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What if Parents Told Our Children, "Remember, You're an Animal! Act Like it."

Imagine if parents told our children, "Remember, you're an animal! Act like it," instead of "Remember, you're a human being, not an animal! Act like it." That simple thought experiment should be enough to put to rest any doubts about what would happen if the idea of human uniqueness were retired. It should be enough, but even with some smart folks it clearly isn't. For evidence, check out our colleague Wesley Smith's characteristically incisive post at National Review Online.

Materialism seems to blind its adherents to what should be obvious. Irene Pepperberg must be a smart lady since she teaches at Harvard. Yet, in the Guardian, she tries to argue for overthrowing the idea of our unique status in the world of living things, as "a pinnacle of some sort, denied in any shape, way, or form to other creatures." Sure, says Professor Pepperberg, humans devise impressive technologies. But many things we achieve by that route merely help us catch up with animals. For example, pit vipers with their ability to "detect temperature changes of a few hundredths of a degree."

This gift notwithstanding, Wesley takes Pepperberg to task:

Talk about deflection from the actual attributes that make us exceptional!  

The examples Pepperberg conjures are merelydifferences in biological function. But those are irrelevant to moral uniqueness. For example, even if we were the only bipedal species on the planet, that would be merely a physical difference, and hence, morally irrelevant. 

In contrast, those capacities and expressions that distinguish us from all other known life forms are morally material. Only we are moral agents, expresseddifferently across the breadth of humanity, demonstrating that unlike the hawk's vision, there is a volitional element to moral deliberation involving the exercise of reason, experience, emotions, etc.

That capacity is intrinsic tohuman nature -- but not hawk, elephant, viper, or dog nature, expressed by each of us unless we are too immature or profoundly ill or injured.

Only we are capable of recognizing and accepting (or neglecting) duties. Only we have rational capacities of abstract thinking, learning from the past, planning for the future

Only we are capable of good and evil. Only we seek meaning. Only we can philosophize and worship -- or decide to reject faith or choose to be indifferent to deeper questions. Heck, only we ask ultimate questions.

Only we can betray. Only we are truly altruistic or selfish -- often both at different times -- terms that reflect the uniquely human and moral nature of those behaviors.

And in those few cases in which we can anthropomorphize some human-like attributes to animals -- even if true (doubtful) -- the differences in quality are so vast they amount to differences in kind.

Pepperberg's argument is akin to saying that a beaver's dam -- purely instinctive -- is morally equivalent to the Hoover Dam. Yes, both stop the flow of water for an instrumental purpose, but come on! 

Go, Wesley, go! BTW, if you haven't seen the trailer for The War on Humans, which highlights his reporting on this theme, do so now.

Meanwhile, showing how, darn it, animals do the cutest things! -- so much like humans! -- is the burden of many of Jerry Coyne's blog posts at Why Evolution Is True. Which makes sense, since confusing or maintaining the distinction between humans and animals is among the stakes in the controversy about Darwinism. It's not our pride that is at issue but the widespread perception, critical to civilization, of our status as "moral agents."

We dishonor -- and honor. We do wrong -- and right. We repent -- or choose not to do so. Animals do none of those things. When animals act destructively, it's their owners who are held liable (if we failed to take reasonable precautions). Don Giovanni's refusing to repent, when provided the opportunity, is what gives the conclusion of Mozart's opera its terrific power.

There's no such thing as a "guilty" or "penitent" animal, which is also why Dr. Coyne's current "cat confession," a/k/a "cat shaming," contest is funny. A "human confession" or "human shaming" contest would not be funny at all. The humor is predicated on the fact that animals do no share "moral agency" with us. Doesn't he see that? I guess not.