implicity comparing the degree of similarity between humans and chimps with the degree of similarity between humans and other other living things. Yes, humans are similar to chimps on the basis that they are both built from organic molecules. But, on that, they are no more or less similar than a human (or chimp) and a carrot. But, a human and a chimp are MORE similar on the basis of DNA sequence (and not just DNA sequence) than a human (or chimp) and a carrot.

I think you are building a straw man, pretending that people are arguing that there is no significant difference between chimps and humans. This may be the case when biologists are discussing the classification of human beings, by pointing out that the biological difference between humans and chimps is far less than that found within other categories of living things. Now, you can argue that this makes no sense, but to do so is to deny that there is any place for grouping organisms together, on the basis that statements about similarty mean nothing (which appears to be the essence of your argument).

What is actually being argued is that chimps and humans are very similar living things. This is not ‘faith’, any more than any other form of scientific knowledge at least, but a statement based on the degree of similarity between humans and chimps as compared with the degree of similarity between other living things.

103

Richard Cownie 09.27.05 at 8:26 am

“We are now actually arguing that “three year old humans and chimps both share the desire to defecate and lack of social skills, therefore there is no signficant difference between them””

The point is rather that three-year-old humans
have rather a lot of complex skills – including
social skills – which are far beyond what *most*
species can achieve; but chimpanzees, almost
uniquely, share those skills.

104

Steve 09.27.05 at 8:54 am

“Perhaps if we spent less time congratulating ourselves on how marvelously special we are, we might stand a better chance of surviving for more than a few additional generations.”

Are you serious?
“If we don’t believe we are merely equal to chimpanzees, the human race will go extinct.”

This has become bizarro land.

105

Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 9:05 am

Yes, I’m serious. Our self-congratulatory egotism is clearly one of the most dangerously dysfunctional things about our species, which will have a rather short existence as species lifetimes go if more of its members don’t start developing some perspective pretty damn soon. Too bad you’re beyond help.

106

jet 09.27.05 at 9:16 am

“Our self-congratulatory egotism is clearly one of the most dangerously dysfunctional things about our species”

Hah, yeah, that is an educated observation. So at least 10,000 years of human advancement and of thousands of religions saying that humans were meant to rule everything (including their neighbors) and “Our self-congratulatory egotism” is going to be the end of us? And just shooting from the hip, I’d say the religions that weren’t chock full of “self-congratulatory egotism” were a hindrance to human progress more often than not.

107

Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 9:21 am

You might indeed say that, indeed knowing you I expect you would, but given our continuing, suicidal degradation of our planet, you’d be full of it. Which would not be a novelty.

108

soubzriquet 09.27.05 at 9:30 am

Steve: re (100). You misunderstood. Your line of argument is inane, not just the statement you made. Andrew has described why in 102, so I won’t repeat it.

Look, while there are clear differences between, say bonobonos and ourselves, there are a huge number of interesting similarities. The point isn’t that there are no differences, it is that humans, bonobonos, and chimps are so much more alike than they are like any other living organism.

People who drag out the `people are nothing like apes’ and `what a laughable idea’ sort of arguments tend to do this with ulterior motives. They would like something to be fundamentally special about humans, usually because they would like to reject the evolutionary evidence that we share a recent common ancestor with chimpanzees. The evidence just isn’t there, though, so these people tend to build disengenous arguments much like your water one. I called you on the form of argument, I have no idea if you also share the above characteristiscs with others who have forwared this sort of straw man.

109

jet 09.27.05 at 9:40 am

Steve Labonne,

I’ll let you dig your own hole here and explain this “suicidal degradation of our planet”.

110

Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 10:00 am

You wouldn’t understand if I did.

111

abb1 09.27.05 at 10:02 am

A major differences between a man and a chimp is that man will entertain the idea of similarity between a man and a chimp and chimp won’t.

Nah, that’s not true.

112

jet 09.27.05 at 10:07 am

“You wouldn’t understand if I did.”
That or you are afraid to say that Global Warming and Ocean depletion are going to kill us all? Or is it DDT that will be the end of us? CFC’s? Benzene? GM foods? The Neptune invasion of Earth led by the galactic warlord Zoltan?

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Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 10:08 am

P.S. As an alternative to overstraining the capacity of the planet to support our existence, we might possibly be encouraged to kill each other off once and for all by the proliferation of mutually hostile tribal gods whom we have invented in order to shore up our touching conviction that we’re the center of the universe.

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james 09.27.05 at 10:09 am

There is a Russian science joke that is applicable.

Place a cockroach on a table and hit the table. The cockroach runs off.
Remove two legs from the cockroach and hit the table. The cockroach again runs off.
Remove two more legs and hit the table. The cockroach attempts to run off.
Remove the last two legs and hit the table. The cockroach does not run off.
Therefore cockroaches hear using their legs.

DNA comparisons of species may demonstrate a common ancestor. It may simply demonstrate that DNA strands for bipedal locomotion and back hair are the same regardless of species.

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Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 10:21 am

James, since you have no idea what you’re talking about, you have missed, as Jaques Chirac would say, une bonne opportunite de vous taire. If you’d actually like to learn something about molecular phylogeny, I’d be happy to give you a reference or two to get you started- just ask.

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g 09.27.05 at 10:31 am

Is there any controversy (among reasonably intelligent and well informed people) about any of the following points?

1. Biologically, humans and chimpanzees are very, very similar; much more similar than, say, cats and dogs.

2. Most members of the species H. sapiens are capable, with suitable education, of attaining some understanding of such things as science, commerce, religion, poetry, music, and the like. No members of any other species on the planet (including chimpanzees) show any sign of similar capability.

3. Some members (or groups of members) of the species H. sapiens are capable of such feats in these fields as have transformed the lives of millions of other members of that species; for instance, by inventing the telephone or composing Schubert’s songs or writing “Das Kapital” and the Communist Manifesto. (The consequences of such feats may be good or bad or neither.) No members of any other species on the planet (including chimpanzees) show any sign of similar capability.

From these, I conclude that (a) from some viewpoints there is very little difference between humans and some other species such as chimps, and (b) from some other viewpoints that I know of no reason to discount out of hand, there is a very big difference. The difference shows itself in “cultural” phenomena, but it isn’t only a difference *in* culture; it’s a difference in cultural *capabilities*. And this difference has consequences that are large even from an “external” viewpoint, in so far as we can attain one, on account of the way that cultural phenomena can have very widespread effects. There probably isn’t anything an individual chimpanzee, or a small group of chimpanzees, could do that would have consequences comparable with those of what Einstein, or Hitler, or the Buddha, did.

So, once again: The question “so is it a big difference or not?” is a pseudo-question with no useful answer; it depends on how you measure it. There are non-bogus versions of the question to which the answer is “no”, and non-bogus versions whose answer is “yes”. I don’t understand how any of this is at all controversial to anyone who hasn’t already made up their mind one way or another on ideological grounds.

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jet 09.27.05 at 10:35 am

“As an alternative to overstraining the capacity of the planet to support our existence”. Someone needs to contact the WHO, their estimated max population of 9 billion in the middle of the century followed by a slow decline, is all wrong according to Steve. How can we ever support 1/3 more people? Maybe it will have something to do with moving already existing cropland up to industrialized yield norms? Heck all those scientists working on GM foods might even have a breakthrough or two.

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james 09.27.05 at 10:56 am

Steve LaBonne: Molecular phylogeny as in the basis behind DNA testing for paternity. Nope never heard of it.

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Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 11:00 am

James, sorry, no. But thanks for playing.

Those who are curious and brighter than James might enjoy this book.

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Keith M Ellis 09.27.05 at 12:30 pm

“DNA comparisons of species may demonstrate a common ancestor. It may simply demonstrate that DNA strands for bipedal locomotion and back hair are the same regardless of species.”

Steve isn’t explaining why you’re confused. Perhaps if you consider the methods of determination of linguistic family trees will help. Note that the function of a particular string of characters is a clue (among many) to phylogeny but is certainly not determinative by itself and, in fact, may be purely coincidental. This this is often not understood is the problem for many or most folk etymologies. There is a strong parallel here to genetic phylogeny.

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Slocum 09.27.05 at 12:39 pm

Perhaps if we spent less time congratulating ourselves on how marvelously special we are, we might stand a better chance of surviving for more than a few additional generations.

That is a nice expression of the underlying “we’re not so special” political stance. But you’ve got it exactly backwards, I think. We are in danger of global calamities only because we are so marvelously special. Because we not only adapt to every environment on the planet, but engineer the environment (and even the organisms that live there) to suit ourselves, and so we exist in vast numbers–numbers that are otherwise unheard of for such large mammmals. Because we not only use readily available solar energy, but also energy from minerals stored deep within the earth. Because we have reverse-engineered the stars and recreated their power on Earth (which power may someday be used to obliterate us).

We are so dangerous precisely because we are so exceptional, and false modesty and humbleness (we’re really just a bunch of ‘East African Plains Apes’) is not going to save us.

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Steve LaBonne 09.27.05 at 12:49 pm

Understanding that we’re neither somehow separate from the rest of the natural phenomena of the universe, nor are we the universe’s reason for existing, is not false but genuine humility, and is esential to prevent us from imagining that we will always succeed in engineering ourselves out of the consequences of our foolishness.

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spacetoast 09.27.05 at 10:43 pm

To me, the most laughable idea here is that this post was earnestly intended to cull the considered opinions of scientists and metaphysicians.

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abb1 09.28.05 at 1:59 am

I believe Vonnegut wrote a novel about this (Galapagos Islands?) where he complains repeatedly about big brains being the worst, most disadvantageous characteristic of the human species.

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Bro. Bartleby 09.28.05 at 8:56 am

Re: (123) Your public display of laughter demonstrates (see 80) an attempt to separate oneself from the ‘foolishness’ of others. In reality we are all in this foolishness together, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. But then again, would a monkey invest so much time in a laughable activity? Hmmm, perhaps we are getting a bit closer to what makes us humans different from the rest of big-brained primates. We humans willingly expend so much energy on laughable activities.

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mikmik 09.29.05 at 11:51 am

Not chimps, not water, but void.

There is no void. There is no such object as nothing. There is only ‘being’, and all else/anything/whatever is undefineable.

I cannot compare ‘all of existence’ to anything (LOL)

#1, keith m ellis, looks like rain! :O) (I guess even talking about the weather is more usefull than comparing, well, this thread to anything relevent)

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Jeremy Osner 09.29.05 at 1:37 pm

There is no void… There is only ‘being’

Tell it to my imaginary friend.

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Jeremy Osner 09.29.05 at 1:38 pm

BTW saw an excellent idea recently contained in an otherwise non-memorable work of fiction — a department store whose slogan was “(Store Name) — we’re everything that is the case!”

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