On Robert Sapolsky’s “Are Humans Just Another Primate?”

I watched this video late last night, and loved almost every minute of it. Sapolsky treads a fine line between the ideological defenders of human exceptionalism and those whose anti-speciesist leanings may be tampering with their objectivity, as Dennett claims. Sapolsky distinguishes where we are like our primate cousins from where we are not, using the following categories: aggression, theory of mind, the golden rule, empathy, gratification/anticipation, and metaphor. He then closes with a (quite sudden, but not entirely unexpected) critique of Kierkegaardian leap-of-faith Christianity.

In each of the above categories, Sapolsky shows that the Western tradition’s millennia-long anthropocentric shibboleths are groundless, but from that shattered ground we build up a newly unique human identity. Since Darwin–well, since Galileo, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, but especially since Darwin–the Thomist hierarchical view of man and Dominion have been under threat, but the past 30 years have accelerated the pace of the ‘assault’ on unthinking anthropocentrism.

Primatologists and others only had to look at the natural world (I could put many hotlinked youtube videos of Ravens, chimps, dolphins, etc. here, but am still new to this game…) to see that the old saw that ‘man is the tool-using animal’ doesn’t hold up. Not only that, but chimps engage in war (it doesn’t rise to the level of human destruction, but arguably that has more to do with their lack of technology, and its resultant destructive capacity, than anything else), cetaceans and others have varying degrees of a theory of mind, Sapolsky shows baboons empathizing, primates in behavioral research can delay gratification (the dopamine-related passages in Sapolsky’s talk, which include tangents on casino designers and ‘neuroeconomists’, are fascinating).

When we approach metaphor and the range of subjects with which humans can empathize and form complex networks of mutual knowledge, however, humans really are a species apart. Not only can we empathize with a picture of an injured dog, as Sapolsky demonstrates, but also with Picasso’s “Guernica” and abstractly visceral art.

In my political philosophy class at UMass Lowell, my students and I have been discussing the concept of human nature (as filtered, so far, through Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant). I was struck by how removed most of my students feel from the rest of the animal kingdom vis-a-vis humans (and they are by no means in the minority–Indeed, I’m pretty sure I am). There are animals (read: Lockean objects of property), and then there are people.

Descriptively, Sapolsky’s work help us to understand our primate natures. Normatively, we can use this knowledge to construct an increasingly empathic civilization in an age when, for a range of possible reasons, the young are less and less empathic.

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