I would wager that the humans who cohabited this planet with the animals immortalized in the Chauvet Caves did not merely hunt them, roast them and seize their hides. I imagine them observing the animals for long hours and admiring their grace, their speed and their ingenuity. Without a doubt, the humans learned a great deal from them and already then pondered the differences separating them from us.
It surely didn’t take long for mankind to view itself as belonging to a category — of its own, of course — but a category all the same as an achievement of the reasoning mind which animals, in theory, do not possess. Human are rational animals. This is the Aristotelian hypothesis that traversed all of philosophy, coming to a head at Descartes who looking at animals saw nothing more than machines, thus setting them at a distance from us.
It rather quickly and quite rightly became apparent that the rational mind, which allows for technique, knowledge, wisdom, religion and legislation amongst other organizational forms requiring reason, was man’s most significant singular trait. Autopsies from the early days of medicine revealed our larger brain, whilst modern-day CAT scans exhibit a sizeable cortex, home to operations of logic. Such efforts to differentiate have long accompanied the quest to find the “essence” of mankind, to determine what we are beyond our appearance. If there is a specificity of mankind, they should have been able to find its trace in what distinguished humans from animals and, of course, made them superior.
In parallel to this motion for animal disqualification, the beliefs of Nature’s people around the globe continued to erect totems of animals, protectors of our humanity, as though they held all the wisdom of the world. We, in a sense, remain the keepers of this every time we walk into a yoga room with a foam mat rolled-up under our arm. Yoga asanas are inspired by animal postures and it’s like stepping into their beings when we do the crow (not easy!), the cobra, the fish or the downward dog.
Over the years, other attributes than rationality were found as evidence of our difference. We also discovered that animals could learn, organize themselves within a species or sometimes with others, and that such organization evolves under the impulse of circumstance. A glimpse of reason, perhaps, although they’re yet to publish an encyclopedia. Animals are, however, often considered to possess another form of knowledge beyond our reach, exemplified by their foresighted intuition for approaching earthquakes or climate shifts, for example.
It was long believed that man was the only animal, etymologically-speaking the only “animated being,” able to laugh. And laughter being a by-product of reason, rationality is naturally a prerequisite. But we now know that certain animals, dubbed “higher animals” perhaps for this very reason, can laugh wholeheartedly at a fellow being in a ridiculous situation. Of all our prerogatives, this certainly was not where we expected to be challenged…
But thousands of years of efforts to legitimise our difference and superiority have been swept away in a click. A click without regard for the intellectual fervour of philosophers and ethologists of centuries past, right or wrong. A casual and almost indifferent click, not raising even the slightest interrogation on our part, no different than pressing the button on your coffee machine: nowadays, anyone subscribing to a newsletter has to take a mini-test online where you’re shown a series of deliberately awful pictures and asked to select the images with street signs or storefronts in them.
The expectation is for you to reveal that you truly are a person, with morality and a conscience, someone able to commit to something and, if need be, pay for it. These tests usually come right after the mandatory confirmation that you are not a robot, to prove that, indeed, you are not a robot. In passing, in a day and age where the fear of robots is widespread — they’re expected to surpass human intelligence in the near future — I do struggle to comprehend how one of our smart toy-friends could possibly be fooled by a Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, a “captcha,” already degrading enough for the humans we are.
A captcha’s purpose is not to determine the difference between robots and humans, like we attempted to do with animals. It simply asks humans to confirm they are not robots, without any enlightenment whatsoever as to the essence of mankind. And I would like to take this opportunity to award first prize to the website that, as a prelude to my taking their test, displayed these words on the screen:
You there, self-seeker seeking a meaning in life. Confirm your humanity, certify your belonging to the order of human beings. Prove that you belong to a non-computer species, as the nature of computers is so manifest that it can be used as a yardstick to exclude anything that is not one — a human, for instance. Now there’s a stage of philosophy we weren’t expecting, mankind defined by what it is not. Who’s to say we haven’t made progress in efficiency and synthesis ?
If you train a monkey, could it outsmart a captcha?
I do wonder about what’s discussed in today’s philosophy classes.
Aristotle : Politics Book I, Chapter 2
Descartes: Discourse on the Method, Part 5