Saturday, December 26, 2009

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter One, section two

The Soul of the Matter (Chapter One, section two)

To frame the discussion of whether there is a difference between people and animals the author cites the fact that humans and chimpanzees share 99.4% of their DNA. He then asks, “If the singular difference between animals and humans is based on the mere fact that we genetically surpass monkeys by 0.6%, then we are only different in degrees and not kind. How dare we discriminate between animals and human beings?”

Here he makes the same mistake he did before when he cited Nazi Germany as an example of the evils of evolution. Evolution is not a ladder, and we do not “surpass” chimpanzees by 0.6%. We are merely genetically 0.6% different from chimpanzees. The author also mistakenly refers to chimpanzees as monkeys, when they are not monkeys but rather are great apes. Among other things, monkeys have tails, apes do not. This is a fairly common misconception, but again this speaks to the quality of the book’s scholarship.

He then is guilty of the equivocation fallacy with his use of the word “discriminate.” Discriminate can mean either: “to distinguish by discerning or exposing differences” or “to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Chimpanzees and humans have clear differences, and to discriminate between them (first definition) is natural. However, the use of the word calls up the second, pejorative, definition and suggests that acknowledging the distinctions is a bad thing.

Lastly, he generalizes from chimpanzees to all animals. Perhaps, given their similarity to us, chimpanzees should be accorded special treatment. But that does not translate into equating people and all other organisms. This unwarranted generalization may stem from the human tendency to perceive the world in distinct categories. The author is using two categories here, “people,” and, “animals.” He is treating these categories as discrete and homogenous blocks. If these categories are an accurate description of the world, then they can be compared to one another. But the truth is that humans and animals are not separate categories. Humans, animals, even plants are all organisms, and each organism can be evaluated on a number continuums which might be relevant here, including complexity, intelligence, and sentience.
{incorrect scientific fact, equivocation fallacy, false distinction}

He then lists some animals that are in fact superior to humans in specific ways, including the, “blind bat, [which] through its sonar ability, can maneuver its way through the most complex obstacle course.” The bat is in fact not blind, and some can see about as well as humans. Bats use echolocation to navigate because they hunt at night, and, like humans, cannot see in the dark. This mistake doesn’t actually affect his argument, as bats do still have an ability (echolocation) that humans don’t, but once again this speaks to the book’s quality of scholarship.
{incorrect scientific fact}

The author quotes a Professor Singer who argues that people saw themselves as superior to animals in the Western world because the Bible states that God endowed people with a soul. Given that it is the soul that makes us superior, the author states that if he can prove the existence of the soul, even Professor Singer would acknowledge human superiority.

The author is conflating the professor’s conjecture as to why people do (in general) in fact consider themselves superior to animals with a claim that a soul is a valid justification for considering ourselves superior. (Note that I am endorsing neither Professor Singer's claim nor his controversial ethical theory.) Be that as it may, I am willing to concede that if there actually is a God, and He endowed humans with a metaphysical soul which other species do not have, then in the soul-bearing category we would be superior to animals. Further, depending on exactly what properties said soul endows upon its possessor, possession of a soul may be a valid justification for classifying people as a separate category from and superior to the rest of the animal kingdom.

I should note that there is no need to look to a metaphysical soul to find ways in which humans are superior to other organisms. Humans are far and away the masters of adapting the environment to suit our needs. While other species change the environment, build dwellings, create tools, even domesticate other species, none of them approach the scale on which humans use and create things for our own benefit. We are also the most intelligent species on the planet (as measured by problem-solving ability), and the only one capable of transmitting truly novel information and abstract concepts.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent work thus far. I'm looking forward to the rest.