Articles

Some articles on the Anthropocene

Hypersensitivity, giftedness, HIP, HEP, zebra... and Anthropocene - What's the connection?

Henri Cuny - 25/09/2023

The Anthropocene or the time of hyper-egocentrism

After some rather factual and consensual articles on the definition and timeline of the Anthropocene, here is a probably more polemical text on the modern concepts of hypersensitivity, giftedness, high intellectual potential (HIP), high emotionnal potential (HEP), "zebra" and other superlatives. But what does this has to do with the Anthropocene, could you ask me? Here, I am going to try to answer to this thorny question ...

Some successful modern concepts

Almost all of us know some people – perhaps you are even one of these people – who claim for themselves or someone around them the status of hypersensitive, gifted, HIP, HEP or even “zebra”. And for good reason! At a time when supply and demand for psychological consultations are exploding (in 10 years, the number of psychologists has increased 8-fold in France [1]!), more and more people are being assigned one or several of these recent concepts from psychology. You will also find plenty of articles and tests online that will suggest to you that you may be high potential or hyper-something, and that this specificity may be contributing to your suffering and difficulties.

Let's clarify things right away: it is in no way my intention to deny the existence of people truly characterized by "extreme" traits (in the sense of particularly far from "normality", if indeed the latter exists, as we will see below) regarding some aspects of their psychology or physiology, and that these particularities can be a source of suffering and difficulties. What I want to do is to explain why the modern craze for the terms HIP, HEP and other superlatives reveals something unhealthy in our relationship with the world, to denounce the limits of these concepts as well as their divisive and mercantile aspect.

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"

The commercial aim, first of all, seems obvious. If a psychologist started telling his patients that they are under-talented, insensitive or have low intellectual potential, it is likely that his clientele would quickly be reduced to nothing! To satisfy and retain customers, one must give them what they ask for and tell them what they want to hear.

The criteria for being qualified as a person with “high potential”, or “hyper-something” are therefore loose. There are really only two reasons why you or your child may not be:

  • You really are shockingly normal on all levels, but I don't think that's possible, because what we call personality is so complex that there are probably aspects in which you are "extreme", i.e. with high potential or hyper-;

  • Much more likely, you have not given in to the sirens urging you to make a diagnosis.

Some limited and simplistic concepts

In addition to the commercial side, a major limitation of these concepts is that they are based on narrow-minded and fixed definitions of intelligence, sensitivity and emotionality, even though these properties are protean. For example, the assessment of “high intellectual potential” is largely based on the IQ test, which only assesses intelligence superficially and partially. When we attribute “high intellectual potential” to someone, we imply that this person generally has “higher” intelligence than that of others, when it is “only” his intelligence as measured by the IQ test which is particularly high.

This limited vision of intelligence is found in our society, in which certain forms of intelligence (rational intelligence in particular) and talent (arts – some speak of "esthete intelligence" for the ability to express oneself artistically [2 ] -, sport…) are brought to the pinnacle, while others are largely stifled when they are not denigrated: let us cite for example the capacity to interact with other living beings (humans as well as non-humans; capacity which joins the so-called emotional intelligence [3]), craftsmanship or more generally all manual activities, which often require great dexterity and an intelligence that can be described as pragmatic [2].

The recognition of these multiple forms of intelligence remains extremely simplistic: the boundaries between the different categories are obviously porous (being gifted with great rational intelligence does not exclude being gifted with great emotional, esthete or pragmatic intelligence) and we remain in all cases with very human-centered conceptions of intelligence.

Some dividing concepts

Generally speaking, intelligence is very hard to quantify. For a long time, the common conception (at least in the West) was that human was the most intelligent living being, even the only living being endowed with intelligence, which greatly contributed to anthropocentrism (philosophy which places humans at the center of all things) and human-nature dualism.

This conception, which can be described as both biblical and Cartesian as it is shared both by the great monotheisms and by René Descartes and his supporters, claims that human is a separate animal, sensitive and intelligent, while others Living beings can be compared to automatons devoid of any idiosyncrasy, simple resources placed at our disposal.

We now know that if humans have great intelligence, particularly rational intelligence, other living beings demonstrate clear signs of intelligence, and even in certain aspects cognitive capacities "superior" to those of humans [4].

Moreover, if we consider that intelligence consists of providing appropriate responses to changing conditions, it seems quite obvious that all forms of life are necessarily endowed with intelligence: our universe being in permanent mutation, a form of life unable of adapting to change would have no chance of sustainability. In other words, intelligence is an inherent property of life. Obsessed with our conceptions and our (real) intellectual prowess, we simply tend not to perceive and understand the intelligence of other living beings [4].

While we now deign to recognize intelligence, sensitivity and even emotionality in other animals [4] and even in plants [5], it seems to me that the proliferation of concepts of high potential, hyper- and other superlatives is going against the grain, by seeking to distinguish “higher” intelligences, sensitivities or emotionalities within the human group itself. These concepts thus tend to bring division, where science rather shows a continuity of intelligence, emotionality or sensitivity, which can however take extremely diverse forms (and note that the term "diverse " does not in any way mean "superior" or "inferior"), between species, but also within a species like ours.

Individualism and egocentrism at their peak

Over the last decades, biology has demonstrated that all living beings are endowed with intelligence and sensitivity, but also that they are united by kinship ties and interdependence relationships (mutualism, commensalism or more generally cooperation, which is a fundamental interaction structuring life [6]). Clearly, there is a principle of continuity and unity of life: living beings are all linked to each other, through filiation and multiple interactions.

Going against this scientific reality, the “dominant” contemporary civilization (which can be described as Western because it is largely defended and promoted by the West, but in which I of course include countries like China or Russia), developed with absolutely no consideration for “nature” (i.e. other living beings and all the conditions necessary for existence), seen as a constraint on development or a mass of resources to exploit.

This model of development is legitimized by concepts such as Anthropocentrism, which claims that human, the only sentient and intelligent living being, is the supreme source of authority, which gives sense to the world and to which the elements are submitted. In the same way, humanism, which basically aimed at the elevation of each person through knowledge and responsibility, has become a sort of religion of the human individual, which places the person and his development above all other values. By placing human at the center of the world and emphasizing the infinite value and uniqueness of each human individual, anthropocentrism and humanism break with the principles of unity and continuity of life.

The qualifiers "high potential", or "hyper-" are fully in line with this tendency to emphasize the uniqueness and preciousness of each human being, and are thus very revealing of a progressive drift towards egocentrism and individualism. The recent concept of "zebra" surely constitutes a pinnacle of this movement. The term is used to describe “gifted” people, with “high potential” and “exacerbated” sensitivity; it underlines the uniqueness of these people, by referring to the zebra’s dress which is specific to each individual. In short, the implicit idea is that the “zebras” are unique and magnificent individuals, who stand out from the mass of “nags”.

Let us seek unity and continuity rather than uniqueness and division

Yes, every human is unique. This in no way differentiates us from the other living beings who populate this planet with us. It is a biological law that reproduction leads to the differentiation of individuals, which increases the ability of life to evolve and adapt to changing conditions. But the uniqueness of each being only appears as a very secondary biological property with regard to the principles of continuity and unity previously mentioned.

At the genetic level, all humans have on average 99.9% of their DNA in common [7]! Just as humans and chimpanzees have almost 99% of their DNA in common [8]. At the biological level, the similarities in functioning are huge: humans such as fruit flies, snakes, wild boars or giant sequoias breathe air, ingest nutrients, emit waste, reproduce, die, etc. All living beings must adapt to changing environmental conditions and to do so demonstrate great sensitivity (to detect variations in conditions) and intelligence (to respond to them in a timely manner). To make peace with others, with nature, we would surely do better to highlight what unites us rather than focusing on our small individual particularities.

Phylogenetic tree of primates; our species Homo sapiens is just one leaf of the tree among others
Phylogenetic tree of primates; our species Homo sapiens is just one leaf of the tree among others

Part of the phylogenetic tree of life relating to primates, the order of mammals to which our species Homo sapiens belongs. Primates only constitute a tiny part of the tree of life (the entire tree, available via the link given below, represents more than 2 million species, including 369 species of primates). All life forms on Earth are related and result from the same process, lasting several billion years. Are we fully aware of this unity and continuity of life? Link to the phylogenetic tree of life consultation tool: https://www.onezoom.org/.

Like anthropocentrism and humanism, I believe that individualism and egocentrism – of which the concepts of zebra, HIP, HEP among other ego flatteries are strong markers – are moving us away from the otherness, and can only promote a destructive Anthropocene in which the value attributed to each human being legitimizes all action, without any consideration for the "non-human".

Finally, we should perhaps consider the possibility that it is the conditions we have created, much more than the uniqueness of each person or small individual particularities, which are the source of deep unease in some. Society and in particular school are indeed hyper-normalizing universes which tend to obscure or even mock any “deviance”. But rather than adorning oneself with labels that flatter the ego and create barriers between "me" and "them", emancipation and fight against a system that is harmful to otherness seem to me to be much better ways of salvation.

References

[1] Observatoire de la psychologie, « Baromètre de la psychologie en ligne 2021 », Psychologue.net, 2021. https://www.psychologue.net/site/own/observatoire-psychologie-en-ligne2021.pdf

[2] C. Portelance, « Les types d’intelligence », Cheminement. https://www.cheminement.com/rubriques/orientation-et-choix-de-vie/les-types-dintelligence/

[3] D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam Books, 1995.

[4] F. De Waal, Sommes-nous trop « bêtes » pour comprendre l’intelligence des animaux ? Les Liens qui libèrent, 2016.

[5] S. Mancuso, R. Temperini, et A. Viola, L’intelligence des plantes. Albin Michel, 2013.

[6] P. Servigne et G. Chapelle, L’entraide : L’autre loi de la jungle. Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2017.

[7] National Institutes of Health (US) et B. S. C. Study, « Understanding Human Genetic Variation », in NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet], Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health (US), 2007. [En ligne]. Disponible sur: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20363/

[8] T. Mikkelsen et al., « Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome », Nature, vol. 437, no 7055, p. 69‑87, 2005.

Conclusion

The recent concepts of hypersensitivity, giftedness, HIP, HEP or zebra are markers of the modern tendency to emphasize the uniqueness and singularity of each person, which itself is part of a centuries-old movement towards individualism and egocentrism. Each human being is unique and supreme source of authority, and everything must be done to satisfy his or her development. It is no longer humanity that is at the center of the universe (anthropocentrism), but each human being.

By obscuring from thought everything that is "other" than ourselves, egocentrism and individualism contribute to our failure to attach any importance to our environment and promote a destructive Anthropocene. To restore a link and an intimacy with nature, it would surely be much preferable to insist on continuity and unity, biological realities largely evidenced by the links of filiation and the relationships of interdependence which govern life. Stopping focusing on the uniqueness of each individual, a simple secondary property of life, and highlighting what brings us together is probably a path towards the implementation of an Anthropocene more respectful of otherness, human and non-human alike.

Henri Cuny