Critics in the combox under her article argue that Prof. Somerville has not adequately proved that human beings are special. That critique, however, is entirely bogus. Human specialness does not need to be proven because it is self-evident. It is a simple fact that human beings differ in important ways from all other animals (not to mention robots), even if there are similarities as well. Take farming for instance. I am not saying that our specialness hinges on farming, but farming serves as one piece of evidence of what a human being is, and how a human being differs from other life. Whereas every other life form has to find read-to-eat food occurring spontaneously in nature, we do not and can instead purposefully modify and control our environment to make the environment produce our food, and then modify the food to make it look and taste good. Granted, some critters engage in farm-like activities (such as ants that “farm” aphids) but the difference between critter farms and human farms is infinite. Not all humans farm, but any human could; farming is a uniquely human activity. Human specialness is self-evident.
Anyone who demands that human specialness be proven ought to try thinking like an animal, since in his view he is no different from an animal. Dogs can tell that humans are different from cats, and not merely different but superior as well. Who ever heard of a dog being a cat’s pet? Who ever heard of a cat training a dog? Who ever heard of a dog domesticating a human or any other animal for that matter? Yet, dogs respond well to domestication by humans. If humans are, in fact, not superior to other animals, what does it mean if other animals who are not inferior to us understand humans to be different from and superior to themselves and other animals?
Also, human specialness is impossible to prove to the satisfaction of everyone. Who can stop someone from saying, “Sorry, that doesn’t prove it to me” or “I reject that argument; human beings are still no different from other animals”? These are people who already reject the evidence of their own existence compared to that of their pets, how on earth will a cogent argument sway them?
I say in response, prove that human ingenuity and accomplishments in science, technology, poetry, and the arts are meaningless differences from other animals and robots. Birds can sing, none has written an opera. Bees build hives, but none has built a pyramid that has survived for millennia. Not all humans can write operas or build pyramids, but only humans can and any human could if he set his mind to it.
Prof. Somerville also mentions many arguments that deny humans specialness. Unfortunately, she doesn’t do anything with them but mention them. One of these arguments goes like this: Human superiority resides in the ability to reason. Some human individuals do not have that ability, so they lack the defining trait of human superiority. These individuals at least are no better than other animals, and other animals would be at least as good as them. Therefore, there should be parity between our treatment of these individuals and other kinds of animals. This line of argumentation of course is a red herring. Individuals lacking in traits proper to their kind are still of that kind. Cars have two headlights. Some have only one because one is broken. But it is still a car. A car may lack wheels, a motor, seats, doors, glass, and be just a rusting piece of junk, but it is a car, a car lacking those things. We can quibble and say it really is just a part of a car or the remains of a car, but not a car—which is a matter of semantics and not ontology. If your kid asked you, “What is that thing?” your answer will likely be, “It’s a car,” and quibble as much as you like over semantics, your answer would not be wrong. It is a car—one lacking in things proper to being a car, yes, but a car nonetheless. A car lacking things a car is supposed to have a) doesn’t make it not to be a car, b) doesn’t render cars in general to be non-cars, and c) doesn’t make other things lacking those traits to be no different from a car. Likewise with the lack of human attributes both high and low in some humans: a) it doesn’t render them non-human or non-special, b) it doesn’t render humans in general to be non-special, and c) it doesn’t render other things lacking those traits to be no different from a human.
The fact is, our specialness cannot be pinpointed to DNA or a single power or ability unique to human beings. Rather, a human being is one thing with several properties, and it is the sum total of what a human being is that makes a human being special in comparison to other animals. The notion that human specialness hinges on one identifiable thing to the exclusion of all other things is simply a false premise.
Now, why is this idea so dangerous? There are three main reasons. First, it denies self-evident truth. Secondly, support for the idea depends on poor logic presented as sound reasoning. Thirdly, people propose the idea not because it has merit in itself, but to justify to themselves and to others courses of action that they want to engage in. No one who supports the idea does so merely because they believe it to be true and want others to know the truth, too. It is not about the metaphysical, concrete reality of human ontology. It is purely about what doors it opens if it were to be seen as true. Truth should be an end, not a means; but the fact is, the truth is irrelevant to those who support the idea. It is its acceptance that is important.
So, in a nutshell: The idea that human beings are not significantly different from and superior to other animals and robots is dangerous because it is a patent falsehood masquerading as truth, supported by deviousness, and intended to manipulate the minds and actions of others. Its plausibility to unsuspecting minds makes it the most dangerous idea in bioethics.