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...
(The entire section is 390 words.)
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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...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)