Wednesday, July 26, 2017

#207 / Less Unique Than We Think

The July 21, 2017, edition of The Wall Street Journal ran an article that proclaims that we are "Less Unique Than We Think." The first paragraph of the article attracted my attention: 

Of all the alternative names that have been suggested for our species (out of which Linnaeus somehow chose Homo sapiens, “the wise”), maybe the most appropriate would be Homo narcissus, since we seem to delight so much in gazing at our own reflections. Like the Greek youth who fell in love with his own image, human beings have long been obsessed about what makes us so much “better” than other animals.

Narcissism does seem a powerful force! Think about our current President, Donald J. Trump. It certainly wasn't "wisdom" that got him there!

In fact, says David Barash, whose article reviews two recent books, if it wasn't "wisdom," that got us where we are, it wasn't "narcissism" either. "Creativity" and "social cooperation" have been major reasons that humans have differentiated themselves from the other species: 

In “The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional,” [Agustín Fuentes] has done a fine job of summarizing recent research in anthropology and primatology. He argues, in short, that creativity combined with social cooperation can provide the key to human uniqueness, pointing to numerous examples in which problems such as the finding of food, the avoidance of predators, the transfer of information and the manipulation of the physical environment are solved by way of imaginative collaboration. The group achieves results that would be beyond the reach of any individual. 

But, Barash says, creativity and cooperation aren't enough, in themselves, to explain why human beings are different from the other animals. What about culture? 

Perhaps not creativity but culture is what is most fundamental to our humanity—not just today but throughout our evolutionary history. This is the gravamen of Mr. Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind.” The author points to the qualitative gulf between, say, a nightingale’s song and a Verdi aria, or between the ability of many animals to count and Newton’s invention of the calculus. His explanation for the difference derives mostly, he believes, from the human ability to copy and teach (“high-fidelity information transmission”) and from the ways in which this ability, in turn, fed back into our evolution. 
Darwin was certainly aware of the importance of human culture, but under Mr. Laland’s sophisticated interpretation, cultural innovations did not merely respond to environmental challenges but also helped create the elaborate surroundings within which natural selection made us what we are today.

There is a pretty good argument, it seems to me, that "culture" is actually the product of "creativity" coupled with "social cooperation," but unless we want to debate terms and definitions, it's enough to know that creativity, social cooperation, and culture are all important aspects of what it means to be human. 

What makes us uniquely human, in my opinion, is our ability both to think thoughts and to take actions that are "new," that have never been known before, and to cooperate and work together to make into reality the ideas and visions that come to us first as possibility.

The "World of Nature," which contains all other species, operates on the basis of laws of inevitability. We alone have the freedom to make our own "laws," unconstrained by inevitability, and to write the charter of a new beginning, our prescription for the actions that will create a new, human world.

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  1. Humans create, but do so frequently without consideration of consequences. The result is entropy. Gaia sighs often.

  2. Planetary corruption mislabeling eco-poisons in a Gaiagate destroying antarctica and leaving all beaches shark infested.


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