A different view

His­to­ry is writ­ten by the vic­tors. This applies to what we humans do to each oth­er as well as to our treat­ment of oth­er species. As humans, we see our­selves as the mea­sure of all things. How­ev­er, I think the world is more beau­ti­ful if we broad­en our mind. In an inter­view with NRC, Frans de Waal says that we should stop com­par­ing ani­mals to our­selves: “Am I smarter than an octo­pus because I can talk? I don’t think that is an inter­est­ing ques­tion. The octo­pus can do a lot of things that I can­not do.” Accord­ing to him, it is more inter­est­ing to inves­ti­gate the cog­ni­tion of dif­fer­ent ani­mals as valu­able in itself.

And why should we lim­it this to ani­mals? See for exam­ple this enter­tain­ing TED Talk by Ste­fan Man­cu­so in which he speaks up for the plants. Plants have amaz­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics, which might well fall under the term ‘cog­ni­tion’. They can mea­sure at least 15 dif­fer­ent things, like the pres­ence of min­er­als, soil struc­ture, com­pe­ti­tion from neigh­bors, or wind. The very fact that we are human lim­its us in the study of plants. We can move around freely and there­fore assume that an organ­ism that stays in one place has less abil­i­ties. But plants can stay alive even when they are large­ly eaten.


Whether we call it ‘cog­ni­tion’ or not, every liv­ing being has qual­i­ties that we can admire. Our life is made pos­si­ble by micro­scop­ic bac­te­ria that can sur­vive in extreme con­di­tions. As Bill Bryson puts it: “Bac­te­ria may not build cities or have inter­est­ing social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their plan­et, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.”

Both a lin­ear con­cep­tion of evo­lu­tion and the idea of man as ‘mas­ter of cre­ation’ can lead to the idea that every­thing here on earth is sub­servient to us. Look­ing at the world through the eyes of oth­er life forms (with or with­out eyes), makes us less arro­gant. Ear­li­er I wrote about how Jesus teach­es us that we are called to serve oth­er crea­tures. Sci­ence is also show­ing us that we are not the ulti­mate aim of the evo­lu­tion of life. We are dis­cov­er­ing more and more about oth­er hominids that lived simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with homo sapi­ens. These dis­cov­er­ies unset­tle the famil­iar pic­ture of an ape who slow­ly starts walk­ing upright and becomes a human being. Our his­to­ry has lit­tle linearity.

As humans we have a spe­cial place in nature, but there is no rea­son to look down on oth­er life forms or treat them care­less­ly. A thou­sand year old tree, a beau­ti­ful­ly cam­ou­flaged chameleon, the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of a horse — it evokes respect. If we take a dif­fer­ent view, I hope our choic­es can reflect the inter­ests of oth­ers along­side our own.