Are humans “more advanced” than other organisms?

I recently had a discussion with a friend where he asserted that he was more advanced than, say, a plant. By the common connotations that come from the word “advanced”, we would have to agree that his statement was true. But it asks an interesting question: What do we really mean when we say we’re advanced?

To put the discussion in a proper framework, think in evolutionary terms. That means we can’t compare Albert Einstein to Sarah Palin and say, “Why, yes, he was more intellectually advanced than she is.” Of course that is true, but if we’re going to discuss evolution and what it means to be advanced, we’re necessarily comparing species, not individuals. That is what makes my friend’s initial comparison to plants a reasonable starting point.

But it is only a starting point. Because what are we comparing exactly? In terms of brain development, yes, he beats that plant handily. But what about in terms of ability to photosynthesize? Well, the plant just got a knockout in that round. Clearly there is a difficulty in making useful (and, in my view for this discussion, any) comparisons between species. Maybe we need to find a species that is closer in relation to humans. (It certainly would help for it to have a brain in the first place.) The animal I chose for the discussion and the one I am choosing for this discussion is the skunk. Jerry Coyne is the inspiration.

It does not always [evolutionarily] pay to be smarter, either. For some years I had a pet skunk, who was lovable but dim. I mentioned this to my vet, who put me in my place: โ€œStupid? Hell, heโ€™s perfectly adapted for being a skunk!โ€ Intelligence comes with a cost: you need to produce and to carry that extra brain matter, and to crank up your metabolism to support it. And sometimes this cost exceeds the genetic payoff. A smarter skunk might not be a fitter skunk.

A skunk is vastly more well adapted to life as a skunk than any human ever could be. All the things it takes to be a skunk? A skunk has them nailed down pretty well. The counter to this point was to say that if humans decided to destroy all skunks, we could. True enough. But does that make us more advanced? Of course our intelligence allows us to wipe out many other species, but the whole point of bringing up a skunk and its adaptation is to say that a comparison of intelligence is not valid for purposes of this discussion in the first place! (As always, you know I mean it when I use the lazy-man’s exclamation point.)

When we choose to compare intelligence in order to define what it means to be advanced, we have two massive assumptions going on. First, we’re assuming that intelligence is better than toothiness or having sharp claws or any other characteristic we see in nature. This assumption is untenable because some environments might call for all or any of those characteristics over intelligence. To put things in perspective, try thinking on an evolutionary timescale. So far I have only been comparing humans to other extant organisms (plants and skunks). But what if we go back 100 million years? 200 million? 500? 600? Any human put into an ancient enough environment would die. We know this because the right foods would not be available or because there would be no proper shelter or because the atmosphere would be poisonous or because our immune systems would not be evolved to cope with the bacteria and viruses present at the time or because…and so on. The assumption that intelligence is better than anything else is clearly wrong once we recognize that evolution and the ability of a species to survive depends largely upon environment.

The second assumption in this whole discussion is that we can even say something in evolution is “advanced”. We can say more complex or better suited to a particular environment, but “advanced”? That implies evolution is on the march towards some goal, to some end. That is not true. Science has demonstrated this again and again by showing what a contingent process evolution is. Take the Lenski experiments, for example. (I’m rather disappointed I never wrote about them here.) Richard Lenski and his researchers followed several lineages of E. coli for 20 years (in fact, they’re still following them). They would freeze samples every 500 generations so they could go back and re-run the tape of evolution should some fundamental change occur. And, eventually, such change did occur. Some E. coli were able to consume a natural by-product of their environment after nearly 30,000 generations. Lenski et al. unfroze the old generations to see just what enabled the bacteria to obtain their new found skill. As it turned out, they had to go back many thousands of generations; it wasn’t just one mutation, but at least three. The first two were effectively random. But they were necessary in order to get to the third mutation – the one that opened up a new food product for the colonies. But in the re-running of the tape, not all lineages re-evolved the new mutations. The chance involved in the process was too great to be inevitable; evolution is contingent.

So my answer to the question, Are humans “more advanced” than other organisms?, is to say it is an inappropriate question in the first place. There are several things we should not be assuming:

  • Intelligence is the best trait (whether to this point or in terms of possibility)
  • Evolution is goal oriented
  • The ability to destroy other species and still survive is a mark of advancement

I mentioned the argument for point three, but I have yet to address it. This one is pretty straight-forward, I think: We may be able to destroy many species, but that really only applies for large organisms. The vast majority of life is microbial. Since we would never be able to destroy it all (or even a minute fraction of it), does that mean it is more advanced than we are? What about all the bacteria we need to keep us alive? We certainly could not destroy all the mitochondria of the world and still survive.

Evolution is a contingent process that has no march towards any end. It is about the ability to survive. Our genes are interested in propagating themselves and that is why we are here. Life may mostly (though not entirely) be more complex since it first sprung forth nearly 4 billion years ago, but it always depends upon its environment – and that makes some characteristics more valuable than others. Sometimes.

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16 Responses

  1. Darwin’s Designer Dogs – Not

  2. Morris, that guy in the Youtube video is an ignorant moron. He is completely wrong. Evolution is proven by dozens of different disciplines and millions of pieces of evidence. It is a fact. Wolves evolved into dogs; this is well known and well studied and well understood.

    Every species alive now are as advanced as they need to be to be adapted to their own environment. If they are not adapted, they become extinct.

    Comparing species to say which is advanced is like comparing rocks to clouds. It is irrelevant.

  3. @NewEnglandBob
    It is an elaborate con-job.
    Billions of Christians, Muslims and Hindus do not believe in evolution. Though I am none of them. Yet you would call them all ignorant morons.

    Michael Cremo and others have unearthed humanoid remains from millions of years ago, and to a lot more than that.

    “Evolution” was foisted on us, as a punishment for the heathen by the religious that actually rule us.

    And as Descarte said, I think therefore I am, so it fitted in nicely for modern man who felt rational thought is all there is.

    Do you remember when you first heard about 911, Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, or the modern Jew descends from ancient Israel, and a million more stories, do you remember how they were all believed.

    It is only with the internet that our conspiring shadow rulers are having their propaganda dissected.

  4. None of what you say is even remotely close to true, Morris. You are a conspiracy theorist and a bigtime nutjob. LOL

    I see you are also a devoted theist too. I bet you wear tin foil hats too, to fend off mind control.

    They are coming for you, Morris. Some dark night.

  5. I’m afraid that currently our media and the paid for educational and scientific institutions are more conspiracy ruled than factually.

    A secretive religious elite is using and propagating the theory of evolution to keep everyone disorientated. There is some biblical commandment to “spread the seed” and evolution is used as a justification for this.

  6. I would say that the ability to adapt is the “goal” of evolution. (I’m not saying there is a goal, if there is a designer than there might be, but that’s neither here nor there in this discussion)

    Humans are better able to adapt to changing (or different ones) environments than any other species. Better even than skunks!

    I call that adaptivity the best mark of advancement that you could come up with. Our intelligence does play a role in that.

    Even intelligence is a wispy sort of term. Was Einstein more intelligent than Palin? The term encompasses so much its almost impossible to say.

    Einstein was certainly more able in terms of abstract thought what about problem solving in the most basic sense? Most of our ‘best’ minds are notorious for their inability to solve or even comprehend simple problems.

    I say humans are, as a species, the most advanced creatures the world has seen. (homo sapiens sapiens)

  7. Michael Hawkins, I think you need to deal with the nutjob Morris.

  8. It’s nice that you don’t tell him to deal with me. I feel special, and a bit left out now that I’m thinking about it.

  9. Nate, you aren’t a nutjob. Just a bit deluded and misdirected is all. It can be corrected :)

    Non-thinking and willful ignorance like Morris’ is dangerous.

  10. That means a lot coming from you

  11. Well, of course humans are more advanced.

    The reason for this is simple. We humans created the scale whereby we measure “advanced”, and we tilted that scale in our favor.

    I doubt that a completely unbiased scale is even possible.

  12. Nothing humans do is unbiased.

  13. Bob – Morris hasn’t earned enough (or any) of my respect to warrant a response.

    Nate –

    I call that adaptivity the best mark of advancement that you could come up with. Our intelligence does play a role in that.

    By that definition, bacteria are significantly more advanced than humans.

  14. When bacteria adapt to eat Twinkies I’ll concede the point, but only then!

    It does kind of fall down when applied to extremely simple creatures as well as the more advanced ones. My concept was really after crawling out of the oooooooze adaptability should be the defining mark of advancement.

    Consider that some bacteria are already adapted to live in some extreme environments. They are naturally able to do so. Perhaps even in space I’ve heard.

    Humans have no natural characteristic that allows us to do so or rapidly change our physiology to do so. We can, however, conceive and construct space suits and than romp around.

    Many animals adapt the same way we do just on a less extreme scale, changing the way they construct their dens or what they eat. We also make choices about where we would like to go and than “adapt” based on that choice not necessity, that’s a big difference and a striking one.

  15. Hi Mr Michael Hawkins,

    I concur with you completely and have linked your post here to mine at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/07/13/soundeagle-in-debating-animal-artistry-and-musicality/

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