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What Sort of Creature Are You?

Finding yourself in prehistory.

Key points

  • We don't know what sort of creatures we are.
  • To find out, it's helpful to retrace our journey as a species.
  • Religions, politics, philosophy, and science all offer different viewpoints on what makes human beings distinct.

We have no idea what sort of creatures we are.

That’s a big problem, as we can see in our own neuroses and loneliness, in the shrill, brittle polarization of our political discourse, and on every page of every sociology article.

Until recently, we thought we knew. There were various proposals, all of them with some ability to explain some things about us.

The Judeo-Christian tradition told us that we were made in the image of God. This begged some important questions but answered some too.

Darwin told us that we were part of the natural world, familiarly connected to amoeba. That helped to put us in our place, but since we plainly weren’t amoeba and didn’t thrive by behaving like an amoeba, it was never going to be a completely adequate account of what we are and what we need.

Passionate communitarians in Russia and China told us that we were defined purely by our membership in a community, but since membership seemed to be primarily about economics, and we felt ourselves to be more than Homo economicus, few people believed them for long. Passionate anti-communitarians in the Western world told us that we were defined purely by our non-membership in a community, but since the value of non-membership was (again) assessed mainly In monetary terms, and we intuited that that wasn’t the whole story, that story failed to convince too.

Passionate patriots tell me that what they really are is English and that no more needs to be said. But a great deal more does need to be said. Whatever a human being is, it is far, far too complex and wondrous to be described properly by something as tawdry as a flag.

Darwin and the Christians were both on to something.

To know what we are, we need to know where we’re from. They both provide fecund and powerful origin myths, told in rather different dialects.

But we shouldn’t assess the worth of an origin myth by its fecundity or its power. We should try to decide whether it is accurate or not: whether it accords with the facts. There’s an important truism in the world of medical ethics: Good ethics depend on correct facts. And unless we get our anthropology right, we’ll get our ontology (and so our ethics and our politics and our sociology) wrong.

This, I’d have hoped, is trite. But much discussion in the academy about the roots of our personal and social and political malaise, and the possible therapies, proceeds on the basis of wholly unidentified, let alone interrogated, assumptions about the kind of animals we are.

This is unfortunate.

To find out what we are, we have to retrace our steps through human history.

I tried to do that as literally as possible. That was partly because it was fun, but also because, I suspect, history didn’t evolve in the way that historians of ideas tend to imply it did. When it comes to the really foundational things (Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How should I behave?), people didn’t—and people don’t—have ideas and then act on them. They had sensations and experiences and then conjured ideas to try to make sense of them.

Ideas are secondary, parasitic on feelings. The "sapiens" in our species label is misleading. Reasoning about self-defining things (as opposed to merely logistical things, such as how to kill a deer or avoid being killed by a saber-toothed tiger) is usually ex post facto rationalization.

All of which means that to understand what we are, we have to understand how we felt at the pivotal moments in the journey that our species has taken.

In these posts, I’ll try, very briefly, to say what I learned from trying to walk that walk.