What Do We Believe?

Before we can go “beyond human,” we must first consider what it is we’re going beyond. Scientific knowledge of animal intelligence, or of any aliens or AIs we may someday encounter, can only be interpreted through the lens of human experience. How should we regard such beings? As inferiors, superiors, or equals? How ought we treat them? What do they imply about our own place in the universe?

The impact of such questions, and the answers we give, depend on our worldview. Different cultures have produced widely divergent worldviews, from those which exalt humans as the masters of creation, to those in which humans are merely one small part of an interconnected whole. In this section, we present four major worldviews that have powerfully shaped modern perspectives on human existence and our relationship with other creatures.

(Note: most images in this exhibit are interactive, and can be clicked to enlarge or reveal further information on the subject matter)

Children of the Earth

"White Buffalo Calf Woman and the Sacred Pipe," © <a href="http://www.marcinequenzer.com/">Marcine Quenzer</a>. White Buffalo Calf Woman is an important culture hero to the Sioux of the North American Great Plains. According to Black Elk (1863-1950), a famous Sioux holy man, all life descends from Father Sky God and Mother Earth God, themselves children or manifestations of a supreme Great Spirit. This Great Spirit sent White Buffalo Calf Woman to the Sioux nation in ancient times. She blessed them with the gift of a sacred "peace pipe" and taught them their religion and government, before transforming into a white buffalo.
“White Buffalo Calf Woman and the Sacred Pipe,” © Marcine Quenzer. White Buffalo Calf Woman is an important culture hero to the Sioux of the North American Great Plains. According to Black Elk (1863-1950), a famous Sioux holy man, all life descends from Father Sky God and Mother Earth God, themselves children or manifestations of a supreme Great Spirit. This Great Spirit sent White Buffalo Calf Woman to the Sioux nation in ancient times. She blessed them with the gift of a sacred “peace pipe” and taught them their religion and government, before transforming into a white buffalo.
"It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are the children of one mother and their father is one Spirit. ... Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother, and are not all living things with feet or wings or roots their children?" (Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks) (Photograph from <a href="http://www.firstpeople.us/">First People</a>)
Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950), Sioux holy man

Indigenous American peoples span a range of two continents, across an enormous variety of natural conditions. Accordingly, there is no such thing as a singular “Native American worldview.” That said, the interconnection of all living things is a theme common to most Native American cultures. Many traditions regard all life as sharing a common origin or spiritual essence. Creation stories often describe a primordial time in which the boundaries between different species were not fixed, and humans, animals, and other beings could transform into one another’s forms. Certain animals are widely revered as important agents in the creation of the world.

"At the salmon ceremony, we come together for two reasons. To bless the fisherman, and to welcome back Haik ciaub yubev ('big important king salmon' in the Lushootseed language). He comes to scout for the other salmon. We go down to greet him and treat him with respect, because he's going to provide for us all through the year. He will return to the salmon people and report to them how well we treated him, how well he was received. We'll take his remains, and we return him to the water and send him on his way." (Glen Gobin, Tulalip tribe member - Photo courtesy of The Marysville Globe)
At the annual First Salmon Ceremony, Tulalip Tribes members thank the fish they harvest for food

As humans are considered part of the natural world, most Native cultures teach the importance of respect for our fellow creatures. In general, it is seen as better to adapt one’s own lifestyle to the conditions of one’s environment than to modify the environment to suit oneself. Native Americans have historically relied on hunting animals for food. However, many cultures also teach values like killing as few animals as necessary, using every part of each animal, and thanking and repaying them through rituals of gratitude.

"The personhood of animals, their self-determination and our regret at their death, all show that choosing not to ask for their sacrifice is a legitimate Mi'kmaq option. ... With the adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet our meal preparation and consumption can become infused with transcendent significance, as we recall our connection with other animals, our shared connection to the creator and prefigure a time when we can live in harmony with the animals, as Kluskap [the first man in Mi'kmaq mythology] did before the invention of hunting." (Dr. Margaret Robinson - photo courtesy Margaret Robinson)
Dr. Margaret Robinson, Mi’kmaq ecofeminist author and vegan

Such principles have not always been strictly followed. Archaeology reveals evidence of massive bison kills in which most of the meat went to waste, and many Native cultures have practiced destructive “slash and burn” agriculture. After centuries of European conquest, most Native people today depend on Western industrial agriculture for the majority of their food.

However, many tribes now offer programs to reteach traditional methods of hunting and gathering, and have revived traditional rituals to honor animals killed for food. Some Native thinkers promote vegetarian or vegan diets instead, arguing that given the modern option of a plant-based diet, it is more respectful not to kill animals at all than to do so unnecessarily. This has prompted heated debate within the Native community. Hunting and fishing are widely regarded as important cultural practices, and have historically been restricted by non-Native governments as a form of discrimination.

Native American worldviews teach that all life is important and connected. Humans may use other creatures for our needs, but should always treat them with care and respect.

The Wheel of Becoming

Tibetan Buddhist bhavacakra, unknown artist (Source: <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bhavachakra.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>). This Tibetan portrayal of the bhavacakra, or “Wheel of Becoming,” illustrates the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. Buddhism recognizes six classes of sentient being in the universe. As portrayed in the Wheel above, they are: devas, or gods (top); asuras, or fallen gods (upper left); humans (upper right); animals (lower left); pretas, or hungry ghosts (lower right); and the damned souls of Hell (bottom). The monster clutching the wheel is Yama, the Lord of Death, who represents the endless cycle of life and death in which all beings are trapped. The Buddha appears in the upper right, pointing to the full moon, which signifies that it is possible to escape the cycle by attaining enlightenment.
Tibetan Buddhist bhavacakra, unknown artist (Source: Wikimedia Commons). This Tibetan portrayal of the bhavacakra, or “Wheel of Becoming,” illustrates the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. Buddhism recognizes six classes of sentient being in the universe. As portrayed in the Wheel above, they are: devas, or gods (top); asuras, or fallen gods (upper left); humans (upper right); animals (lower left); pretas, or hungry ghosts (lower right); and the damned souls of Hell (bottom). The monster clutching the wheel is Yama, the Lord of Death, who represents the endless cycle of life and death in which all beings are trapped. The Buddha appears in the upper right, pointing to the full moon, which signifies that it is possible to escape the cycle by attaining enlightenment.

The Dharmic religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, share a common origin and many core concepts. All three believe that humans, animals, and other creatures are part of a common process of life, death, and rebirth. This process is driven by karma, the spiritual fruits of one’s actions, which decide whether one is born in a higher or lower form in the next life.

Ogyen Trinely Dorje, the 17th Karmapa Lama and one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most influential teachers, encourages his followers to eat a vegetarian diet. Different schools of Buddhism disagree over whether or not the Buddha ate meat or allowed his followers to do so. The Karmapa Lama strikes a middle ground, arguing that while some scriptures do allow meat eating, they also forbid killing an animal oneself or eating meat killed on one’s behalf. It is therefore safest to avoid it altogether. “We have to see every being as our own son or our own child,” he says, “and therefore when we eat meat... just for our food we are giving up the sentient beings who are supposed to be dear to us, like our own child." (Photo credit: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/drona/4094076305/">Vasudev Bhandarkar</a>, used under <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">CC BY 2.0</a> / cropped from original)
Ogyen Trinely Dorje, the current Karmapa Lama, an influential Buddhist leader

Some lives may be very long and pleasant, but all are ultimately temporary. Not even gods are truly immortal, although their lives may last countless trillions of years. With death comes the risk of a lower, more painful rebirth. For this reason, all Dharmic religions promote escape from rebirth, or enlightenment, as their highest spiritual goal.

"From the earliest literature of the Hindus, the concept of ahimsa – non-violence in thought and deed – has been the goal of an evolved and superior person. ... Killing animals and eating meat were considered to be such heinous sins that neither prayer nor pilgrimage nor bathing in holy rivers could absolve the killer. … Sacrifice is mentioned in certain works. The catholicism of Hinduism resulted in the absorption of different deities and primitive local religions, along with their rituals. Thus many village gods and goddesses of India, who do not belong to the Vedic pantheon, joined the extended Hindu family of gods, bringing with them primitive forms of worship, such as animal sacrifice. But these were abhorred. Adi Shankara, in the seventh-eighth centuries CE... stopped animal sacrifice wherever he travelled, converting primitive deities to the pure ancient religion of the Vedas and Upanishads [the founding texts of Hinduism]." (Dr. Nanditha Krishna, e-mail correspondence – photo courtesy Nanditha Krishna)
Dr. Nanditha Krishna, scholar of Hinduism

Humans, as the most intelligent animal, have the greatest capacity to seek enlightenment. In this sense, we are spiritually superior to other earthly creatures. However, to the extent that all forms of life are part of the same cycle of rebirth, all are equal in spiritual importance and potential.

For this reason, the Dharmic religions promote compassion for all life. However, they vary in how strictly they apply this teaching. At one end of the spectrum, some Hindus practice animal sacrifice, in the belief that pleasing their gods will outweigh any bad karma from killing animals. On the other, Jainism, Buddhism, and many schools of Hinduism forbid animal sacrifice, and often encourage or require a vegetarian diet.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism teach that all sentient beings are part of the same cycle of rebirth. Humans should treat other life forms with compassion.

The Great Chain of Being

The Great Chain of Being, as illustrated by Didacus Valades, <i>Rhetorica Christiana</i> (1579) (source: <a href="http://www.jasonbengtson.com/earlymodern/index.html#">Early Modern Word and Image</a>) In this scheme, minerals and other inanimate objects rank lowest in the natural order. Plants sit slightly higher due to their capacity for growth. Animals can move, sense and respond to the world around them, granting them a higher status on the Chain. Yet humans are the only natural creatures with the capacity for reason or a soul, allowing us to achieve salvation in Heaven. Angels, which lack material bodies and so cannot commit physical sins, stand above humans. God, the creator of the universe, presides at the top of the Chain outside of time and space.
The Great Chain of Being, as illustrated by Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana (1579) (source: Early Modern Word and Image) In this scheme, minerals and other inanimate objects rank lowest in the natural order. Plants sit slightly higher due to their capacity for growth. Animals can move, sense and respond to the world around them, granting them a higher status on the Chain. Yet humans are the only natural creatures with the capacity for reason or a soul, allowing us to achieve salvation in Heaven. Angels, which lack material bodies and so cannot commit physical sins, stand above humans. God, the creator of the universe, presides at the top of the Chain outside of time and space.
"Every other creature is naturally under slavery; the intellectual nature alone is free. ...by divine providence they are intended for man's use in the natural order. Hence it is no wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing or in any other way whatever. ... And if any passages of Holy Writ seem to forbid us to be cruel to dumb animals… this is either to remove man's thoughts from being cruel to other men, and lest through being cruel to animals one become cruel to human beings: or because injury to an animal leads to the temporal hurt of man... or on account of some signification: thus the Apostle expounds the prohibition against muzzling the ox that treadeth the corn." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, Part II, Chapter CXII - image: "Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas," by Andrea di Bonaiuto (1366), from <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andrea_di_Bonaiuto._Santa_Maria_Novella_1366-7_fresco_0001.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) taught human dominion over other animals

The Great Chain of Being, as conceived by medieval Christian theologians, typifies the strongly hierarchical view of Western cultures. It draws from two primary sources. One is the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Aristotle taught that of all living creatures, only humans possessed a rational soul, allowing us to think and reflect. The other source is the Bible. In the book of Genesis, God creates humans in His own image, granting us “dominion” over all other living beings.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 CE), shown preaching to the birds in this 18th century illustration, disagreed with the concept of the Great Chain of Being. He taught the value of compassion for all living creatures, teaching that “not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission - to be of service to them wherever they require it." In modern times, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) declared that animals do in fact go to Heaven after they die, and the current Pope Francis has spoken of the "bringing of all things into the fullness of being" in the End Times. (Image source: <a href="http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2013/03/pope-2013-the-importance-of-being-francis/">Financial Times</a>)
St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 CE), a famous dissenter to the Great Chain of Being

Medieval theology brought the Bible and teachings of Aristotle together into a single worldview. The Great Chain of Being affirms humans’ absolute superiority over other animals, and right to use animals for our own needs and wants. However, it does not necessarily permit deliberate cruelty, and some medieval Christians, including St. Francis, broke with the Chain in their own views of other creatures.

"Although there are many animals which exhibit more dexterity than we do in some of their actions, we at the same time observe that they do not manifest any dexterity at all in many others. Hence the fact that they do better than we do, does not prove that they are endowed with mind, for in this case they would have more reason than any of us, and would surpass us in all other things. It rather shows that they have no reason at all, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights is able to tell the hours and measure the time more correctly than we can do with all our wisdom. ...Next to the error of those who deny God... there is none which is more effectual in leading feeble spirits from the straight path of virtue, than to imagine that the soul of the brute is of the same nature as our own..." (Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method - image: “Portrait of Rene Descartes” by Frans Hals (1582/3-1666), from Wikimedia Commons)
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) drew on the Great Chain of Being in his views on animals

The Great Chain of Being was influential for early modern scientists, including René Descartes (1596-1650). Like theologians before him, Descartes held that humans alone were capable of reason. Animals were merely natural automata, machines operating by purely physical principles, devoid of a mind or soul. He promoted vivisection, the dissection of live animals, arguing that they did not suffer, merely react mechanically to injury.

As centuries passed, science gradually broke with theology in nearly all respects. But through Descartes, the Great Chain of Being continued to inform scientific views on animals well into the 20th century.

The Great Chain of Being portrays humans as unique and superior to other living things. Animals’ lives do not matter, and humans may use them freely however we desire.

The Tree of Life

Phylogenetic tree of life, as developed by biologist Dr. David Hillis in 2006 using genetic data from well-known species. The evolutionary tree of life illustrates the genetic relationships between different forms of life. Its circular shape puts all living beings on an equal footing, since all are equally “evolved” to the extent that they’ve adapted to survive in their native environment. No one species is intrinsically “superior” to any other. Note that all animals on Earth together occupy less than one half of the pink section in the upper left, with Homo sapiens appearing at the far right of this section next to the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, one of our closest relatives. (Image source: <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_of_life_SVG.svg">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
Phylogenetic tree of life, as developed by biologist Dr. David Hillis in 2006 using genetic data from well-known species. The evolutionary tree of life illustrates the genetic relationships between different forms of life. Its circular shape puts all living beings on an equal footing, since all are equally “evolved” to the extent that they’ve adapted to survive in their native environment. No one species is intrinsically “superior” to any other. Note that all animals on Earth together occupy less than one half of the pink section in the upper left, with Homo sapiens appearing at the far right of this section next to the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, one of our closest relatives. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
"Since humans receive the purest material force of Heaven and Earth from birth, they surpass all other things and their mind-and-heart shines forth clearly... Thus humans have Heaven as their father and Earth as their mother and receive their great kindness. Because of this, always to serve Heaven and Earth is the Human Way. ... Heaven and Earth are the heart of living things. Humans receive this heart and it becomes their own. This is humaneness. ... Nourishing life belongs to Heaven and humaneness belongs to humans. ... Even birds and animals, grasses and trees, are all made by nature - if we damage them recklessly, we should realize that it is a lack of filiality towards nature." (Kaibara Ekken - statue in Fukuoka City, Japan, photographed by <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kaibara_Ekiken_monument.jpg">Wolfgang Michel</a>, used under <a href="http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en">CC0 1.0</a>)
Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714), a Japanese Confucian scholar, linked humans’ common ancestry with other creatures to a moral duty to care for them

Versions of evolutionary theory, the idea that humans and other beings share a common natural origin, have arisen in various cultures through history. In his Book of Animals, the Arabic scholar Abu Uthman al-Jahiz (776-868/9) proposed a theory much like Darwinian natural selection. In East Asia, Confucian thinkers described the natural emergence of all life from matter and energy. In the West, early modern biologists such as Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) classified humans as part of the animal kingdom, and theorized that we evolved from other species.

"The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals." (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, chapter 4 – image credit: "Charles Darwin II," © 2013 Joanna Barnum, <a href="http://jbarnum.etsy.com">Joanna Barnum Illustration</a>)
“Charles Darwin II,” © 2013 Joanna Barnum, Joanna Barnum Illustration. Darwin believed humans and animals share more than just a common ancestry.

The most revolutionary figure, however, is of course Charles Darwin (1809-1882). His theory of evolution by natural selection holds that organisms naturally vary in body and behavior. Those with traits beneficial in a given environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, passing their traits on to their offspring. Over time, this leads to the appearance of new species.

Evidence from paleontology and genetic research has confirmed Darwin’s theory many times over. Evolution by natural selection is now universally accepted by scientists as the correct explanation for the diversity of life on Earth.

Ernst Haeckel's heirarchical portrayal of the Tree of Life, from his book The Evolution of Man (1879) (Image source: <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_of_life_by_Haeckel.jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>)
Early version of the Tree of Life, still following the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being

Darwin’s theory challenged the Great Chain of Being in two important ways. First, if all organisms evolved naturally, then humans are not inherently superior to other living things, which are equally well adapted to their own conditions. Second, if humans descended from other animals, then all of our abilities – mental and emotional as well as physical – should be found to some degree in other species as well.

Nonetheless, even as scientists came to accept Darwinian evolution, many still followed Descartes’ view that humans were unique and superior to other creatures. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that scientists in general began to seriously consider that humans might share more with other species than just a distant common ancestor.

By the theory of evolution, all life on Earth shares a common origin. Humans are neither unique nor superior, for all creatures are equally evolved.

See References

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ETs and AIs: Do They Exist?

 

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