There is a very powerful human exceptionalist current in western thought, especially in, but not limited to the humanities and social sciences. Human exceptionalism is the belief that humans are fundamentally and qualitatively different from the rest of nature. One of its corollaries is that the theories and tools we use to study nature can’t help us understand humans, and that we need other theories and tools to do so. This, for example, is why we have a field of human evolution, which was until recently (and still is in some corners), as Loring Brace (2000) bitterly complained, devoid of evolutionary theory. If humans were widely understood to be unexceptional relative to the rest of nature, there would have been no need for the creation of human evolution as a separate field (I’ll explore this in more detail in a future post).

I have been interested for many years in the war between human exceptionalists and others in Anthropology and in academic disciplines in general. But I recently became aware of a conflict that is just as interesting between two separate and competing camps of those who reject human exceptionalism. That conflict between two philosophical positions that are closely allied but differently rooted has subtle but important implications for the evolution of Anthropology and other disciplines.

Human exceptionalism was a key feature of medieval western thought, which differentiated between humans and other forms of life by the possession of an eternal soul. Aquinas, for example, distinguishes between the soul of humans, blessed with understanding, and that of animals, which is not. Humans had dominion over animals that were part of nature. Medieval thought on this was far from monolithic, but human exceptionalism was the dominant position. It started encountering serious challenges only at the Enlightenment.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie, one of the early modern opponents of human exceptionalism, in his controversial Homme Machine (Man as Machine, 1748) accuses the Leibnitzian philosophers of spiritualizing matter, rather than materializing spirit. He differentiates this error from that of the Cartesians, who find two substances in humans, one material, and one spiritual (Richards 1987). For La Mettrie, there is but one, and humans and animals are material, no more. This is but one possible rejection of human exceptionalism. It argues that humans are no more exceptional than the rest of nature.

A different kind of fundamental rejection of human exceptionalism, represented notably by Erasmus Darwin and later championed by his grandson Charles in The Descent of Man (1872), leaves a very different impression. It suggests that the rest of nature is no less exceptional than humans. It casts the human animal, especially its moral faculty, as the pinnacle of a nature which must be extraordinary if it is able to produce it. Darwin’s response to Paley’s (1809) watchmaker argument is that the idea of descent and modification without a guiding designer, far from trivializing and mechanising life and humans,  makes the whole universe, especially life, and humans in particular, even more a thing of wonder.

Both positions reject that humans are inherently special or qualitatively different from other animals, or from the rest of nature, or ruled by different principles. In that sense, both positions are expressions of enlightenment uniformitarianism. Both claim that there is continuity of mind between animals, or brutes to use the contemporary term, and humans. Both were an existential threat to the church-backed dominant view of nature and by implication, to the social and political order of the day.

Both views are still well in evidence in the natural and social sciences and in the humanities, as is the competing conception that humans really are different. The human exceptionalist view of humans has been especially dominant in Anthropology in the post-war era, with its visceral reaction to classical evolutionism.

All three visions order the way in which questions are asked, methods selected, and data collected and analyzed. They deeply affect the shape of disciplines from paleoanthropology to cutting edge artificial intelligence. If humans really are fundamentally and qualitatively different from the rest of nature, the tools we use to study non-human nature cannot allow us to understand humans. If humans are fundamentally like the rest of nature, whether just as exceptional or just as ordinary, we can only understand them as part of nature, and we can use one set of tools to study all of it. If humans are as unremarkable as the rest of nature, we can understand both as mere mechanism. If the rest of nature is as special as humans, we must understand it as something special and, while it may yield some or even most of its secrets to us, it will ultimately resist reductionist methods and mechanistic understanding.

Brace CL 2000. Evolution in an Anthropological View, Altamira Press.

Darwin C 1871. The Descent of Man.

La Mettrie JO de 1748. L’Homme Machine.

Paley W 1809. Natural theology or evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity.

Richards RJ 1987. Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior, University of Chicago Press.


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