Although “sentience” is defined as “being able to perceive or feel things”, nowadays the term seems to be used exclusively in the context of comparing humans to animals, or to artificial intelligence applications. There is a desperate effort to prove, once and for all, that humans are the only species, or machine for that matter, who can truly “feel” or “perceive”. Advocates of such a dogma claim that although animals and some machines can also feel and perceive, we are the only ones who do it with conscious intentionality. In other words, non-human entities are sentient either by accident, or display behaviors that “look” sentient, but aren’t. This is human supremacy at its finest, devoid of any supporting proof.
The goal of this of course is to prove that humans belong in a pecking order all on their own. Humans are embarrassed of their natural heritage and association with other life forms on this planet and have always wanted to prove that they are a different class of species altogether, one that is perhaps not ever related to all other life forms, since it is far more superior.
Sentience has always been central to this argument. Not because a more “intelligent” species is necessarily superior, but because advanced intelligence was really the only physical feature that humans could use to support their human supremacy dogma. Other features simply tended to prove the opposite, that we are in fact, quite inferior: we have no hair on our body to protect us from the cold, average eyesight, and inferior sense of smell compared to other animals. Sentience was intentionally “chosen” to support the human supremacy dogma, not because it confers superiority in a species, but because there was little else there to signify that humans were superior. “Sentience” was weaponized by humans to create false narratives about human supremacy, in the same way that skin color was weaponized to create narratives about white supremacy.
Of course, the notion of superiority itself is absurd, and is yet another falsehood that was invented by humans. There are no superior and inferior species on Earth, again because Earth is a cycle, and so is the food chain. All species depend on one another and cannot live without each other, whether they are predators or prey. Furthermore, they are vastly different from each other. Comparing a human to a zebra is comparing apples to oranges. Each one has a completely different role in the ecosystem, there is no superiority/inferiority question.
It is ironic then that the species that by all accounts is “on top” of the ecosystem when it comes to domination and destruction, is the only one preoccupied with the question of superiority, and sentience. If not the most superior or sentient, humans deserve the title of the most insecure of all species. They are the only species who constantly wonders where the hell in the pecking order they belong, because they are also the only species who believes there is such a thing as pecking orders. The other 8 million species of the planet couldn’t care less about where their place is. Not because they are less intelligent, but because they are less insecure. They know there are no pecking orders, and that there is an implied order in the ecosystem that presides above it all, as opposed to one species presiding over the rest. No one is ever “on top” in an interdependent, healthy ecosystem. Again, you cannot compare different fruit. In fact, one can argue that it is the single-celled organisms who are on top. Single-celled organisms are the thermostat of this planet. 3.8 billion years ago they created our oxygen-rich atmosphere and pulled CO2 out of the air as if by magic. Now they are creating the methane bomb that will end humanity and allow Earth to continue. I would say that they are probably at the very top of the pecking order, if such a notion exists.
Humans suffer from perfectionism, which leads to greed, selfishness, jealousy and conflict. Nature is imperfect, yet completely self-sufficient. But it is really deep insecurity that lies at the root of the human supremacy and sentience dogmas. Humans are plagued with insecurity about the future, and about their place in the ecosystem. All other species are more pragmatic, knowing that all that matters is now, and that there is a natural and biological order on the planet that makes any attempts to override it futile. If such a thing as intelligence exists, the ecosystem is really the only brain around, and which follows the laws of physics rather than arbitrary definitions of supremacy. A version of true intelligence that is much less biased and in line with the operating principles of nature then, could be pragmatism: the recognition that everyone and everything on this planet is an important, vital element of the puzzle, however much “sentient” they have been rated out to be by insecure, small-minded humans.
The problem with the concept of “sentience” is that humans have given it an extremely narrow definition, which suits them and only them. All beings on this planet are able to “feel” and “perceive”, but they do so in vastly different ways that are simply different from those of humans. A honeybee is able to memorize the location and flowering time of hundreds of flowers and use these two pieces of data to map out the most efficient flight course, a task that would take a human mathematician days to solve. There are many different types of intelligence, and any attempt to arrange species on a pecking order from most to least intelligent will run again and again into the same issue of comparing apples to oranges. Each species has developed its own type of intelligence, simply because it has a different role in the ecosystem.
Hardcore human supremacists will argue that humans are the most sentient as they are the only ones who are “self-aware”. But is this a type of intelligence, or is self-awareness a form of insecurity and narcissism? Is awareness of our own death a good thing? It certainly has not helped in preventing homicide and war.
Arguably if we were indeed the most “intelligent”, we would also be the most responsible. We wouldn’t be pushing other species to extinction and rather than just being “self-aware”, we would be most aware than any other species of the value of biological life. Our actions prove the opposite, as we are the most destructive species on the planet. Putting ethics aside, our dark legacy on Earth is strong proof that in fact we have little self-awareness as well as awareness as a whole, and we are unable to learn from our mistakes. Surely this is neither “sentient” or “intelligent”.
Any attempt to ever define “sentience” will run into the issue of who is it that is defining it: the humans, the bees, or the dolphins? Each will have their own definition of sentience, and will use its own language to define it, be it words, pheromones or sounds. Even when humans do discover non-human sentience, or even animal languages like the one dolphins speak, they do not consciously try to understand these languages, and simply resort to attempting to translate them into human terminology. Who is to say what is sentient and what isn’t when you are using your own subjective “sentience” to attack this question? The entire debate around sentience has taken place strictly within the narrow boundaries of human definitions and constructs, which undoubtedly bias any scientific exploration.
Even serious studies on the intelligence of other species are often biased, looking at intelligence and sentience through the human supremacy lens. These studies are usually looking to detect signs of intelligence skills that humans use in their environment, rather than immersing themselves in the context that a species lives. They also look for memory and brain processing power, rather than intuition or wisdom, which are forms of intelligence more difficult to measure but more universal. We train monkeys to push buttons for food and put octopuses in mazes to see if they are “intelligent”, as if intelligence is about overcoming obstacles and collecting strategic military information. We continue to mistake brain power for “intelligence” and “sentience”, like the tall kid in the playground who thinks he is stronger than everybody just because he’s got a couple of heads over the other kids. So was the octopus that failed to free themselves from a jar really dumb, or could it be that they have been depressed or suicidal and decided to end it all? Are we really listening into the myriad of languages of this planet, or just trying to find echoes of ourselves in other beings?
There are in fact, many arguments against the sentience of humans. Humans are the only species on Earth capable of systematic, methodical, large-scale culling of their own population, often for purely ideological reasons. Humans have the ability to completely detach themselves from any “feeling” or “perceiving” and commit heinous crimes that challenge the imagination, such as the Holocaust or Nuclear War. It is under debate whether these were actions of “sentience”, or in fact lack of any form of detectable consciousness whatsoever.
If humans were highly sentient, they would “feel” and “sense” the pull of their umbilical connection to every other life form on Earth, which they literally share the same phylogenetic tree with. Humans have an admirable ability in identifying, analysing and recognising all of the things that they are doing wrong, and yet, carry on doing them anyway. Doing “what is right” is always sacrificed at the altar of greed and narcissism. Compassion and empathy are seen as unexpected, unwanted and unaccounted for overhead expenses within our capitalist system. They are “nice to have”, but a threat to the global “economy”. Compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence are not really seen as an “intelligent” brain function in our species. Manipulation and calculation, the side-effects of our tremendous brain power, are far more interesting and rewarding, and fit more closely our popularized definition of what “intelligence” is. In fact, “intelligence” today is a synonym for military terminology that means to collect information against the enemy.
Perhaps a more philosophical question which we will never know the answer to is: are species with large brainpower like us always this narcissistic? Do they always have this much “intelligence” but little actual wisdom? If this is true, then the rise of ultra-intelligent species is a death sentence for any planet. The civilizations that any such species creates eventually disable the very ability of a planet to give rise to civilizations. The human type of “sentience” may not be all that it’s been hyped up to be.
My penultimate argument against human sentience is that, if indeed sentience was such a “prized” asset, and if humans were the only ones who possessed it, then surely humans would be of immense value to the greater ecosystem of the planet? This is not the case, sadly. Humans are the only one out of 8 million species that offer absolutely nothing to this planet. Not only would Earth not miss humans if they went extinct, our absence would bring instant relief similar to the sudden death of a dictator. The impact would be almost immediate. A species that only exists for itself is a lonely species. Humanity is completely alone, having broken its relationship with all other 8 million life forms on this planet.
It took 3.8 billion years for 8 million species to slowly evolve on Earth. It has taken just a few hundred years for just one of those species to usher in a global ecosystem collapse that will be the biggest extinction event of the planet. The ability of a single species to annihilate an entire “world” of ecosystems seamlessly in balance with each other, will forever remain an unfathomably horrifying holocaust which took place in the only life-rich planet we have ever known. It took place in full awareness of an otherwise “sentient” being that committed this crime. Although we are the only species on the planet that has a religion, we are also the only one who qualifies for hell.
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books
2 thoughts on “The Absurdity of Human Sentience”
Quibbling about semantics is a difficult endeavor. Definitions are required for every contentious word, and usually for words in the definition itself. That can be turtles all the way down, or a rabbit hole using another metaphor.
Regarding human superiority, it is our abilities which enable/d us to dominate, subdue, alter genetically, and often ruin other life forms and the habit we share with them. We weren’t the strongest, fastest, most lethally equipped with tooth, claw, venom…but we proved to be clever enough, and used teamwork to become apex predator. Reg Morrison wrote about this, foreword by Lynn Margulis, microbiologist and co-developer of Gaia theory. (review link below)
According to him, superstition and mysticism enhanced teamwork. Religions are the institutions that resulted. It was advantageous for many millennia, but has now become our Achilles Heel. We’ve succeeded too well, and human [believed] exceptionalism will abet our decline.
The Earth will miss the bees if they disappear. The Earth will not miss the humans.