Are We Unique?

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.