Almost all discussions of human nature put us at the top. The Greeks – Plato and Aristotle – did this. The Jews did this. And, for all that they saw us as tainted by original sin, so did the Christians. After all, God was prepared to die on the Cross for our salvation, and he certainly did not do this for warthogs. Then came evolution, with a wholly naturalistic account of human origins. Thanks to Charles Darwin, we now know that Homo sapiens is the end result of a long, slow process of natural selection, brought on by the struggle for existence.
But the central place of humans has continued. Darwin and his contemporaries were convinced that we humans have come out on top, and that view persists to this day. It is true that some, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, have challenged this view, but critics are few and far between, and even Gould was not as strongly against the idea as some of his writings imply.
Can we really be the top dogs, given the Darwinian processes of change – a relativistic natural selection working on random changes, mutations? I review the various proposals for solving this puzzle, and, finding them all wanting, I offer a solution of my own.
NB: My title is a riff on one of the funniest books in the English language, Is Sex Necessary? Or Why You Feel the Way You Do by James Thurber and E. B. White. Even though the connection may be tenuous, the cartoons make it all worthwhile.
MICHAEL RUSE is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He is the author or editor of many books, including The Cambridge Companion to Darwin and Evolution (Cambridge, 2013) and The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet (Chicago, 2013). His next book will be Atheism: Everything One Needs to Know (Oxford, 2014). At moment he is co-writing a book with Robert J. Richards, Debating Darwin: Mechanist or Romantic? Usually in disagreements such as these there is something to be said for both sides; but not in this case.