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Can a purely biological account of man show a superiority over other animals other than that of belonging to a later stage of evolution or of greater possibilities of action, a superiority “in his very being”?

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  • The "other than" part, in my understanding, forecloses the answer to be "no".
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 16:05
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    Possible duplicate of Is human exceptionalism justifiable?
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 16:09
  • @Dave: I do not think this to be a duplicate, as it points at a "purely biological account" and narrows the question significantly. Perhaps, as I stated, too much.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 16:21
  • Douglas Hofstadter became a vegetarian once he realized that there was no way of clearly distinguishing humans from other animals mind-wise. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 16:48
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    Some of this will depend on what you mean by "superiority" or "later stage of evolution." Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 19:13

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No.

Biological data is merely data. It requires an interpretation. To show A's superiority over B, we must define a metric upon which we can declare A=B, or A>B. It is trivial to define metrics which show humans to be superior to animals, and it is trivial to define metrics which show humans to not be superior to animals. The choice of metric is not founded in biology, it's founded in what we believe being superior means. It should not be surprising to find that humans find "superior" means doing human like things!

As an example of where such metrics get complicated, a human is typically viewed as superior to an ant. However, it is less clear if humankind is superior to antkind, because suddenly the ants get to leverage their massive numbers to make the metrics look bigger.

If we're not careful, "inanimate" things can score higher than us. For possibilities of actions, the great ball of fusion in the sky above us is capable of more possible actions than all of us (measured using potential quantum states as a metric for possibilities), thanks to its enormous mass! It just goes to show how tricky defining such metrics can be.

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The answer is, of course, "whatever you force it to be by picking appropriate definitions of 'later stage of evolution' and 'possibilities of action'".

If the question is whether there are some metrics in which humans vastly outstrip other animals, the answer is of course yes: our ability to construct technology utterly dwarfs that of every other extant and historical species.

If the question is whether there is some objective measure of importance, I suppose one could argue that our technological facility positions us uniquely to be the savior of complex (as measured by things like number of different genetically stable states, for example) life on earth as we alone (so far anyway) have the potential to escape the eventual death of our star.

But that this is the only possible choice is not entirely clear, and the answer depends intimately on those choices. But if you're just looking for something grand to feel good about as a human, "We can save life!" is a decent place to start.

If it is likely for dormant bacteria to survive being blown into space by an asteroid impact, and then colonize other planets, our potential may sound slightly less grand ("we can save the big multicellular life forms we care about").

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  • Conceptually true, but extremely ironic, given that right now human technology is the biggest threat to life on the planet. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 22:16
  • @AlexanderSKing - Yeah, it is. Nothing we're doing is a threat to life as a whole, but we're a pretty big threat to a lot of species (and a few larger taxonomic groups).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 22:58
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This is a highly ambivalent question. On one, supposedly "scientific" level the answer is obviously no.

By any silly attempt at a "value-free" biological, and quantitative measure, the human, self-conscious existence, or Dasein, is a wholly dependent blip in the existence of bacteria. The sheer historical longevity, biomass, and genetic diversity of bacteria on Earth render their random offshoots in the plant and animal kingdoms, including the tiny subset of humans, statistically meaningless.

Since humans themselves are dependent upon and genetically comprised mostly of bacteria, and since the totality of bacteria have greater genetic diversity than humans, one can hardly argue by any "objective," quantitative measure that we are some pinnacle of biological "progress."

But such arguments are, in the end, silly.

We are what we are, cogito ergo... How can one refer to "biological" arguments without assuming the priority of the species that conjures up the existence of something called Logos and its descendant "biology"?

And would anyone behave differently if they could? This is a peculiarly insistent fallacy: that science can somehow become so "objective" that it will at last rid itself of these damn, anthropocentric "scientists."

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I am assuming that by "superiority", you mean that humas merit a privileged status with regards to other lifeforms and especially with regards to other animals. Such a status would justify placing human needs above the needs of other animals and place more value on human life than on animal and plant life.

As others pointed out in their answers, most attempts to do so based on a purely biological / naturalistic criteria will be completely arbitrary. There is however one potential scenario were one can give humans a privileged status without resorting to any metaphysical or supernatural justifications.

One could take Hegel's world spirit idea literally, and imagine that the universe is gradually evolving towards self-awarness, with humans acting as its constituent basic computational building blocks in a naturally evolved version of Ned Block's Chinese brain.

Recall that Daniel Dennett, a hardcore materialist, among others, argued that if the China brain were implemented, it would indeed form a self-aware mind. In such a "universe as living organism" scenario, humans would indeed enjoy a privilege status as the vehicles of the universe's thoughts and mental states, in the same way that neurons are more important than skin cells or bones are for an individual human organism.

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