Humankind: I am special. Science: No you’re not.

Which discoveries will come after human exceptionalism next?

Vincent Vanhoucke
7 min readJul 27, 2022
A tiny person at the foot of a giant tree. The tree’s fruits are science lab equipment
“A tiny person at the foot of a giant tree. The tree’s fruits are science lab equipment”- Imagen

Science seems forever bent on crushing our collective ego. The long, winding road going from mankind picturing itself as the central character at the heart of a purpose-built Universe, all the way to today’s understanding that we’re but a clump of stardust in a cold, anonymous corner of an indifferent Universe has arguably been nothing short of brutal. There is little about the scientific process itself that made this a necessity: science could just as well have confirmed humanity’s central role in the world, our unique and elevated status, our immortality. But no. Relentlessly, every time the horizon of our knowledge receded, science found new ways to reaffirm our insignificance.

It is actually entertaining to enumerate the myriad of ways in which the history of science can be read as a series of put-downs. Space, as we understand it, has only been expanding while shrinking us in the process. From the early days of humanity, people observed a visible world that seemed to exist at their own scale, and which centered around human activity. We went on to understand it to be part of a larger and larger world in which we were gradually less and less central: a continent, a planet. A lump of rock not at the sky’s center. A planet which was a mere minuscule companion to a star, which in turn was one of billions in a galaxy. A galaxy which was subsequently also understood to be one of a multitude. Over time, we even confirmed that this planet of ours isn’t alone, and this star of ours doesn’t have the exclusivity of having planets. Eerily, we now also understand that every point of the Universe appears to be its center merely due to the Universe’s uniform expansion, as if the laws of the Universe were bent on giving us false hopes of our own centrality in its design.

What happened to our expanding sense of space was mirrored in our sense of time: from a recorded history measured in generations, we went on to understand that our planet was vastly older, and that we weren’t even the first species to have dominion over it. Even this planet is a recent newcomer in a much older Universe, and is likely to last not much longer at cosmological scales. Our own hopes at eternity also went from fact to myth as the biological underpinnings of our own selves became better understood — spirits, souls and ghosts remaining exceedingly shy under scientific examination. Our agency over luck, chance events, natural disasters or the future at large, all swept away by naturalistic explanations of the world.

What distinguishes us from other lifeforms has also been repeatedly challenged, with our own place in the tree of life better understood as one branch of many, our existence as the human species but a moment in time in the grand tapestry of evolution. All creation myths shattered by historical evidence, and all notions of humans as a perfect grand design contradicted by the kludginess of our own biology. Our bodies mostly made of carbon or water or bacteria, depending on how you look at it. The stuff we’re made of being just ordinary ‘stuff,’ made of the same atoms as everything else. No intrinsic sanctity, nobility, no ‘betters,’ however every culture chose to define them. Social notions of specialness: birth rights, casts, racial or sexual hierarchies having all in one form of another been disavowed by biological evidence and social progress. All of us basically the same meatbags.

The why of our own existence has also been repeatedly attacked: a mechanistic accident of evolution; a conspiracy of unlikely events, which we only happen to see in focus because of the selective lens of the Anthropic principle. Genetics telling us that we’re not even the main character of our own story, but merely a complicated shell that our genes have created to ensure their own survival. Our own cultures and religions, arising not out of their truth or superiority, but as endemic viruses hitching a ride on our minds by stoking our hopes and fears, blindly guided by the demands of their own survival.

Every new discovery seems to reinforce how little we understand the world around us. Theories increasingly suggest that there are things we will never know: a world that came into existence from a spark that we can’t see past, and a universe that we will fundamentally only ever be able to observe or interact with from within our puny light cone. A universe that may be one of many, governed by a grand edifice of mathematics that will forever stand incomplete for inescapable reasons.

Limits to our senses and cognition are becoming more apparent by the day as artificial substitutes improve. Technology is showing us how narrow our sensory apparatus is, how limited our mechanical strength and computational capabilities are. Artificial intelligence increasingly showing us how even our aptitudes at art, creativity or games can be challenged by mere machines.

While to most people the vast acceleration of the scope of our understanding is a testament to the unique prowess of the human mind, it is no surprise that anti-science sentiment can also arise from this constant assault on human exceptionalism. If you do not value or relate to the wonders of science or the benefits of technological progress, then all that is left is science’s relentless relegation of your own existence to yet another level of insignificance. This anthropic despair can be a very potent force: for every person marveling at the smallness of this pale blue dot we live on, there is someone else whose need for meaning and status is denied by looking at the world under the unforgiving light of scientific scrutiny. It is easy to imagine how this can lead people to either seek this lost status elsewhere, through religious or social affirmation, or to deny the validity of the scientific method altogether.

Every child growing up has to go through the same process of discovering, often the hard way, that they are less and less the center of their little universe as the months and years go by, as they are exposed to an environment that progressively cares less and less about them individually. This is what the history of science feels like at a global, multigenerational scale, and it is no surprise it could push us into a collective existential tantrum once in a while. When I see the sparkle in the eye of a cosmologist extolling the vastness of space, or an evolutionary biologist marveling at humanity’s small genetic distance to this or that fungus, I often wonder how many people listening to them feel their dignity under assault. To be clear, I am not arguing that scientific truth should not be told to avoid bruising people’s fragile egos, but I do ask myself how we can communicate in a way that is both authentic and not perceived as an existential threat.

There is one step further one can take this line of reasoning, and this is where it gets really interesting. If you hypothesize that the relentless ego-crushing nature of scientific progress is a universal law of sorts, and that the Universe isn’t done with us yet, then which new and devious ways will scientific progress find to bring us further down?

I have a few guesses as to where the proverbial shoe may drop next. In no particular order:

  1. Consciousness is discovered to merely be a form of post-rationalization. Free will, last bastion of our identity, is proven to be an illusion. We are all delusional automata.
  2. Sentience takes a bow when AI reaches human-level intelligent behavior without requiring any independent thought or agency. An AI model manages to unequivocally pass the Turing test without ever requiring any internal state or a sense of ‘self.’
  3. Our core skills get further challenged by technology, as we break through Moravec’s Paradox and build artificial agents that are intelligent, versatile and skillful at all the things humans are still best at today. This is hardly a new trend, but the pockets of skills where humans are still unchallenged are becoming smaller by the day.
  4. Our uniqueness takes a large hit: we discover alien species that are equally advanced, or widely different enough to challenge our unique place in the Universe. So much of our own identity has been about defining who ‘the other’ is: the other country, the other race, the other sports team. Finding a more distant ‘other,’ preferably out of reach, may be the one step we need to finally bring humanity together and forge our collective identity.
  5. Our destiny as a species is challenged: in spite of many setbacks and detours, the history of humankind has arguably been one of progress, almost to the point of defining us: we are the only species in constant social and technological improvement. But it is not a foregone conclusion that this will remain our trajectory. Our fragility is more and more apparent as we observe the impact we’re having on our environment, and how difficult it will be to reach long-term sustainability. Or perhaps a giant asteroid is really headed our way and humankind’s grand adventure ends tomorrow in a puff.

Giant asteroid excepted, I have ambivalent feelings about anticipating vs. dreading any such development. I personally find my own smallness and insignificance liberating, an opportunity to define what my own purpose and impact on the world can be, unburdened by any preconceived notion that anything I do actually matters at any cosmic scale. It gives more value to what I do in the present, and how it affects the people around me. As a value system, humanism does not need a grander purpose for its principles to stand on their own. But as a participant in this ever expanding edifice of scientific and technological progress, I always try to remind myself that yearning for meaning and a grander purpose is a natural human impulse — one of such power as to drive entire belief systems and civilizations. We, as scientists and researchers, should not ignore this existential dread, and keep finding ways for our expanding knowledge to also expand and enhance human dignity.



Vincent Vanhoucke

I am a Distinguished Scientist at Google, working on Machine Learning and Robotics.