A Few Unique Traits of Humans

This is the 2nd blog in this series which began with “What Does It Mean to be Human?”   In this series I am looking at the recent book by evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth.  Wilson presents in well written manner a storyline with plot of how the anthropological and evolutionary evidence can be read to give us an idea of how possibly humanity emerged on earth.  Wilson dismisses religious interpretation of human being, which will be part of what I react to in this blog series.  Wilson offers his materialistic answer to the question, “What does it mean to be human?”:

“The biological human mind is our province. With all its quirks, irrationality, and risky productions, and all its conflict and inefficiency, the biological mind is the essence and the very meaning of the human.”  (Kindle Loc. 1706-8)

The “biological mind” is the interesting phrase.  As an atheist committed to materialism, there can be no mind beyond the biological, and yet the exact relationship of mind to brain is not perfectly clear.  Wilson will be in the camp of those who dismiss free will and for whom consciousness presents a particular challenge because there can for him be nothing that is not biologically based. We will come back to these issues in a future blog, for now we will continue to look at what Wilson sees as unique to the human species:

“Besides the bulging forehead, oversize brain, and long, tapering fingers, our species bears other striking biological features of the kind biological taxonomists call ‘diagnostic.’ This means that in combination, some of our traits are unique among all animals:

• A productive language based on infinite permutations of arbitrarily invented words and symbols.

• Music, comprising a wide array of sounds, also in infinite permutations and played in individually chosen mood-creating patterns; but, most definitively, with a beat.

• Prolonged childhood, allowing extended learning periods under the guidance of adults.

• Anatomical concealment of female genitalia and the abandonment of advertisement of ovulation, both combined with continuous sexual activity. The latter promotes female-male bonding and biparental care, which are needed through the long period of helplessness in early childhood.

• Uniquely fast and substantial growth in the brain size during early development, increasing 3.3 times from birth to maturity.

• Relatively slender body form, small teeth, and weakened jaw muscles, indicative of an omnivorous diet.

• A digestive system specialized to eat foods that have been tenderized by cooking.”  (Kindle Loc. 1404-21)

It is interesting that some of the very things Wilson sees as unique to humanity would also be noted by Theists who accept the claim of Genesis 1 that we humans are created in the image and likeness of God.  And it was vigorously discussed throughout Christian history what exactly about us is in God’s image?  Many Church Fathers agreed that it is not a physical trait and they like Wilson looked to such things as language, symbolic and abstract thinking, creativity – using things which exist in nature to further create such things as art and music AND inventing and manufacturing things which don’t exist in nature for art and science, modesty and virtue, controlling sexual activity and the formation of moral thinking, creativeness in using foods even in symb0lic and sacramental ways.

Though some evolutionary biologists downplay the difference between human intelligence and that of other species, many admit that human intelligence is so different from the intelligence of any other species that evolution cannot really account for this difference.

“Michael Tomasello and his co-workers in biological anthropology, developed during the past three decades. These researchers point out that the primary and crucial difference between human cognition and that of other animal species, including our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, is the ability to collaborate for the purpose of achieving shared goals and intentions. The human specialty is intentionality, fashioned from an extremely large working memory. We have become the experts at mind reading, and the world champions at inventing culture. We not only interact intensely with one another, as do other animals with advanced social organizations, but to a unique degree we have added the urge to collaborate.”   (Kindle Loc. 3621-27)

Memory and culture and intentional collaboration would also be noted by theologians as ways in which humans are different from all the rest of creation.

“The creative arts became possible as an evolutionary advance when humans developed the capacity for abstract thought. The human mind could then form a template of a shape, or a kind of object, or an action, and pass a concrete representation of the conception to another mind. Thus was first born true, productive language, constructed from arbitrary words and symbols.”  (Kindle  Loc. 4486-88)

What was also born along with “true, productivity language” is the notion of truth.   There is no such thing as truth or fact or science without the conscious observer.   This is a new truth that has been revealed through quantum physics.  There is no truth without a conscious observer.  We humans in fact exist to discover truth.  We have a purpose in nature and Wilson though he doesn’t seem to recognize it, uses the gift of conscious observation to seek out truth.  Truth doesn’t just come to him, he has to consciously choose to seek it, to uncover it hidden in the natural world.  Evolution has in fact brought into existence the very beings needed to consciously observe the universe.

For theists at least, that humanity has a purpose comes as no surprise.  That evolutionary biologists don’t recognize conscious observation as a product of the evolutionary process speaks more about their ideological commitment to determinism then it does of their commitment to revealing truth.

Before getting to issues which atheists and theists disagree on, the next blog will take a very quick tour through 120 million years of history that were the needed prerequisite to our current situation on planet earth.

Next: A Very Quick Tour of Evolutionary History

3 thoughts on “A Few Unique Traits of Humans

  1. Pingback: What Does It Mean to Be Human? | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  3. Pingback: A Very Quick Tour of Evolutionary History | Fr. Ted's Blog

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