Are We Unique? (Magill Book Reviews)
Where human beings fit into the scheme of things has always been controversial. The traditional view, usually citing the BIBLE’s Book of Genesis, gives human beings dominion over the earth and its creatures and posits an unbridgeable gap between us and the rest of creation. This has changed in fairly recent years. Some scientists and philosophers wonder if animal intelligence and communication might not indeed approach and even match the basic levels of human thought and language. Elsewhere, the advent of ever more complex computers suggests the tantalizing possibility of artificial intelligence that perhaps surpasses ours.
Debates have been fierce, evidence confusing, and the issues clouded. To author James Trefil’s great credit, he not only introduces calm order into the debate, he provides both specialist and generalist, as well as the common reader, with the information and guidance needed to traverse this difficult field in ARE WE UNIQUE?: A SCIENTIST EXPLORES THE UNPARALLELED INTELLIGENCE OF THE HUMAN MIND.
Trefil’s underlying argument is that human intelligence is indeed unique in the known universe. While animals can communicate—something few, if any, have ever doubted—they simply do not and apparently cannot make use of true language. They exist just beyond some invisible but inviolable barrier that prevents them from thinking or communicating as humans do. As Trefil convincingly explains, the difference between humans and animals is more than of degree; it is one of kind.
So too is there a fundamental difference between us and our machines, including the sophisticated computers which, some have speculated, could duplicate or even replace the human brain. Trefil’s careful analysis of the best available evidence leads him to conclude that, once again, the human brain is unique. The basic difference between the two: “the brain evolved; the computer was designed.”
In the end, Trefil answers the question of his title in the affirmative: we are unique and, as best we can tell, we are likely to remain so. Why this should be the case is carefully and compellingly told in ARE WE UNIQUE?
Sources for Further Study
Australian Personal Computer. XVIII, December, 1997, p. 222.
Boston Globe. April 17, 1997, p. D4.
Choice. XXXV, October, 1997, p. 315.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, January 15, 1997, p. 131.
Library Journal. CXXII, March 15, 1997, p. 86.
New Scientist. CLIV, May 31, 1997, p. 45.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, May 25, 1997, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, February 3, 1997, p. 86.
Are We Unique? (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
For centuries, the “Great Chain of Being” provided a convenient and convincing explanation of the place human beings held in the grand scheme of things: At the apex of the chain was God, perfect, ineffable, supreme lord of the universe; from him descended, in a strictly ordered sequence, the rest of his creation, ranging from glorious angels to insentient lumps of rock. As a special case, human beings were comfortably nestled somewhere close to the top of this celestial hierarchy. When William Shakespeare’s Hamlet declaims, “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!” he is only echoing the words of Psalm 8, which declared that God had made man just “a little lower than the angels.”
This comfortable niche began to erode in the nineteenth century and has been under further pressure from scientific and philosophical developments in more recent times. Three developments in particular have led scientists and philosophers to pose, with increasing emphasis, the question of Trefil’s work: Are human beings unique?
The first development to underscore the question was the Darwinian revolution, which linked human beings less with the angels in heaven and more with our fellow creatures on earth. The seemingly dominant role of human beings on this planet was increasingly seen less as a bestowal of divine favor and more as a perhaps random, perhaps logical result that, either way, resulted from explainable and perhaps inevitable evolutionary mechanics. This process was, admittedly, impressive in its results but hardly an undeniable sign of special status. Human beings had profited from natural selection, but it was far from clear whether natural selection had been instituted solely for our benefit. As the popular author Clarence Day once speculated, there was no compellingly logical reason that a race of intelligent dogs or (Day’s preference) cats could not have evolved to inherit the earth.
The second assault on the special position of human beings came from a reexamination of the role of language. Perhaps we were not alone in our use of language. Perhaps we had misunderstood the nature of language all along. Behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner posited that language was nothing more than “reinforced behavior”: After a series of trials and errors, humans learned to speak through a series of fumbling attempts in which positive uses of language were rewarded and negative uses punished (largely because the infant was ignored). What humans could do, many animals could imitate, and our closer relatives such as the chimpanzee could be taught to speak, if only in American Sign Language (ASL).
Third, the rise of computers gave birth to the specter of the creation of “artificial intelligence” by replicating the very workings of the human brain. Some scientists believed that the mind was the result of an intricate electro-chemical system in which synapses and other organic elements could be replicated by using microchips and transistors. If the system were studied carefully enough, the argument ran, and were reproduced closely enough, then the result would be a machine with the ability to think (and, presumably, to feel) like a human being.
These three arguments seem compelling in isolation and appear irrefutable when linked. However, not one of them survives the examination to which James Trefil subjects them in Are We Unique?
Although Darwinian evolution has clearly demonstrated that human beings are, at least part, animal in nature, it has not broken down the final barrier: that of intelligence as humans understand it. Separating human beings from the rest of animal creation has been a preoccupation of Western philosophy since its earliest stages, and it received its definitive answer in orthodox Christian thought: Human beings have a unique consciousness. They know that they are alive and that they will die, they can imagine, and they can project that understanding toward other creatures. A rigorous series of independent experiments has demonstrated that this is, in fact, the case. In the scientific terms Trefil employs, humans alone can “form the concept of another’s mental state.” In other words, humans can imagine what it is like to be a chimpanzee, but a chimp apparently has no conception of what it is like to be another chimpanzee, much less a human being. To paraphrase Shakespeare,...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)