Gould’s Second Stage: Progress, Evolution, and Human Exceptionalism

Adam Neiblum

Our self conception is very important. The way we understand ourselves as a species here on this planet—the who we are and the why we are here, our overall sense of how we human beings fit into the whole cosmic scheme of things—matters enormously. Whether it is subconscious or conscious, accurate or false, our subjective worldview determines much about how we live. It shapes the way we interact with our fellow humans. Equally important, it affects how we interact with other animals, the billions of living creatures from microbes to mammoths with whom we share this planet in a complex state of mutual interdependence: beings to whom we are literally related as distant cousins. Our self-conception actually shapes our environment over time, imprinting itself upon the very world that spawned us.

Human exceptionalism refers to our sense of ourselves as separate from, and superior to, the rest of nature. This view is both false and problematic. It’s false because it is not accurate or correct in any sense to say that human beings, or our preferred evolutionary traits, are superior to any other evolved beings or their traits. It’s problematic in that the arrogance and hubris inherent within the exceptionalist perspective is necessarily causally connected to such worldly problems as climate change, human-exacerbated global warming, pollution in its many forms, rising extinction rates, and our overall environmentally rapist approach to survival on this planet.

Instead of coming up with sexy plans to run off and colonize Mars like the Mad Hatter and his retinue, racing from soiled place setting to clean as if we might somehow outrun our own selfish, destructive inclinations, we should cultivate a deep and abiding appreciation for the astoundingly perfect pale blue dot upon which we sprang into self-conscious existence—developing a self-awareness rooted in a more accurate, post-Darwinian knowledge regarding our animal nature: our true nature. We must embrace the challenge to become an animal living sustainably within an environmentally balanced context, here and now.

Our understanding of human nature is changing in a progressive, improving sense. It’s getting better, meaning increasingly accurate, modest, and sustainable. But there are impediments. Clearly there are religious and historical obstacles to this progress. Yet, perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, human exceptionalism rears its ugly head in entirely secular, even scientific contexts. Becoming aware of all this is a first step in cultivating a more accurate, less destructive self-conception. Like they say, the first step in solving a problem is becoming aware of the fact that you have one. We do. We have a problem, and its name is human exceptionalism.

Evolution still floats in the limbo of our unwillingness to face the implications of Darwinism for the cosmic estate of Homo sapiens … . All thinking people accept the biological fact of our descent from the animal world. But the second stage, mental accommodation toward pedestal smashing, has scarcely begun … we have managed to retain an interpretation of human importance scarcely different in many crucial respects from the exalted state we occupied as the supposed products of direct creation in god’s image.

Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflection in Natural History,
Stephen Jay Gould, 1995

The Roots of Human Exceptionalism

It is so easy and tempting to go for the low-hanging fruit of religion. But it’s possible that human exceptionalism cannot be entirely blamed on the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity and Islam. There’s some viable scientific evidence suggesting that human-exceptionalist thinking, much like Homo sapiens’s instinctive penchant for superstition and supernaturalism, may be hardwired into that imperfect, not-so-intelligently-designed, cognitive-bias-infested three pounds of gray goop between our ears: the human brain.

Homo sapiens’s brain is far from the perfect reality-detector we like to think it is. It is fraught with oddities, quirks, and biases galore. A cognitive bias is simply an inclination on the part of our brain to interpret and respond to reality in a specific irrational manner. Human exceptionalism is just such a quirk. There is no objective meter or measure by which human beings, or human traits, are superior to any other beings or traits, yet we continue to think there is. Theory of Mind may be unique, but unique and superior are not synonyms.

It makes sense that we have evolved this tendency toward human exceptionalism, to bias ourselves toward our fellow Homo sapiens. Our evolutionary lineage would have come to a rather speedy demise had we truly felt that all things—say, a hyena—held value equal to our own. Rather than saving our children from the charging lion, what if our evolutionary forebears had instead recognized the lion’s need to eat as cosmically equivalent to our offspring’s need not to become lion food. Our brain did not evolve to be a truth detector, so much as it did to aid us in survival and successful reproduction. Further, it was far from intelligently designed to do so but was rather the result of a more haphazard, MacGyver-style process of opportunistic jerry-rigging.

But nature is not destiny. Natural here simply means that our brain inclines us toward human exceptionalism. Yet our various inclinations and instincts differ in how robust they are, right? I mean, I have a hard time staying celibate or entirely avoiding sweet foods, for example. But, for many of the things toward which my imperfect brain inclines me, I have more say in the matter. We may be inclined to believe the falsehoods our human exceptionalism–inclined brain tells us. Yet given sufficient reasons and alternatives, we are also able to counter such beliefs.

Nature is not destiny, and knowledge is power. Knowing that human exceptionalism represents an inaccurate view, a cognitive bias, empowers me to eschew it. Knowing that human exceptionalism is directly implicated in Homo sapiens’s rapist relationship with planet Earth likewise disinclines me. Human exceptionalism may pre-date the religious traditions, may be an instinctive belief, or may be a cognitive bias. Such would go a long way toward explaining why it remains alive and well over 150 years after Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species and why it continues to arise even among atheists, humanists, and scientists.

The Role of Religion

That being said, the religious traditions of Christianity and Islam do not get off the hook that easily. If they are not the cause of human-exceptionalist thinking, they nonetheless bear the lion’s share of responsibility for perpetuating and promoting it in the mind of Homo sapiens. This is partially because when combining Christians and Muslims we’re talking about over half the world’s population. But it’s also the case that, for a variety of reasons, these Abrahamic traditions have had an outsized influence upon the rest of the world.

These traditions and concepts have spread globally as a result of a variety of phenomena, including simple geographic centrality; Mediterranean empires, such as the Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman; the Silk Road and millennia of world commerce; the missionary-conversion imperative of both Christianity and Islam; the reach of modern-day petroleum power; and last, but certainly not least, the flagrantly materialistic imperialism of Christianity-infused Europe and, ultimately, the United States of America.

So beliefs and concepts with shared roots in the Abrahamic tradition are endemic, and they indubitably include human exceptionalism. Though such traditions may not themselves be the cause, they are nonetheless guilty of perpetuating and promoting the human-exceptionalist narrative. Embedded within them we find the dualistic worldview that bifurcates our cosmos into two distinct realms: a natural realm and a supernatural realm. This plays an essential role in the continuing historic dominance of human exceptionalism.

Such dualism is highly problematic, even for those of us who no longer adhere to these religious traditions. We associate our “lower” traits—our fart jokes or dangerous liaisons, our bodily functions and fluids—with the natural and the beastly. Yet we are less likely to think of the “higher” traits as partaking equally of the animal. Justice is a perfect example. Ants have their complex system of antennae-touching, chemical communication, and pheromones, all of which evolved because they aid in their survival and successful reproduction. Likewise, we Homo sapiens have justice, as well as morality, ethics, compassion, and altruism. Justice, as astounding a phenomenon as it is, would not even exist but for evolution and animals such as Homo sapiens. It is nothing more than an aspect of our evolutionary repertoire.

Yet we are still prone to the dualistic thought-hangover of seeing poop, pee, and boogers as animal while failing to recognize that equally so are Bach and Beethoven; the Sistine Chapel; our landing on the moon; our ability to negotiate an intersection with four-way stop signs; or the collected works of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris.

The Great Chain of Being

Abrahamic dualism has long ruled the roost. Its most common manifestation for millennia, and well into our times, is some variation of the Great Chain of Being. This served as a model for the known universe and the order in which all beings had their existence. Generally imaged as a stairway to heaven, a ladder, or a hierarchic triangle, the Great Chain of Being places God at the top. Below him, yet still within the realm of the “divine,” were the other supernatural beings such as angels or demons (fallen angels).

Below these, on the dividing line between the two realms, one foot ensconced equally in each, was man (sexist, yes, but historically accurate). Below man was the lesser, lower, natural realm, beginning with the “higher” animals. In the circular, tautological manner of this human-exceptionalist depiction, some animals were considered higher simply because they were, for one reason or another, more like us humans. Often these were mammals. Below them were reptiles, then amphibians, down to insects, et cetera. You get the gist.

The three key points that come from an understanding of the Great Chain of Being are:

  • The cosmos is dualistic.
  • This is understood as value-laden or hierarchic:
    • The supernatural = the divine, the good, the higher.
    • The natural = the lesser, the beastly, the worldly.
  • Humans, alone in all of nature, partake of the divine.

Of significant interest is the fact that the Great Chain of Being was also applied to inter-human relations, serving to justify all manner of social oppression and inequality. This hierarchy served to rationalize divine rule: the divine right of kings, queens, emperors, pharaohs, khans, and the like. It also justified and encouraged the oppression of people based solely upon value-laden conceptions of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. In several iterations, the “man” straddling the dividing line between the natural and supernatural was, quite literally, a gendered male. Meanwhile, women and other marginalized groups were placed below the all important dividing line. They were conceived and treated as lesser beings in value, as less than human. They were of this lower realm solely and, as such, were mere animals or, in other words, property.

Origins 2.0

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) represented a genuine revolution in our self-concept. Darwin gave us a new and improved origin story, one rooted squarely in scientific knowledge, which had already been producing some prodigious results. And yet, using a handy-dandy little dialectic technique associated with his contemporary Freidrich Hegel, we can show precisely where and how a fundamental derailment occurred in our understanding of the process of evolution and thereby of our own true nature.

Hegelian dialectic is a twenty-dollar phrase used to describe a very useful tool for understanding historical progress. Here is a great example to illustrate how it works: A couple hundred years before Darwin, it was very common to believe in the thesis that the sun and planets revolved around the earth. The church was very happy to perpetuate this geocentric conception of the heavens, placing humanity at the center of the known universe. Over time, however, enough worldly evidence had accumulated to cast significant doubt among the learned regarding the validity of this geocentric thesis.

These objections and difficulties coalesced into a growing anti-thesis to the geocentric model. As a result of the clash between the thesis and antithesis (as it is usually rendered), a different theory came to mind, famously including such minds as those of Copernicus and Galileo. This new replacement conception is known as the synthesis. It meets all the objections brought up in the antithesis and thereby offers a new, original, more cogent explanation for the phenomenon under consideration. In our example, this refers to the heliocentric model, in which Earth and the other planets all revolve around the sun. Copernicus and Galileo helped us to grasp that we were not the center of the universe in the astronomic, celestial sense. Darwin did the same thing in the biological, psychological sense.

Darwin represented a big win for scientific epistemology, in both form and content. In form, his work served to strengthen the case for naturalistic, evidence-based methods of acquiring knowledge as opposed to religious knowledge with its antiquated emphasis upon scripture and religious authorities. Rather than the natural realm being one that distracted us from the divine, from important things such as God’s plan or our impending afterlife, this new approach demonstrated that naturalistic explanations held great promise indeed. In content, the fact that this new origin story presented an extremely compelling case that we humans are “mere” animals ourselves, related to all the others—and neither a god nor hierarchies had anything to do with it all.

Still, some 150 years down the road, the ramifications of this revolutionary new self-conception have failed to crystallize in the minds of most of humanity. It is not hard to grasp, of course, why those who remain under the direct sway of the Abrahamic religions remain stuck in past conceptions. But how are we to understand the millions of secular, humanist, and even scientific minds who continue to misconstrue Darwin’s brilliant naturalistic explanation? The process of evolution continues to be widely misunderstood. And much of the problem stems directly from human exceptionalism. Let’s jump back to the Hegelian dialectic to illustrate.

The Great Chain of Being represented a long-standing thesis. The antithesis to this position consisted of a growing body of naturalistic facts and data that cast increasing doubt upon our origins as described in scripture and religious tradition. Darwin’s Origin embraced these misgivings. His work was an act of creation, a new and complete picture of life that itself should have become the subsequent synthesis. But for most, it did not. Through a combination of entrenchment in religious thought and the power of human-exceptionalist thinking in and of itself, the faulty synthesis that many embraced at the time was, instead, more akin to Ernst Haeckel’s Tree of Life.

Ernst Haeckel, The Tree of Life, 1879.

According to this new view, everything takes place below the crucial dividing line that characterized religious dualism. No gods or supernatural elements are required. A real win for science.

Science: 1; Religion: 0

However, at one and the same time, the hierarchic, value-laden element, so definitive of both the Abrahamic and human exceptionalist worldviews, remained entirely intact. The gods had been rendered moot. What remained was nothing more than blatant, undisguised human exceptionalism—untethered from its supernatural, religious moorings, but still large and in charge, still self-perpetuating through an inaccurate, value-laden misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This is where it becomes undeniable that these ancient Middle Eastern deities had really been but surrogates for Homo sapiens all along, just like Dorothy’s humbug wizard, hiding behind the curtain in the merry old Land of Oz.

Evolution Is Not Progress

Progress and evolution are not synonyms. We tend to interpret evolution as an improvement process, a form of progress. This conflation represents an inaccurate interpretation, one with undeniable roots in human-exceptionalist biases. Cultivating a more accurate understanding of human nature, with an emphasis upon the distinction between evolution and progress, is an important first step toward freeing ourselves from the exceptionalist biases that separate us from the world around us.

Evolution is a context-dependent response to environmental variables that is nonlinear and not in any sense progressive. The value of any given mutation is entirely context-dependent. It may work, and if it does it is likely to spread into subsequent generations. Or it may not, in which case it won’t. Environment and context decide. There is no goal, no direction, no purpose, and no plan, contrary to most people’s beliefs and wishes.

When looking at living beings, exemplars of the evolutionary process, we tend to choose examples that support human exceptionalism or that place us in the finest of lights. Look how big our brains are and how fast they got that way! We emphasize those examples that perpetuate the idea of an improvement process, such as the increasing speed of the cheetah and impala, their so-called evolutionary “arms race.” Physical limitations always bring any such “improvements” to an end. The impala shifts to zigs and zags or leaps and bounds. The whole speed-racer analogy comes to a screeching halt, pardon the pun. Such examples oversimplify the complex realities of evolutionary change.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, it behooved a small number of our common ancestors to move from the water onto the land. Human exceptionalism inclines us to exaggerate the importance of this transition in the larger story of life. Most living organisms did not leave the water; they merely went on as always. It was most likely an extremely small number that changed, a number we overemphasize simply because it included our ancestors.

Today’s mudskipper is an excellent contemporary analogue of this stage in evolution. Why, then, are there still mudskippers? Because evolution is not progress. If it were, you would look around the world today and see “perfected” versions of everything: only the “best” eyes, wings, feet, and brains. This is an entirely ludicrous concept. The “best” eye means very different things for a falcon, a fly, a monkey, or an octopus.

What we perceive when we investigate the world around us are actually a plethora of excellent stand-ins, analogues to nearly every stage in the evolutionary process, be it the development of flight, eyeballs, or intelligence. Around our world today we can see it all, including some of the most ancient, simplistic, or microscopic of organisms. Why is that? Because evolution is not progressive.

Around fifty million years ago, something akin to our hippopotamus, maybe Pakicetus or Ambulocetus, found it beneficial to go back to the water, to switch out its arms and legs for fins and tails, to return to the life aquatic. These became our beloved cetaceans, the whales and dolphins who were, for eons, the quintessential intelligent animals on planet Earth. Today we can observe differing degrees of reabsorption, the fading into nonexistence of those once oh-so-useful hind legs, now going vestigial at varying speeds, dependent upon which species we are talking about.

Which one was the “improvement”? The coming out of the water? The going back into it? The growing of legs? Their reabsorption into the body? What, precisely, is the goal, the direction, the plan? Such change is not what we commonly might think of as de-evolution, or devolution, as in negating the process of evolution. Such a change is the very process of evolution itself—exactly as was the development of those legs in the first place. The fact that we think of such a process as the negation of evolution serves to illustrate the problem at hand: the exceptionalist conflation of progress and evolution in our minds.

Evolution is non-progressive. It is non-directional. Yet our belief in ourselves as the pinnacle of some cosmic improvement plan inclines us to choose and emphasize such examples as the arms race of predator and prey, or recent changes in the human brain, as we strive to square our exceptionalist predispositions with our changing understanding of life and our own nature.

Progress Is Not Evolution

One reason we are biased toward thinking of evolution as improvement is because progress is a real thing. The reality of human progress, combined with our exceptionalist biases, causes this cognitive error in the first place. Unlike evolution, progress is very much a goal-oriented process. It entails an ideal, an end point, and thereby necessarily a direction in which to move. Evolution does not. It is a directionless contextual response.

Human progress can be easily seen in the famous god-of-the-gaps concept. Gaps in our knowledge were for millennia filled with supernatural elements. Yet these are all being replaced, consistently and systematically, by increasingly empirical, science-friendly answers. Replacing supernatural explanations with falsifiable, testable ones is a major improvement. Because of the cumulative nature of human knowledge, falsifiable answers—which allow us to test and tweak and add to our knowledge—are far superior. The non-falsifiable fillers of supernaturalist, religious thinking bring progress to a full stop, because they cannot be tested, proven or disproven, or built upon.

The source of Homo sapiens’s progress is our particular form of accretive, mutualistic, applicable intelligence. This is an evolved trait that very much defines Homo sapiens. Kevin Laland, in 2017’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, notes this under-recognized nature of Homo sapiens intelligence:

… the extensive accumulation of shared, learned knowledge, and iterative improvements in technology over time … an ability to pool our insights and knowledge, and build on each other’s solutions … virtually all innovation is a reworking or refinement of existing technology …

Or, as comedian and all-around smart guy Joe Rogan quipped in his insightful routine on the topic: “If I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet, how long before you could send me an email?”

The cumulative, communal quality of human knowledge enables us to synthesize, to create, to progress. Evolution is a biological phenomenon that endows us with specific traits, while progress is the result of the functioning of those traits, and it shifts the emphasis from the biological to the cultural.

Secular Exceptionalism

Certainly Christianity and Islam do the lion’s share in perpetuating belief in Homo sapiens’s value-laden uniqueness. But what about human exceptionalism’s secular staying power? The more aware we become, the more we can check the tendency to think this way, in terms of our overall worldview but also in terms of our relations with our fellow animals, human and nonhuman alike, and with our greater environs as a whole.

Human exceptionalism is a projection of human values. God was but a surrogate human all along, a supernatural entity we created in our own image and then projected across the heavens, thereby justifying human values on a cosmic scale. But nature itself is entirely value-free. Ramses and Rousseau are no more or less valuable than a rhinoceros or a rhea (the bird), raging rivers, rice or raisins, rads of radon, or a regolith on Rhea (the moon). Right?

Valuing, like tool use, self-awareness, or theory of mind, is an evolutionary trait. There is zero evidence to suggest that value or valuing exists independently from any given biological organism that evolved the capacity to value as a component in its evolutionary repertoire, a tool in its adaptive tool-kit. Value requires a valuer. With no gods, there are no cosmic-scale valuers, hence no cosmic-scale values.

This means that Homo sapiens’s traits are no more unique, amazing, or “advanced” (a problematic concept, more applicable to a progress paradigm than to an evolutionary one), than the elephant’s listening feet, the octopus’s thinking arms, or the tardigrade’s unparalleled resilience. Homo sapiens and our various unique evolutionary traits should therefore be understood in the most value-neutral manner possible. This …

Not this …            

Or this … 

In the early 1960s, we tended to think of ourselves as the only creatures capable of making and using tools. Jane Goodall shattered that bit of human arrogance quite nicely. After she introduced us to the fact that chimpanzees were creating and using tools, we began to see that other creatures were doing so as well. This was a very significant moment in human progress, a noteworthy fissure in the mighty edifice of human exceptionalism. We were so confident in our sense of ourselves as separate and superior by virtue of our tool-making abilities that our scientists had given us the name “handy-man”: Homo habilis.

Since Goodall, numerous other traits and attributes have undergone the same process. With no overt help from religion, our scientists still seemed hell-bent upon defining us as separate and superior. Self-awareness was considered the relevant attribute at one time, which led to all sorts of experiments employing the prodigious usage of paintbrushes, dabs of red paint, and mirrors. For a time, it was thought that only human beings had genuine emotions. Being a good friend of Canis familiarus, I can only imagine that this theory went tits-up the day one of the relevant scientific bigwigs actually noticed the family dog!

In all seriousness, scientists continue to cherry-pick the data and, intentionally or not, perpetuate our sense of ourselves as both separate and superior. One of the varieties of ways in which this subjectivism manifests is size-ism. We exaggerate the importance of creatures in our general size range. Relative to all the species that have ever existed, we are actually very large. We are a big animal.

Scientists frequently refer to us as the dominant species on the planet. Our “food chain” models emphasize sharks, wolves, and other large-bodied predators. But our brains are surprisingly poor at gauging the relative importance of differing risk factors. The truth is that we are in far less danger from the “dominant” lions, tigers, and bears than we are from mosquitoes—or the veritable army of microscopic organisms that truly dominate life on this planet. If you wish to arm yourself before going to exotic, far-away lands, forget the gun, sword, or suit of armor; get yourself some immunization shots, pack a bar of soap, and carry some condoms. But, if you forget, don’t worry about it. You’ll just die, and then the similarly small-scaled posse of insects and microbes will come along and do their fantastically thorough clean-up job.

As I was working on this essay, I encountered a relatively recent work in the August 2018 Scientific American, excerpted from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. This essay claimed, somewhat refreshingly, that “plants rule the planet.” This evidence-based claim presented a data-set in terms of actual biomass. Plants account for 80 percent of earth’s total biomass. Bacteria were actually a distant second utilizing this metric, representing a mere 15 percent. Human beings, though succeeding beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams—in terms of the whole “be fruitful and multiply” thing, at least—still make up only a fraction of 1 percent of earth’s total biomass.

Cultivating a less exaggerated sense of our own importance can only help us to battle the intrinsic hubris of human exceptionalism. An improved understanding of deep time and the principles of geology helped Darwin to move in the right direction. Our present circumstances, our “Anthropocene” epoch here on this one little planet, is but a very tiny blip in space and time. Contrary to being the point of it all, as the religions have long told us, we are but an infinitesimal speck of stardust within the grand scheme of things. We well might have never even come into existence in the first place.

Like it or not, we are but a happy accident.

Dinosaurs were anything but a failure, evolutionarily speaking. As with our flawed yet ever-popular conception of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging brutes, the narrative that ignores the 200-plus million year success of the dinosaurs falsely portrays them as lumbering, mindless failures, and serves to promote and perpetuate exceptionalist thinking. If not for that random bolide that hit Earth out of the blue sixty-five million years ago, our planet would probably still be covered in dinosaurs, and not just the tiny little feather-bedecked versions we feed seeds to in our backyard feeders. Homo sapiens owes its entire existence to one big, random rock.

I got off on this whole project because I hit a tipping point: one too many articles in popular science-oriented publications, National Geographic and the like, whose primary theme was “what separates us from the animals …” or “what makes us human … ,” with the ensuing focus placed entirely upon that which differentiates, to the complete and total exclusion of that which is shared or held in common. But that which makes us human, our true nature, is only in small measure that which is unique to only our species. What makes us human beings is also in large measure that which is shared between us and all of the rest of life. The human and dolphin genome are basically the same. We share 99 percent of our DNA with bonobos. The differences are real and important. But they are not the whole picture, not by a long shot.

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

—Joni Mitchell

The idea that we Homo sapiens are somehow separate from and superior to the rest of the natural order is clearly reinforced by antiquated, scripture-based thinking. Some Abrahamic traditions encourage and sustain it. But its impact seems even more robust than that alone can account for. It may be natural and instinctive for us to have a human-preferential bias. While religious traditions obviously serve to perpetuate the problem, we will need to do more than address their influence to solve this problem.

We will have to cultivate a new conception of who we are, one which is more in keeping with the facts. There are two important components to this emerging re-imagining of human nature. One is that we are animals, related to all the other animals and interdependent within our social and environmental ecosystems. The second is that evolution has endowed us with the trait of human intelligence, with the capacity for culture, which for us means the capacity for a distinctively cumulative, communal, and applicable kind of knowledge.

We are an animal and, like other living organisms, have evolved to be entirely codependent and interdependent within a specific set of complex environmental variables. Being eusocial like the ants, this is especially true for the hominid species Homo sapiens. Just how crucial these contextual interdependencies are will become increasingly obvious as we a) poison our environment and/or b) prepare to move to Mars.

Joni Mitchell was talking about Hawaii and greenery and concrete and parking lots. But it’s equally true of stuff such as clean air to breathe; clean water to drink; moderate temperatures; healthy, nontoxic soil in which to grow our food; and, amazingly enough, a quality world: a healthy natural global eco-system within which to thrive, for our own long-term aesthetic, emotional, and overall mental health. We risk all of that when we perpetuate exceptionalist self-conceptions—and our good friends the octopuses and elephants besides.

The new conception of human nature will have to begin with the recognition that human-exceptionalist thinking was but a form of cognitive bias, a preference for all things human, which was really beneficial when there were just a few thousand of us and one bad cold snap might have wiped us out forever. Safe to say, those days are gone. Short of another bolide or self-immolation via nuclear weaponry, we ain’t goin’ nowhere. Not for a while. We need to settle in for the long haul. Sustainability in technology and lifestyle are key. But perhaps even more important is sustainability in worldview, in our thinking, in our understanding of Homo sapiens’s place within the wider schema.

Human exceptionalism is both inaccurate and problematic. It is inaccurate in that nature does not value human intelligence or theory of mind over bottlenose echolocation, elephantine emotional intelligence or memory, falcons’ 200 mph dive speed, or the octopus’s astounding camouflage skills. It is problematic because it inclines us toward hierarchic thinking; encourages environmental irresponsibility; and inhibits our capacity to change in the face of human-exacerbated climate change, the ever-increasing rise in extinction rates, and other human-caused problems. Human exceptionalism serves to encourage the rapine lifestyle that the “developed” world has enjoyed for a while and that everyone else on the planet now wants to enjoy equally. This would kill us all.

But we are learning animals, problem-solvers par excellence. Our kind of intelligence grows exponentially, building and transforming with each passing day, year, and generation, allowing us to come up with sound, naturalistic principles for sustainable living and thinking. It doesn’t merely allow us but ultimately requires us to work together to come up with solutions to our problems.

We do not have a cosmic purpose. We are not a part of a big plan. We do not even get a second chance after we die. We are simply not that important. The scriptures lied to us when they told us that we had value and importance on a cosmic scale. We have to unlearn that, to learn a scaled-down, right-sized, humble way of giving our lives meaning and purpose. Our contemporary notion of ourselves as cosmically valuable, still separate from and superior to nature, has to give way, because the truth is that we are no more or less important than pigs or penguins—and when we see that, things will go better for all concerned.

What is important is that we recognize this cosmic insignificance and accept it. At the same time, we must embrace our context-dependent value. We do have importance and purpose. But our purpose and meaning have a far more localized, context-specific reality than scriptures suggest. We are valuable as members of a community, of various communities, communities comprising fellow valuers. Our worth, meaning, and purpose are, as much as evolutionary adaptations themselves, contextually localized, interdependent within the environmental and social context wherein we live and move and have our being. We are very important to our family, our community, the animals, and environments with which we interact daily.

Our true nature is one that recognizes that we are not separate individuals but, as the evolutionary sciences inform us, deeply interconnected, environmentally ensconced, eusocial, communal animals. We are living beings defined and shaped by our multiple relations in the natural realm, utilizing our evolution-given unique brains to learn and know more and more. Thereby we solve problems for all in need and pursue the long-term goal of creating a viable, sustainable, beautiful civilization for all.

Adam Neiblum

Adam Neiblum is the author of Unexceptional: Darwin, Atheism & Human Nature and Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous. He is currently writing about human progress and utopian thought.


Our self conception is very important. The way we understand ourselves as a species here on this planet—the who we are and the why we are here, our overall sense of how we human beings fit into the whole cosmic scheme of things—matters enormously. Whether it is subconscious or conscious, accurate or false, our subjective …

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