Sunday, May 21, 2006

Are humans the best problem solvers?

Hawks, perhaps only semi-seriously, asks a novel question about a study demonstrating that some apes can make plans about the future:
John Hawks Anthropology Weblog

... Why are these kinds of stories always about 'how smart' apes are instead of 'how dumb' people are? I mean, it would be fairly hard to train people to do this task without talking to them. I think that there would be a good fraction of people who wouldn't get it.
Obviously humans are not the fastest or strongest animal. We assume, however, that we are the "smartest" animals. We can solve "abstract" problems better than any other animal.

Of course that's not universally true. A cognitively impaired human may be much worse at abstract problem solving than many animals. Still, it is presumed to be true of "normal" humans.

But is it really? It seems likely that there are certain abstract problems, particularly those that can be solved without language, that some animals will be better at solving than "normal" humans. It will be interesting to run those experiments.

Which brings us to the inevitable next topic. When I was a undergrad goofing off at Williams college (great school, but relaxing compared to Caltech) I struggled mightily in my Ethics course to come up with an ethical program that didn't start out with the premise that humans had special privileges. Problem is, I couldn't figure out how all humans ended up with more privileges than all animals. (Of course I was also thinking in terms of non-human sentiences.)

No-one has devised an ethical program that gives humans special privileges over animals or non-human sentiences without either a 'God said we're special' or 'pragmatically speaking' fudge. I doubt there is one.

That's going to get increasingly challenging.

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