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Of Human Arrogance and Dennet's Support of it

Maureen England

Maureen England
Professor Grobstein
Biology 223
03 March, 2005

Of Human Arrogance and Dennet's Support of it

A common ideology of certain Evolutionists and Biologists is the belief that the Human species is further developed and superior to all other known living organisms. Daniel Dennet would like to argue, in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, that aside from certain physical or biological attributes, humans are superior to animals. Namely, that by the very existence of a certain for of human language, humans naturally surpass animals. However, just as there is the "human superiority" belief, there is also the belief in the equality of humans and animals. In enlisting ideas such as the effect of language, and in using such as narrow definition of the "intelligent" language, Dennet is opening up his argument for reasonable rebuttal.

Dennet opens up his discussion on language with the statement that the existence of human language is proof of the superior intelligence of humans, "We are not like other animals; our minds set us off from them. [...] but we are without any doubt at all the most intelligent. We are also the only species with language" (Dennet 371)(1) . However, Dennet is operating under a very limited definition of language. While he acknowledges the existence emotional, musical, bodily, political, and odor forms of language, he discounts these forms of communication as "less language" or not as intelligent a form of communication as the use of words in human language. Dennet says, "This admiration for language–real language, the sort only we human beings use—is well founded" (Dennet 371)(1) . Dennet also makes the unfounded leap, with the company of Darwin as support, from the use of language to express complex ideas to the notion that in order to express ideas, or indeed, for these ideas to exist, an organism must already posses the use of language. Presupposing the existence of language, and by language here Dennet is using the narrow definition of human vocabulary, before complex thought and imagination therefore claims that organisms without the human for of language are not capable of complex thought and reasoning. Dennet, in this most controversial "leap of faith" says,

[...] language was the prerequisite for "long trains of thought," and this claim has been differently supported by several recent theorists. [...] These authors suggest, plausibly, that the self-exhortations and reminders made possible by language are actually essential to maintaining the sorts of long-term projects only we human beings engage in. (Dennet 379-380) (1).

Dennet acknowledges, even in the beginning of his language argument, that animals, such as the Chimpanzee, do have a "mind"; the concept of "mind" being apart from the presence of a brain. Dennet sees in the Chimpanzee, "her soulful face, inquisitive eyes, and deft fingers, and we very defiantly get a sense of the mind within" (Dennet 371)(1) . Suddenly though, Dennet rips this compassionate picture from our mind and claims that the chimp is incapable of the "soulful" and "inquisitive" qualities she seems to have simply because Dennet believes that chimps, like all animals other than humans, are inferior due to their lack of the human form of language. Though he quite readily admits that this "leap" is simply a theory, he quickly tries to cover up his omission with an example of behavioral studies proving his point, as if these studies produced established fact. Dennet says, "Could a Chimpanzee do the same thing in her mind's eye? I wonder. [...] Could a Chimpanzee get to perform such a mental act without the help of verbal suggestion? [...] but nobody know the answers—yet" (Dennet 372) (1). Dennet is again presupposing the development and existence of verbal language before the advent of complex thought.

Further, in the topic of language discrimination, Dennet claims, as further "proof" of the superiority of human verbal communication, that animals cannot learn and developed complex thought because they cannot verbally "compare notes" with each other (Dennet 380) (1). Dennet says that while Chimpanzees may seem philosophical on their own, they are limited from progressing as intelligent beings because of the lack of communication of their thoughts. He claims,

[...] they nevertheless lack a crucial feature shared by all human natural psychologists, [...] they never get to compare notes. They never dispute over attributions, and ask to know the grounds for each other's conclusions. No wonder their comprehension is so limited. Ours would be, too, if we had to generate it all our own. (Dennet 380)(1) .

Is Dennet claiming that if humans had no verbal language, that humans too would be "limited" and ignorant? Take when a human cries, and through this emotional language, conveys ideas about state of being to another human, or concepts of happiness, sorrow, or pain, of which the other human was not previously aware; is this communication less worthy of intelligence and knowledge than is the verbal debate between two humans over which soft-drink is better? Animals, as Dennet previously admitted, do have forms of language in which they communicate to each other. These forms may be incomprehensible to us, as a foreign language might also be at first; but are these "languages" any less important than any other? Is the verbal "comparing of notes" of soft-drinks more intelligent or more worthy than a cat whimpering in pain from a broken leg?

Dennet's whole argument is based on prejudice; the assumption that in differences among organisms, one "method" is naturally superior to another. However, the concept of difference or diversity does not naturally denote the concept of "better" and "worse" or "bad versus good", concepts which Dennet uses freely. In his discussion on human morality and sociobiology, Dennet discusses in length, the conflict of treating all human beings equally despite differences in lifestyles, health, and gender. Human society has condemned discrimination coming from differences and yet is still apt to discriminate. "The Grass is always greener" is a common human phrase which states simply that humans always think of the "better" instead of just accepting difference. Perhaps then we cannot blame Dennet for his natural human error of assuming humans are better simply because we are different than animals. Dennet simultaneously wants to impose human concepts of existence on animals of different species to compare species, and admit that animals are completely different than humans; for example the studies of brain function.

Since there is, admittedly, knowledge humans will never have, such as the exact thoughts of animals, and since language can be taken to mean any number of forms of communication, verbal and nonverbal, Dennet has no right to impose a label or "better" to humans. Dennet, even when talking about scientific fields, cannot refrain from the language of value judgment, "There is plenty of good work in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and there is plenty of bad work, as in any field" (Dennet 491) (1). Simply because two living organisms may not understand each other's language completely, there is no valid reason to claim one form of language is superior to another. When a baby cries from hunger, and is fed, and when a pet dog whimpers from hunger, and is fed, both organisms are understood; there is proof of the superiority of the baby's cry to the dog's whimper. Dennet may sleep better at night with his arrogant assumptions about the superiority of humans; he just will never know that the animals may very well be laughing at him.


1) Dennet, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Touchstone, Simon and Schuster Inc. 1996

2)The Oxford English Dictionary Online

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