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Archive for August, 2013

Automation

Imagine an organism whose conscious mind controls breathing. This organism has to remember to breath in and out many times a minute. If it forgets, it dies. Maybe this species even spends a lot of time thinking about ways to improve breathing – ways to make it a little more automated. If they figure out ways to make it more automated, they view it as a big success. (I realize it is hard to imagine how an organism could have evolved into such a state, but let’s just ignore issues like that for the purpose of this exercise)

We might look down on such an organism: “what a waste! It uses so much of its cognitive calories on breathing!” For humans, of course, breathing is automated. If you’re unconscious, you still breath. If you’re asleep, you still breath. So, because humans have automated breathing, they can spend time thinking about other things.

Humans, who view themselves as the most intelligent species on earth, use their big brains to figure out all kinds of complicated things. It took thousands of years, but humans eventually figured out how to farm. Later, they learned how to protect their crops from invaders, using pesticides.

Some amoebas (Dictyostelium discoideum), leaf cutter ants, and ambrosia beetles, among others (I suspect), also farm. Not only that, but they protect their crops using pesticides (antibiotics). I suspect it’s much more of an automated process for them.

Are humans an inferior species who wastes their caloric resources contemplating ways to farm, when other species have basically automated it?

I’m sure people will object to these comparisons, and point out the many ways that humans really are more clever. I’m sure many of these points are valid. However, I see example after example of major human accomplishments that other living things, even what we see as very simple living things, have done for millions of years.

In his book “Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals,” Steven Wise pointed out:

Whether intentional or not, Aristotle’s own place on the Great Chain of Being Illustrated a syllogism.  It was this:  “Greek males occupy the top rung of the Great Chain of Being; I am a Greek male; therefore I occupy the top rung.”  Over the centuries, it has generalized to this:  “Only groups to which I belong occupy the top rung; I belong to those groups; therefore I occupy the top rung.”  It has remained in constant use in determining who has what rights.  We’ll call it “Aristotle’s Axiom,” and it is an axiom because no one ever, ever, assigns a group to which he or she belongs to any place in hierarchy of rights other than the top.

Aristotle’s Axiom could be view as a bias – a bias that we should be aware of and possibly correct for. I think it makes sense to err on the side of being more cautious than our initial inference suggests when it comes to making proclamations about our own group’s superiority.

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