To Scientific American, Re: Human Exceptionalism

Tearing down the wall of human exceptionalism, a set of false conceits that inhibits us from genuinely understanding our place in the world, has always strengthened the pursuit of natural truth. In “The Culture of Chimpanzees,” authors Andrew Whiten and Christophe Boesch seem to contribute toward dispelling this arrogance and making real progress in the science of life. A close reading, though, proves their achievement to be ambiguous.

They freely admit that the chimpanzee is “humankind’s nearest relative” and that their culture is “second in complexity only to human traditions.” However, they also say that the cultural richness of chimpanzees “is far in excess of anything known for any other species of animal.” What a misstatement — humans, of course, are animal.

Later, the authors suggest that the discovery of chimpanzee cultures should not threaten us since, rather than blurring the difference between humans and other species, its low degree of variation simply brings the uniqueness of humanity’s greater variation into sharper focus.

It is both possible and necessary to uphold our own uniqueness while simultaneously tearing down barriers. Only through the lens of human exceptionalism can someone see a threat in non-human culture. Affirming the separation of humanity from other species in more than one way, the authors reveal themselves to be the ones who feel threatened.

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