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Here's how I think of the bees vs. humans thing: in both cases there's some "optimization process" going on. There's something that's directing the future into a state that would otherwise be extremely unlikely. And the difference is that with the bees, they're the trigger, but not the process - natural selection is what actually does the optimizing. In humans, we're the trigger and the process.

Kris Shanks

I don't think thinking about the bees as a trigger is a useful metaphor, because the evolution of flowers and their pollinators is a two way street - changes in the flower may facilitate changes in the bees. Similarly it's another bit of evidence of the human bias to see ourselves as separate from evolution when we talk about the "invention" of agriculture rather than our co-evolution with plants. Plants are influencing our evolution as well. For example, in human populations with a long tradition of agriculture there's a common mutation that increases the amount of amylase (the enzyme that degrades starch) in the saliva.


Good post, thank you. You might be interested in reading In Defense Of The Human Species - it's much along these same lines.

The "humans are apart from nature" idea is one that really pisses me off. It's used to justify a great many evils. It's our "right" as rulers of the earth to do such and such. It's not our "right" to harm the planet so we harm humans to prevent it. It's not "natural" so therefore we prevent advances that could save lives, not just human.

That it's not "natural", that it took a conscious, guiding, consequence-seeing hand to create it does not mean it's not "natural", since the ability to create (and destroy) came from the natural evolution of our brains that enable us to do so. Nature can create some pretty horrific things too, including, but not limited to, some humans.

It's not the natural vs. man-made that makes something bad or good. It's the moral or ethical purpose that we humans have the unique ability to comprehend, that make it bad or good. "Nature" is neutral. It is neither bad nor good. And what's "bad" for one may be simultaneously "good" for another.

Tesla discovered/invented our current most popular form of harnessing electrictity - the alternating current. At the time, Edison was adamantly opposed to AC, he favored DC (direct current), and to illustrate how evil this invention was, when Tesla went to unveil his new discovery, Edison used AC to build the first electric chair and fried a man to death.

Yet, today, we use AC for everything, including our efforts to consciously save human lives and even to consciously save "nature". Electricity, even in the form of alternating current, which is a distinctly human invention, is not inherenty bad or good - neither for us humans nor for the planet as a whole. It's the purpose we put to it. And so far, only humans have exhibited the ability to consciously choose a "good" purpose, an altruistic purpose, even at the expense of our own species, let alone our own selves, in favor of someone or something else.

And we do so because we evolved, naturally, to be able to.

Tim Foster

I think you're right that the differences between humans and other animals are quantitative, rather than qualitative. However, there is a remarkable degree of difference:

Humans are orders of magnitude more adaptable than anything else we've ever seen in the animal (or plant) kingdom. Whenever something happens to us, it isn't one troupe that adapts, it doesn't take generations to change, and we have a population far more stable than anything you see in nature.

Humans (uniquely, as far as I know) exhibit an enhanced degree of consciousness: self-consciousness.
If we were monkeys, we might notice that we like tulips better in a sunnier spot, if watered etc. We humans, have developed science through a self-consciousness of the failure of our brains to analyse the data sufficiently, and adapt new reasoning methods for getting around it. And then we articulate exactly why we like the tulips better, and sell the better versions to non-botanists.


While I think you're right about just about everything you said here, I don't see it as a consequence of atheism, except insofar as atheists don't have "I'm a separate creation, most beloved of God" blocking their view of the way the world really is. I have devout Christian friends who, I'm sure, would agree with pretty much everything you've said, especially the bit about responsibility.

"Atheist" simply means "lacking belief in gods". And while "atheist" strongly correlates with "rationalist", "skeptic", etc., there's still a distinction.


I am in agreement with this post. The Botany of Desire is one of my favorite non-fiction books.

I am curious to know if you've read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (and its sequels, My Ishmael and The Story of B) and, if so, what you thought of them. He discusses the theme of what's 'natural' and other cultural phenomena. I found them enlightening and thought provoking.


Part of the problem of progressiveness that people percieve in evolution is the poor classification used. You say that humans are part of the phylum animalia, but why? Phylums and all other linneaen classification above genus level are meaningless arbitrary delimiters with no sense or meaning. Scientists use cladistic phylogenetics nowadays to classify organisms which removes the arbitrariness and allows you to understand evolutionary relationships in a meaningful context. We can only hope that eventually someone outside of science realises and the media stop talking about phylums, orders etc. Maybe then people may see how interconnected and animaly we really are.

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