Fear & Sentience - An Answer to a Quora Question

Posted on June 26, 2018 by Jeff Bloom


Every once in a while, I get sucked into responding to questions that are posted to Quora. Here is a recent response to the following question:

“What animal would be the most terrifying if it was as sentient as humans?”

I’m always perplexed by questions like this. If you don’t mind, I’d like to unpack two parts of this question a bit.

1. “terrifying”

The idea that something is terrifying has many different meanings that all depend on numerous contexts. Fear is a fundamental emotion that probably extends across most species of animals… and maybe beyond. The neurotransmitters are present in most organisms.

However, the object of fear varies considerably from one person to another and from one social context to another. And, then there is fear that arise out of the deepest and most uncontrollable parts of our being. At the other end of the continuum is a sense of superficial or conceptual fear. I didn’t used to be afraid in an MRI, but I’ve acquired a primal fear over which I have no control, especially when they put the basket-like mask over your head. Conceptually, it doesn’t bother me. I can think all I want about not being afraid, but the minute they put on the mask or slide my head into the MRI, my heart races and everything goes out of control. On the other hand, I can say that I fear for the future of humanity. My heart doesn’t race, when I consider this. It’s more of a conceptual fear… at least at the moment.

And, then fear varies from person to person. I know a number of people who go into an absolute panic when they run into a shark, spider, a snake, or even a dog. But, I have no fear of any of these, even though I’ve bit by sharks (not severely), snakes, and dogs (not spiders, as of yet). And, then I’ve been wary of mountain lions, but not necessarily “afraid” of them, when I’ve been hiking with my dog in the forest where mountain lions were known to hang out. I suppose that’s somewhere closer to the “conceptual fear” end of the continuum.

So, “what is most terrifying” is a subjective statement. What is most terrifying to me is going to be different from that of someone else.

2. “sentient as humans”

Sentience (the ability to perceive and feel things) is a characteristic of all life forms. In the many decades past, when biology was heavily influenced by Behaviorism and the mechanistic worldviews that were passed on by Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, biologists were loath to use “sentience” with non-human animals and especially with other non-animal organisms (at that time, there were only plants and animals, instead of at present where there are also bacteria, archaebacteria, protists, and fungi…. with viruses in nowhere land). But, all organisms are keenly aware of themselves and their environments. This awareness if vital to their individual survival as well as to the survival of their species. In a way, humans may be considered to have the least sentient abilities, since they seem intent on destroying themselves, both individually and as specie.

So, the notion that we are at the top of some hierarchy of greatest is problematic. All currently living species of organisms have undergone the same degree of evolution. Thinking of evolution as some sort of ladder is a problematic view. Seeing evolution as a bush with all current life forms around the outer edges is a better model. In such a model, no one tip of a branch is any better than any other. All organisms have developed to live and survive in their contexts.

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So, for me… the most terrifying (from primal and conceptual perspectives) animal for me is Homo sapiens.


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