Modern human beings represent the intersection of two fundamentally different essences. The first essence is our animal nature. We are homo sapiens, a particular kind primate that falls in the “great ape” branch on the Tree of Life. Like all great apes, we have rich mental lives, protect our young, have needs for certain kinds of social attachments, and engage in complicated patterns of cooperation and competition.
The second essence of modern peoples is personhood. As the descriptive psychologist Peter Ossorio makes crystal clear in his wonderful manuscript, The Behavior of Persons, the concept of a “person” is very different than the concept of an organism or animal. Ossorio explains why, conceptually, a person is a deliberative actor on a social stage. The behavior of people is defined, paradigmatically, by “intentional action”, which means the self-conscious justification of a deliberative act. For example, the act of writing this blog is paradigmatic (this is Ossorio’s way of talking—it means full example) of intentional action. I, the person of Gregg Henriques, am someone with a history of deliberative action. I am self-consciously justifying my intentional action of writing this blog to achieve a goal and can explicate that justification to myself and others as necessary and appropriate.
Now, what Ossorio brilliantly points out, which is something I had not fully considered, is that the concept of a person can be completely separated from being a member of Homo Sapiens. It just happens that, empirically, the only clear examples we have of entities behaving paradigmatically as persons are developed Homo Sapiens (Note: It follows that infants are not born as persons in this sense; they must develop into deliberative actors—this is much of what socialization and development entails—learning how to be a competent deliberative actor). To see this why this is the case, consider various science fiction novels or various religious perspectives. The Christian God is clearly a “person” in this sense, as is Commander Data from Star Trek, Jabba the Hut from Star Wars and many, many nonhuman other examples. Thus, science fiction writers and theological belief systems demonstrate clearly that the concept of a person, as Ossorio delineates it, is conceptually independent on being an organism or animal (i.e., a member of homo sapiens or any other creature) on earth.
Bottom line: Modern peoples are the intersection of two essences. There is our animal-ape essence and our cultural-person essence. The former drives us, motivationally and emotionally, to eat, sleep, have sex, love, form in-groups and out-groups, and many other “natural tendencies”. The latter allows us to become competent deliberative actors on a social stage; that is, to learn how to self-consciously justify one’s intentional action patterns in the field of culture and social influence.