Descartes’ Intellectual Descendants?

I would like to preface this post by first saying; I am a scientist. Yes, I realise this seems like a nonsensical statement to make, but hear me out. Scientists of all shapes and sizes are trained in a particular manner, and a particular way of seeing the world. This is not a fault of the discipline; it is simply a means by which to efficiently instruct budding researchers and inquisitive minds. Consequently, however, this instruction method constructs a certain way of perceiving the world, and a set of values that shape this view. As a natural scientist, my worldview is shaped by many pioneering individuals (most of them men, but that is a topic for another time); one of these highly influential men, apart from Charles Darwin, is René Descartes.

Descartes saw the world through a very black and white lens. Animals were lower beings that simply behaved like clocks- non-feeling beings that acted out of a set of pre-programmed responses and bodily functions. Humans were the only sentient beings on the planet, thus justifying our superior cognitive abilities. Now, I am not saying that natural scientists have not evolved from this basic perception of the world, but where Descartes saw the organs of animals as simple pieces of a larger clockwork, we now look at the genome of species and the environmental factors of their species’ range, and dissect behavioural patterns. Natural selection acts on phenotypes (the physical features of a species), thus affecting the genotype (genetics) of that species. This is drilled into our heads, justifiably, from day one of your first undergraduate intro to biology course. While we now know more than our predecessors could have ever imagined about how the world works, the fundamental simplification of animal biology remains.

Now, how does this seemingly meandering rant relate to the course? Here’s my tie-in. We recently had a lecture on the potential of “insight” in spiders. The lecturer began the talk by saying outright, that he did not want to call this “cognition” or “consciousness”, for fear of ridicule from the scientific community. Thus he instead chose to use the word “insight” in an attempt to avoid the suggestion that he’s implying spiders have any independent cognitive abilities. He presented what he called “preliminary evidence” to support the idea that spiders possess problem-solving capacities beyond what is “pre-programmed” by natural selection. My point of contention with this lecture does not lie with his suggestion that lower animals have the ability to independently think, my issue is quite the opposite; why is this still such a sore spot within the scientific community? Why is it so difficult for us to accept that perhaps we are not the only species capable of problem solving, of feeling, of consciousness of the world around us?

Maybe I have a naïve view of the world, in which I think we have moved beyond thinking humans are a superior species, and have developed the maturity to see that we are not so unique. We break the world down into dichotomies so to better understand it, but this leaves us missing out on so much more. Why is our default setting to believe that no other animal could possibly match our cognitive abilities; why don’t we instead believe the opposite, unless proven otherwise? Now, I realise that a good deal of scientific research supports the fact that our neurological abilities are quite advanced, and that other animals have simpler neurological capacities. There is still, however, so much we don’t know, and using ignorance as an excuse for arrogance is not something I feel entirely comfortable with.

And now, for my last point in this extended diatribe; perhaps the reasoning for our narrow worldview lies in its simplicity and its beneficial functionality for human development and research. If we start to think that all species have some form of sentience, how might we continue to destruct the environment in the name of energy or residential development? How might we continue research on disease prevention or agrological innovation, when such research is dependent on the sacrifice of other organisms? I believe that everyone- not just scientists- face these types of moral dilemmas. There is no right answer, and honestly, we need many of these developments for the good of our own species’ survival and basic needs. We can’t simply stop eating and drinking to avoid harming the planet; we are just as fuelled by the will to survive as any other species on Earth. Embracing the idea that other organisms’ might not be so much lower than ourselves poses a moral predicament that threatens our own survival. Maybe we are simply being driven to ignore this idea by our own basic animal biology that we try so hard to distance ourselves from.

Thank you for reading!



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