A Thought Experiment to Determine the Relative Worth of Different Species

Imagine that either all humans died tomorrow or some other nonhuman species died tomorrow. From God’s perspective, what is a more tragic loss? If the nonhuman species is worms or mosquitoes it seems clear that the death of all humans would be a more tragic loss. This gets tricky when you run the thought experiment on higher mammals like dolphins and chimpanzees. But I think that my own intuitions tell me that the loss of humans would be the most tragic. Now, imagine that either all humans died or all nonhuman species died. Ignoring things like ecological stability, what is more tragic?  Again, my intuitions tell me that it will always be more tragic if all humans die.

Why do I think this? Well, I think it has something to do with the loss of cumulative culture. If we stopped tending to our libraries or our computer databases, all that information would eventually crumble into the Earth. The thought of it is just so tragic to me. I think it’s so tragic because of a massive loss of potential. Humans have only been seriously cumulating culture for the last 50,000 years. Philosophy has been around for several thousand years. Modern science has been around for several hundred years. Computers for less than a century. The internet for a few decades. All these cultural changes have resulted in massive changes in human understanding. But where will humans be in the year 3500 CE? or 10,000 CE? Or 1,000,000 CE? If we manage to keep from killing ourselves from nuclear war or being killed by things like massive meteoroids or super volcanoes or climate change, the possibilities for cumulative culture are mind-boggling to think about. And if Steven Pinker is right about the thesis that modern civilization as social control leads to reduced violence, then I have great hope for our species. Sure, it is still a fucked up world by any means. No theodicy has ever convinced me. But at the same time, I see so much potential for our species. The sudden loss of a potential for cumulative culture a million years old leaves me sad. For this reason I greatly support the space program, as I would like to see our species ultimately leave our birth planet and spread throughout the stars, preserving our cultural heritage for as long as we can. That’s a beautiful vision to me.

I imagine that some people might think that the very attempt to “determine the relative worth of different species” is a fool’s errand, because it will only result in humans exercising their human bias. Of course a human would have intuitions that the loss of humanity would be more tragic. If a lion could ask the same question, it would have its own bias. But that’s the thing: only we can ask the question, or ask any question really. But why does this bestow worth? What’s so special about cumulative culture? For one, it’s rarity. We are the only species with a cumulative culture that has been ratcheting up for thousands of years. But also it just strikes me that when the tools of such culture allow for the invention of things like philosophy and science, there is a kind of intrinsic worth to one part of the universe having the ability to self-reflect on the rest of the universe. We are the universe getting to know itself through itself. Maybe this whole thought experiment is hopeless because of these biases. But I like to think that if God existed She would agree with me.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Thought Experiment to Determine the Relative Worth of Different Species

  1. Well yeah, but because it isn’t at all the species that matters. If lions as a species were to be able to understand and answer the question, and if us as mammals were to lose this ability, lions would be the ones to be preserved. I mean that it isn’t the thumb or the vertical position or the will to stroke other members of our species that make us worthy, even if those things are causally linked with our complex and reflexive mind. A reflexive feline, or a truly intelligent and sensitive androïd would be equally worthy of surviving. I am not sure there is an obvious bias here : even though maybe we would not collectively admit it, I think we could rationnally agree that some alien species is superior to ours and more deserving to live. But I think once you have consciousness, culture, mathematics, philosophy, art and fiction, differences of species do not really matter anymore.

    I agree though, that the real problem is to understand what makes the living creature capable of all those complex things worthy.

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