Hierarchy of species

Is our species superior to all others? Why should that be?

There are numerous reasons for our belief that we occupy a special place in the universe, and hold a privileged status above all other organisms.
These are some widely-held beliefs:
  1. Humans are evolutionarily more advanced than other creatures.

  2. Humans possess superior skills and rank higher according to numerous measures of intelligence.

  3. Humans have greater potential for success and development than other species.

  4. Human lives are more intrinsically valuable than those of other organisms, and human interests take top priority in situations where all other considerations are equal.

  5. Our sense of morality is unique, and non-human organisms lack moral codes.
Keep in mind, however, that we consider these issues predominantly from our own human perspectives, and examine the utility value of each organism’s abilities from an intrinsically biased point of view.

Let’s examine each belief in turn and consider the reasons behind them.
Humans are more evolutionarily advanced than other creatures.
The fact is that all species have been evolving since life emerged on the planet. (For a discussion on what constitutes life, click here.)

To the best of our knowledge, all life forms began from the same point. The reason we refer to certain species as more or less ‘recent’ is that their distinguishing characteristics appeared at varying times in history, however, if you trace their lineages, you’ll find that at some point, they shared common ancestors. It is possible to estimate the amount of time that has passed in evolutionary history, based on DNA sequence comparisons, archaeological records, and such data sources, if such records can be found.

The absolute length of time for which each organism has been evolving, then, is the same across organisms. What about the rate of evolution? If an organism’s physical appearance, behaviour, and genetic structure change more rapidly than others, within a given period of time, does that prove that it is evolutionarily more advanced?

There are two parts to the answer.
  1. The rate at which evolution takes place (based on measures such as mutation rate of the genome and ease of adaptation to changes in the environment) is not a particularly meaningful criterion, in itself.

    Why do organisms evolve? To adapt to their environment and allow them to thrive better. If an organism has had little reason to alter its behaviour, and thus has historically possessed a genome with a low mutation rate, then having a high rate of evolution would be unnecessary and might imply a squandering of resources.

  2. The second part to the answer is that if we did decide, irrationally, to associate high evolution rates with being more advanced, then humans would lose hands down, as a huge number of species evolve at an exponentially faster speed than we do.
Humans possess superior skills and rank higher under numerous measures of intelligence.
Many people believe this to be true for a majority of abilities, and some believe that this is true in every regard.

Before the development of sensitive-enough techniques to measure the ways in which other animals and organisms are equipped to thrive in their ecological niches, people had to rely on coarser measures and were more inclined to conduct their assessments from a human-centred point of view. We gauged the abilities of other species based on criteria that were based on our own goals and perceptions of success.

We did this by listing the ways in which humans judged each other’s performance (e.g. physical prowess, ability to procreate and colonise geographical regions, command of language, development of technology), and examined whether other species were as adept as we were in these areas.

Less frequently have we considered the ways in which other species excel and judged ourselves by their ‘standards.’

Now that we're learning more about the specialised skills possessed by other species, many of which are far less developed (or non-existent) in humans, we are realising that our anthropocentric definitions of intelligence are useful and reasonable for discussions held within the context of our species, but inadequate and narrow if indiscriminately applied to all species on earth.

Claiming that certain species are inferior because they cannot design computers, land on the moon, or plant crops, is akin to claiming that human beings are inferior because we cannot split our bodies through binary fission, photosynthesise, or survive decapitation.
Humans have greater potential for success and development than other species.
This is a tricky issue to address because it relies on an examination of how each species has performed throughout history, and an extrapolation based on that history, into the future.

If we rely on measures of success that we generally deem important (geographic reach, ability to innovate and procreate, etc.), then most of us would agree that humans have shown amazing, accelerating levels of progress throughout history.

However, it's hard to tell how accurate that assessment is, as it is heavily biased by our own values and perspectives.

There's so much that we don't understand about ourselves and other species, and even the amount of knowledge that is available to us indicates that we may overestimate our achievements and lack appreciation for the abilities of other organisms, especially when we do not have the tools to understand those abilities.

We may measure our own successes with a human-centred yardstick, but who knows what other factors exist on another level, which we may miss completely? People may be devastated by a natural disaster, while populations of other organisms residing in the same region are barely affected.

Furthermore, the word ‘species’ is not as unambiguously defined as some may think.

In a biological context, two organisms are said to belong to separate species when they are unable to have viable offspring between them. However, the boundary between one species and another is not always as clear-cut and abrupt as one might imagine.

Within humans, too, we like to differentiate between people of different cultures, mentalities, and walks of life, and we sometimes refer to individuals as belonging to different species, in a colloquial sense.

When one considers the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and the benefits conferred on the haves by access to technology and accumulation of wealth, one could argue that an equally important issue is whether certain groups of human beings have exponentially greater potential for success than other groups. Intra-species disparities can be at least as staggering as inter-species ones.
Human lives are more intrinsically valuable than those of other organisms, and human interests take top priority.
Here are some reasons why we cherish human life greatly:
  • We perceive things through our own perspectives. It's entirely natural to inflate the status of our own kind, and to underrate the value of other species. We're biologically equipped to empathise strongly with other human beings.

  • Individual human beings have the potential to exert profound effects on the world around them, which extend beyond their immediate environment and have repercussions that affect other species. The power and influence that lies within an individual’s grasp is matched by the value we ascribe to his or her life.

  • The amount of resources (time and energy) required to nurture a human being till adulthood and sustain a person throughout a lifetime tend to be high in comparison to many other species of organisms. The more input that goes into the formation and maturation of a product, and the higher the quality of that input, the higher we tend to rate its worth.

  • Events that affect other human beings profoundly are more likely to have an effect on our own person. Things that occur in one area may have repercussions to humans around the globe, primarily because we occupy a common ecological sphere.

    This sense of self-interest leads us to take a correspondingly higher interest in people, than in other organisms. None of this proves that human beings are intrinsically more valuable in any absolute sense- it’s only our subjective sense of self-worth that makes us consider ourselves relatively important.
Our sense of morality is unique, and non-human organisms lack moral codes.
Human beings abide by moral codes that strike us as being complex, sophisticated, and intelligent. Our moral codes are collections of guidelines, addressing various aspects of life. Each guideline has been arrived at through a process of trial-and-error, experimentation, planning, amendment, and more trial-and-error.

We've arrived at this particular selection of principles by which to abide, because people have applied them in the past, found merit in them, and found ways to perpetuate them. Our collection of guidelines continues to be refined, modified, and supplemented, to keep pace with changes in our attitudes and perspectives regarding human nature.

Many people examine the behaviour of other organisms and intuitively feel that our moral codes are far superior to theirs. After all, not only do we heed seemingly sacrosanct laws such as ‘do not kill’ and ‘do not steal,’ we install a range of versions of these laws and specify the circumstances under which a particular version is to be applied, or a suitable form of punishment is to be mete out.

We have subcategories such as first-, second- and third-degree murder, and come up with terms such as ‘petty theft,’ ‘money siphoning,’ and ‘Ponzi schemes.’ Bacteria and dogs know no such distinctions.

As further proof of our abilities, we formalise these codes in writing, assign numbering systems to each subtopic, and have entire sections devoted to the self-regulation of our systems.

Note, however, we have had to create and enforce these laws out of necessity, to allow our societies to function tolerably. Bacteria do not understand the ins and outs of money laundering and they have no need to. Our moral codes exist because our societies would suffer too much in their absence.

A moral code is simply a prescription of behaviours that benefit us under our particular circumstances. We do not invest heavily in writing hypothetical moral codes for imaginary alien species that are dramatically different from ourselves, even though, theoretically speaking, we could do so. When we chose, we are able to observe other organisms and specify the laws by which we think they operate.

Each species has its particular ecological niche- its unique combination of needs and desires. Organisms adapt and adopt certain patterns of behaviour as needed. The range of behaviours adopted depends on the type of actions that will aid survival.

As different species have diverse roles, it makes little sense to compare species using absolute standards, by applying a fixed set of criteria indiscriminately across species, such as ‘How fast can it move,’ ‘What is its life expectancy,’ ‘How much money does it make,’ or ‘Does it abide by all ten commandments’?

The issue is not so much whether or not a species is inherently ‘more’ moral than another species- rather, it’s about the degree to which a species is able to optimise its behaviour to suit and thrive in its particular environment, to its own benefit.

Human beings might abide by instructions such as, ‘Avoid consuming certain types of meat on certain days of the week. Do not use any form of birth control, unless you are already steeped in sin and using birth control would make little difference to the fate of your soul.’

In contrast, a particular species of bacteria might, for example, abide by laws such as, ‘When in a thermal environment of under 140 degrees Fahrenheit, convert sulphur gas to hydrogen sulfide. Propagate via binary fission approximately every forty eight hours.’

A certain species of fish might operate according to: ‘You are a female and are blue in colour, unless the dominant male of your pack dies and you’re next in line to replace him, at which point you will turn red and become a male, and develop the requisite reproductive organs.’

Human beings would generally see little point in abiding by the laws that apply to the bacteria or fish, although adherence to those laws greatly benefits those species. It would be unnecessary to our survival and hinder our progress, because abiding by irrelevant guidelines would mean the squandering of energy that could be put to better use.

We nearly always consider things from our own perspective- since other organisms are utterly ill-equipped to accomplish the tasks that we carry out, we flippantly conclude that they belong to an inferior species.

Well, we humans need to get used to the realisation that our perspective is not the only, or most important, one around, and that we are as hopelessly unsuited to the environments and tasks that other organisms manage with ease, as they are to ours.

Most of the beliefs listed here are in no way unique to religious believers- believers and non-believers alike often feel instinctively that humans are set above other animals, plants, etc.

The key distinguishing factor is that believers attribute this superiority to God’s intentional design.
Other beliefs are specifically related to God and religion, and are unique to believers.
In addition to the points listed above, believers may feel that:
  1. Humans are below God in the hierarchy, but preside above all other creatures.

  2. Humans have been conferred this special status by God.

  3. Human beings, according to some religions, are responsible for looking after the wellbeing of all other organisms, and act as stewards of the planet.

  4. Human beings have received their sense of morality from God.
Let’s probe more deeply into each point.
Humans are below God in the hierarchy, but preside above all other creatures.
As mentioned above, this belief arises from and is perpetuated by fact that our perspectives define our perceptions of other creatures.

The worth we ascribe to other lives, the importance of their existence, their abilities, their interests, and their future- all these qualities are viewed through the lens of human priorities, ideals, decisions, and motives. From our privileged standpoint, this makes us masters over all living things.

This supreme status is desirable and comfortable- it allows us to justify our treatment of and attitudes towards other organisms. It provides us with an automatic incentive to consider human interests above all others.

It's essentially a guilt-free ticket which allows us to sanction our own behaviour, regardless of the effects wrought on other organisms, as long as we have the approval of God.

Since God does not actually exist, except as a concept within our minds, and it’s therefore up to us to decide what is or is not condoned by God, this belief allows us to do whatever we want, as long as we’re able to persuade ourselves that God endorses it.
Humans have been conferred this special status by God.
God reigns supreme and no one can challenge His decisions and expect to get away with it.

If the conjectured hierarchical status of organisms on the planet happens to be particularly favourable towards human beings, then that’s a stroke of luck, a blessing for which we should be thankful. Believers need not question it too much or object too vigorously.

When people feel disadvantaged, they tend to ask themselves why they have been dealt such a shabby hand, whereas if they occupy a privileged position, re-evaluations and criticisms of the system seem unnecessary. Those who believe in human superiority have numerous reasons for doing so, regardless of whether they are religious.

Believers happen to share a common belief in God, and this belief provides an additional reason to justify the current pecking order- its existence is thought to arise from God’s designs.

As God exists purely as a figment of our tenacious and powerful imaginations, there's no way to prove or disprove the validity of the existing arrangement from a religious standpoint.

Followers rationalise their beliefs about the status of humans in various ways, some of which are mentioned above. They possess an internal mental representation of God, to whom they attribute the current state of affairs. Thus, some of us feel that human beings have every right to maintain the status quo.
Human beings, according to some religions, are responsible for looking after the wellbeing of all other organisms, and acting as stewards of the planet.
This belief is frequently accompanied by an admirable determination to act responsibly and consider the needs of species besides ours. It leads many to argue that religion thus provides an incentive for people to take care of our environment and avoid abusing it.

To the extent that individual believers would otherwise not bother to treat the environment with respect, this is true.

However, the fact remains that our commitment to others should persist regardless of our particular religious beliefs. If a believer chose to renounce his or her faith and stop believing in God, that conversion should not prevent the ex-believer from continuing to pursue exemplary ideals and moral standards.

If you're afraid that a renunciation of faith will result in degeneration in your behaviour, then why not find ways to adjust your previous mentality, and form the good habit of doing the right thing for its own sake, rather than for the sake of a set of untenable and invalid religious beliefs?
Human beings have received their sense of morality from God.
Many believers think that these rules are bestowed upon us by God, or derived directly from religious teachings.

The truth is that our sense of right and wrong is a product of our evolutionary history. It has evolved gradually over time, in tandem with the development of our societies.

As mentioned above, in the subsection about morality in human and non-human species, these guidelines are continuously updated and tested for relevance. Depending on the rate of change and cultural development, different societies adopt distinct standards at any given point in history.

In certain cultures and religions, for instance, blasphemy is often considered a relatively trivial sin, and believers are necessarily resigned to the fact that God’s name is used as a swear word by people the world over. Many Islamic sects are less casual in their attitudes in this respect, and take the commandment not to use God’s name ‘in vain’ more seriously, on average, than their Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Catholic counterparts.
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