The Modern Mind

The impact of culture on human experience

A New Perspective on Human Nature

What distinguishes us from animals?

Despite the widespread rejection of Creationism and Intelligent Design in our society, most of us continue to believe that humanity is “the Crown of Creation.” Even though brought about by an impersonal force, such as Nature or Evolution, we consider ourselves superior to all other living beings, incomparably more intelligent and capable of loftier, more noble, emotions, and for this reason of our cognitive and emotional superiority, fully justified in making whatever use of them we may decide upon to improve our quality of life. If the very same logic were applied to differences between human beings and it were suggested that the more intelligent people with more developed emotional life can use people who are less intelligent and less developed emotionally in whatever way that suits the former to make their lives better, many of us would be appalled. But, if asked to explain this reaction, we would have to resort to the claim of cognitive and emotional superiority again. It is clear that we have the ability to use (that is in various ways exploit, kill for food, convenience, or sport, take over the resources they need to survive, impose conditions that turn their lives into torture) other animals, while they do not have the ability to use us. So, obviously, they are not our equals. But this is not because they are all naturally less intelligent than we are, or because our emotional capacities are naturally better developed.

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What drastically separates us from all other animals does not have anything to do with our biological nature at all. As a biological species we are not that different from others: apparently, there is only 2% of difference in genetic material between us and some other great apes, such as chimpanzees, and these 2% account for all of our differences--forms of our feet and legs, genitalia, body and facial hair, posture, weight and height, etc., etc.,--so it is unclear how much of this is left to account for the difference between their and our brains, presumably responsible for our superior mental capacities. Moreover, capacities can be observed empirically only in their effects, only if a person writes a book, for instance, can we say that s/he has the capacity to write a book. (Well, one may counter in this context, no animal has ever written a book: ergo, we are smarter than they are. But an overwhelming majority of us have never written a book either. Does that mean that cognitive capacities of the overwhelming majority of people are no different than those of other animals?) As to other achievements, every day now brings more evidence about the great intelligence, cognitive and emotional, of animals (innate--not, like ours, which often learned).See, for instance, “When a Wolf Dies.”

No, the only empirically observable characteristic which clearly separates us from other animals has nothing to do with our biological endowment: what distinguishes humanity from all other species is that, while all other species transmit their ways of life genetically, through blood, we transmit our ways of life symbolically, through such things as traditions, institutions, laws, etc. Genetic transmission--a central process within the process of life itself--is, like life itself, a biological process. Symbolic transmission is not a biological process; it is, instead, the process of culture. We empirically observe the dramatic difference between these two processes of transmission of ways of life in that animal societies within the same species keep their characteristic form across hundreds and thousands of generations and even when geographically very widespread (like wolves, for example), while human societies are infinitely variable, always reflecting their specific historical period in a specific geographical location. In other words, what distinguishes humanity from all other animals, what actually makes us human and not just animals, is culture.

Culture is connected to life (biological processes) only in the way life is connected to the physical universe,   that is, as a highly improbable accident to the conditions within which it has happened. The physical conditions for life existed on Earth for millions of years before life emerged. These conditions included all the chemical elements which would eventually go into the making of a living cell, but for millions of years these chemical elements did not combine into the living cell. Such combination was extremely improbable and could not be predicted. Then, one day, it happened. Similarly, our species existed in its completely evolved form for at least 150 thousand years before there was culture. All the biological conditions for culture, in other words, existed for at least 150 thousand years. But the development of culture was so improbable, that nothing of this sort happened. Then, all of a sudden, culture was there. Philosophers refer to such sudden, highly improbable additions of a new layer of reality to the already existing layers as emergent phenomena. Life is an emergent phenomenon on top (and in the conditions) of the material layer of reality (matter, in other words); culture is an emergent phenomenon on top (an in the conditions) of the organic (or life) layer of reality.

The elements out of which culture emerged were organic, that is, they were structures, processes, and functions of life, and, as such, products of the biological evolution through natural selection. They were three in number. Two of these were specific bodily organs, one of which— the brain—common, in the specific evolutionary form apparently required to make culture possible, to several biological species at the very least; while the other—the larynx—in that specific evolutionary form was unique to the human species. The third element that was a necessary condition for culture was a certain evolutionary stage of the process or function of perception and communication of perception within a biological group—the perception and communication by signs

It is humbling to realize that of these three elements only larynx is unique to the human species. This means that, had the larynx of the wolf, the chimpanzee, or the dolphin— to name only the best recognized competitors of the so called homo sapiens for the palm of superiority in brain power—been structured and positioned like ours is, they and not we might conceivably be the rulers of the earth today. Can we really know how sapiens the obviously wily canis lupus, who does not talk to us, is? The larynx gives us the mechanical ability to speak, namely to articulate sound, which no other animal possesses to anywhere near the same degree. But it goes without saying that it is not this mechanical ability which has created Hamlet, the theory of evolution, or free markets. Such creativity is peculiar to man. Yet, on logical examination, there could possibly be no evidence that the brains of a wolf or a dolphin would not be able to support it, had they been given the chance.

Although culture could not exist without its organic (biological) conditions, it is not reducible to them: it is an autonomous reality, meaning that it has laws of its own kind and cannot be explained in biological terms.

Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

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Liah Greenfeld, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University.

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