2011-05-30

Appendix: On Being Human (1998)

Appendix to "On Being Animal". This is the piece I mentioned in "On Being Animal." I presented this at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee on 1998 August 16.

ON BEING HUMAN

Writers of the past have had no shortage of things to say on the subject of being human. The first passage that came to my mind was the one from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
Aristotle’s politics emphasized our social nature, law and justice being the way the we regulate our social co-existence. The human being, he said,
when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.
Others have suggested less lofty ways of picking out what constitutes being human. Featherless biped is one. It wasn’t featherlessness but relative hairlessness that impressed Desmond Morris:
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.
18th century French dramatist Beaumarchais claimed:
Drinking when we are not thirsty and making love all year round, madam; that is all there is to distinguish us from other animals.
Along similar lines, a more recent French writer, Albert Camus, declared,
A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.
In Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, a human is
An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.
In Genesis, we are told that humans were created in God’s image. Numerous subsequent sources have suggested that God was created in our image. William Blake indicated that we are the creatures in whose image a number of values were created:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face, And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress.
For Ralph Waldo Emerson -- a Unitarian minister -- a human
is physically as well as metaphysically a thing of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors, and a misfit from the start.
Mark Twain found our species to be
a museum of diseases, a home of impurities; he comes today and is gone tomorrow; he begins as dirt and departs as stench.
U.S. writer Christopher Morley more cheerfully and poetically characterizes us as
a whispering in the steam pipes on a cold night; dust sifted through a locked window; one or the other half of an unsolved equation; a pun made by God; an ingenious assembly of portable plumbing.
Our connection with the rest of nature has been noted, though the implication has sometimes been negative. Wrote Prussian King, Frederick the Great:
Every man has a wild beast within him.
William Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, said that humanity
is nature’s sole mistake,
But for English writer Francis Quarles, Humanity
is Heaven's masterpiece.
Nature’s mistake, but heaven’s masterpiece. No wonder, then, that French writer Marquis de Luc de Clapiers Vauvenargues said,
We should expect the best and the worst from mankind, as from the weather.
British clergyman W.R. Inge noted our connection to nature, but was more optimistic than Gilbert. The human being, he said,
is a poor creature; but he is halfway between an ape and a god and he is travelling in the right direction.
But Inge’s implied right direction is away from nature. H.L. Mencken is among those who saw us as a sort of machine. The human being
is a beautiful machine that works very badly. He is like a watch of which the most that can be said is that its cosmetic effect is good.
Somerset Maugham voiced a similar sentiment.
I'll give you my opinion of the human race . . . Their heart's in the right place, but their head is a thoroughly inefficient organ.
Indeed, British biologist Julian Huxley worried that,
The human race will be the cancer of the planet.
But we can avoid killing off our own habitat, it will be interesting to see what we can make of ourselves. As Tennessee Williams observed,
We're all of us guinea pigs in the laboratory of God. Humanity is just a work in progress.
What is it that makes us human? As with all animals, we have basic needs. That is, our DNA blueprint wires us up to seek food -- and oxygen if it happens to be briefly missing -- to seek to reproduce, and to avoid pain, because pain signals damage to our bodies which would make it more difficult to find food and a mate. These basic needs are our primary reinforcers. Food, sex, pain are inherently meaningful just because of the way we are genetically constructed.

From there, we learn. We come to develop meanings for lots of other things too. That is, we are conditioned by our environment, our stimuli. The conditioning is of two types. In classical conditioning, our nervous systems associate one stimulus with another one. So Pavlov’s dog came to associate the ringing of the bell with the arrival of food. A stimulus that was inherently meaningful – the food – was paired with a stimulus which, because of the pairing, acquired a meaning. The other kind of conditioning is operant conditioning. Here, a behavior is associated with some stimulus. A certain action brings either pleasant or unpleasant consequences and thereby becomes either more likely or less likely to recur. So there we are. Constituted by genes and then continually adapting through formation of stimulus-stimulus associations and behavior-stimulus associations. The vertebrates can be conditioned in more complex ways that the invertebrates. Among vertebrates, the mammals seem to be conditioned in more complex ways than the nonmammals.

And that is a very large part of the story. But we want to know – is it just our vanity? – what distinguishes us from other animals. We are two-legged. Is that a distinguishing feature? No, birds also stand on two legs. But birds have feathers and we don’t. Well, there you have it: featherless bipeds. That’s us. How singularly unhelpful a definition that is.

Aristotle pegs us midway between beasts and the gods. The book of Genesis has us as the creature made in God’s image. As God has dominion over us, we are granted, according to Genesis,
dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
In the hierarchy of governance we are, as it were, the local regional viceroy for planet Earth – again, a sort of midway between the beasts and the gods.

But what makes beasts so unGodly? What do they lack that we have? It’s no help to say, “the spark of the divine,” because what is the spark of the divine? If it is defined as that which separates us from nonhuman animals, then the argument is circular and we’re back where we started. There’s nothing wrong with defining us as the animal with the spark of divinity as long as somewhere along the way you can say something more about what this divinity amounts to.

Rationality: we are the rational animal? Language: we are the speaking animal? Society: we are the sociable, civilization-building animal? Laughter: we are the laughing animal? Are these things our divinity? In a nutshell, yes, they are.

Rationality. What is that? Other animals have problem-solving abilities: the rat can figure out how to get through the maze. That’s a two-dimensional problem-solving. Squirrels, another rodent, are particular good at three-dimensional problem-solving, because going up and down are more salient options in their world. Most of the time we mean something more by “rationality” than problem-solving. We mean a particular kind of problem-solving; we mean, I think, a particular mode of communication. So to say something about this human (and possibly other animals as well) ability to be rational, we will have to say something about language ability.

Of course, lots of animals communicate. Even insects communicate. The ant communicates by laying down a scent trail for the other ants. Bees communicate with dance that lets the other bees know where the pollen source is. They communicate, but do they mean what they say? A thermometer communicates to you what the temperature is, but it does so without meaning to. Whether it reads 70 or 90 is a purely mechanical response to its environment, which raises the question: does, perhaps, the bee dance the way it does as a purely mechanical response to its stimuli? If you wanted to, you could follow this line on out and say that Shakespeare’s sonnets and Einstein’s equations were just the product of those brains responding to the stimuli of their environments in the way that they were genetically programmed to do, and if the rest of us can’t do those things, it’s because the rest of don’t have their combination of genetic programming and environmental stimuli. Yes, you could say that, if you wanted to. But you can’t say much more about what humans do – in particular you can’t put together a story about what range of possibilities are likely ones for a given human to do next, and which behaviors would be surprising, that is, you can’t feel you know someone – unless you think of them as having beliefs and desires, intentions and goals, hopes fears dreams and ambitions. You can get a perfectly good handle on thermometer behavior without imagining that what it does is the product of what it wants. But you can’t get much grasp of human behavior without thinking of it as the expression of the behavor’s desires and beliefs.

If you wanted to, you could ask this question, which philosophers occasionally run into: do humans REALLY have beliefs and desires -- or is it that we really are just stimulus-response mechanisms and beliefs and desires are mere fictional devices that we use to interpret one another and ourselves? But I’m not tempted to ask that question. In some sense it may be that we may are wired or taught to regard one another as having beliefs and desires, but it is absolutely vital to our continued civil and social lives together that we continue so regarding ourselves and each other, and the question of whether beliefs and desires are real is as silly as certain other philosophers’ questions: is that wall really there, or is it merely useful for us to act as if it were? Is the redness of a red apple in the apple or in the perceiver’s head?

So if I tell you that there are these really great flowers just over that hill, about a 100 yards in the direction of the sun, then you can figure I mean what I say. But does a bee mean it? Probably not. It’s probably just doing what it was wired to do, and no additional conceptual apparatus -- in particular, no conception of bee intentions -- is necessary to explain what it is doing.

What humans can do is put ourselves in each other’s shoes. We learn to do this around age four, and whether any other animals can do it is not at all clear. There’s a classic experiment that illustrates what I mean.
A child watches a puppet show involving two characters, Sally and Anne. After playing with a ball, Sally places it inside a basket and then steps outside. During Sally’s absence, Anne takes the ball out of the basket and places it inside a box. Sally returns. (Marc D Hauser, "Games Primates Play," Discover, September 1998, p. 52)
We then ask the children: Where will Sally search for the ball? The three-year-olds generally say, “the box.” They know the ball is in the box, and they assume that others know what they know. By age four, though, kids will generally answer, “the basket.” They understand that Sally would believe the ball was where she left it because Sally wasn’t there when the ball was moved. They are able to attribute to another a belief different from their own; and they make behavioral expectations of other people based on the beliefs attributed to those others. We can put ourselves in Sally’s shoes and understand what false beliefs her situation would have given her, and we can understand her in terms of her beliefs. That’s really an amazing thing. We humans are the beings that can relate to each other in that very complex way. No other species appears to be able to attribute to another a belief different from their own.

Only because we can do that – project ourselves into another’s situation and understand what would cause them to have beliefs different from our own beliefs – can we figure out how to act so as to deliberately induce a certain belief in another person. We can deliberately induce beliefs we know to be false. That is, humans can intentionally deceive.

Other animals pull off a kind of deception. The plover bird sees a potential threat to her nest approaching so she flies off a little ways and dives and spins around on the ground as if her wings were injured. But the wings aren’t injured, it’s just a tactic to distract the predator away from her nest. If a human did that, we would understand that she believes that she can cause the predator to believe that she is injured. But does the plover bird have any concept of what the predator believes? Most scientists of animal behavior say not. She is behaving the way that she is wired to behave, exhibiting behavior that natural selection has programmed into her because that behavior makes her offspring more likely to survive to reproduce. The behavior occurs and it works: no conception of what another animal would be believing is necessary. Of course WE are given to understand that the behavior works because of the belief created in the predator, but the plover probably has no notion of why it works. She just does it.

Our fellow primates are more complex. Chimps do some fascinating things. Chimp One has some food. Chimp One sees the larger Chimp Two coming. Chimp One hides the food. Chimp Two sees Chimp One returning as if from just having hidden some food. But Chimp Two acts nonchalant, as if he hadn’t seen anything. He calmly ambles off again, only to hide behind a tree and watch until Chimp One retrieves the food again, whereupon Chimp Two rushes out to snatch the food. Now it is OUR habit to view behaviors like this through the lens of: what beliefs are being intentionally induced in whom? It looks to US as if Chimp One wanted to cause Chimp Two to have the false belief that he didn’t have any food. But food hiding behavior can be learned because it is advantageous and can thus be exhibited by an animal that cannot form conceptions of what another animal believes. It looks to us as if Chimp Two wanted to cause Chimp One to have the false belief that he didn’t see anything suggestive of food, and that he was thus leaving the area. But that behavior too might have been learned because it got rewarded and the behavior might occur without the behaver having a conception of others’ beliefs. How could we settle this question?

One very basic way that we put ourselves in others’ shoes is by noticing what they can see. If I see that you can see the food, then I understand that you’ll form a belief about where it is, and if you can get to it, but I can’t, then I’ll ask you for it. But if I see that you can’t possibly see the food, then I won’t bother to ask you for it – you won’t know where it is. Chimps, however, don’t pick up on this. They will continue to beg for food from a human caretaker even when they can see that the caretaker has a large blindfold on, or a bag over his head, or a big screen obscuring the food from the caretaker. They seem unable to project themselves into the caretaker’s position and realize that from that position, the food can’t be seen, so the whereabouts of the food can’t be known, so there’s no point in asking him to get it for you.

These results are not conclusive. There’s more investigation to be done. But the indicators at this point are that we are unique among animals in having this capacity for this kind of empathy. Other animals care for and take care of each other, but we can see through each others eyes. Imperfectly, of course. But that we do it at all interconnects us in a fantastic way.

And language is a big part of how we understand one another’s beliefs and desires. Other animals communicate, for instance, that danger is nearby. But it’s apparently like a burglar alarm going off – they give the cry when the appropriate stimulus occurs. The burglar alarm isn’t expressing a belief about burglars, it’s just reacting to having been tripped. Other animals give out signs, but not symbols. The difference is that signs are reactions to specific present or recent stimuli, but symbols can be recalled and used at any time. I can ask you right now to imagine a one-legged woman rowing a boat across Lake Erie – and you can do it. That’s the power of symbols over mere signs. We can invoke them and respond to them at will.

Language isn’t a sudden instantaneous thing that just popped up. The various features that eventually were incorporated emerged gradually in the course of our evolution, so we would expect to see some beginnings of that ability in other animals. And we have been able to teach chimps and gorillas some rudiments of our very complex communication system. But we’re the only species with full-fledged language. How do we know? We don’t, for sure. We don’t know anything for absolute certainty. But it seems to me we have some pretty good indicators. We know from our examinations of the brain what the physiological requirements of symbol use are, what parts of the of the brain, when damaged, render a person unable to use language. It takes a really big brain to be able to invoke and respond to symbols at will. And we don’t find those elaborate structures in dogs or horses or dolphins, and only incipiently in primates. And language by its nature is the sort of thing by which language-users regulate one another’s behavior in straightforward ways. If other animals had language, we could see behavior regulation occurring. Now, you can certainly read a poem, and be very moved by it, yet its effects may be invisible to a third-party, but that is an ability which built up from a foundation of straightforward, easy-to-spot behavior-regulating uses of language. If other animals were using language, then it wouldn’t take all that much careful observation to see the ways that certain of their behaviors regulated the behaviors of those around them. Finally, everything we know about evolution tells us that it works on a “need to have” basis. It takes a lot of biological resources to build a brain that can use symbols. The other animals wouldn’t have that capacity if they didn’t need it; and our studies to date give us fairly detailed accounts of how they can survive and reproduce in the ways they do without that biologically very expensive capacity.

Our language multiplies many fold the power of our ability to attribute beliefs and desires to each other, to put ourselves in one another’s situations, to walk in each other’s shoes. We can not only infer – from, for example, seeing what you are able to see – what beliefs you have. We can tell each other what we think is so, and what we want. The effect, as Daniel Dennett puts it, is that,
Comparing our brains anatomically with chimpanzee brains (or dolphin brains or any other nonhuman brains) would be almost beside the point, because our brains are in effect joined together into a single cognitive system that dwarfs all others. They are joined by an innovation that has invaded our brains and no others: language. I am not making the foolish claim that all our brains are knit together by language into one gigantic mind, thinking its transnational thoughts, but, rather, that each individual human brain, thanks to its communicative links, is the beneficiary of the cognitive labors of the others in a way that gives it unprecedented powers. (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995, p. 381)
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck writes that the human being,
unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.
And therein lies our vaunted human rationality. It’s not any special error-detecting mechanism, nor any logic-rule-following guide. It’s just our willingness to talk to one another and to listen without stifling – to be as willing to learn from as to teach to. We can do this because we have language and the ability to project sympathetically into the other’s situation. And therein lies, too, our uniquely human capacity for irrationality: the intentional deceptions that we alone, seemingly, are capable of perpetrating – for the ability to project ourselves into one another’s situations makes deception possible, and language means we can tell each other lies.

But it also means I can understand what your hopes are, and what they mean to you, and you can know that I understand your hopes, and we can come to share and care about one another’s life projects. Because we can do that, human love and human community are in very important ways unlike any other animal’s care-taking or society. It is a true marvel that there should have ever arisen a species whose members can interconnect in those ways, ways which bind us together, and at the same time define us as distinct individuals each with our own perspective and gifts. We KNOW each other more thoroughly and intimately than the Biblical sense of knowing because we do, albeit partially, get inside one another’s heads, hear with each other’s ears, see with each other’s eyes. We KNOW each other because we know each other’s beliefs and desires – some of them. And I know that yours are often different from mine. It’s the usefulness of seeing how they are different that motivates the whole activity of projection and belief attribution in the first place, for if they weren’t different then we could all simply assume, with our three-year-olds, that everybody else knows what we know. So this capacity of ours ties us together BY recognizing our differences.

In his Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens remarks:
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
But what makes us seem such mysteries to each other is precisely that we know each other so well. It’s because we can get into each other’s heads sometimes that we feel so mystified on those occasions or issues which we cannot. Does it ever occur to an oyster that the other oysters are mysteries to it? Does it ever occur to a dolphin, or any other primate?

In a lot of ways we differ little from other mammals. In other primate groups we see social interaction, social cooperation, and we see mating behaviors and pecking orders that look a lot like our own playgrounds and board rooms. But we have this extra ability to understand one another as having beliefs and desires, which apparently not even chimps can do, and we have a language that can raise any subject at any time, that can record what we’ve learned so that we can then build up from there. Such powerful tools for understanding each other -- and therefore such powerful tools for manipulating and deceiving each other.
All we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.
Seek you the spark of the divine? Divinity shines there, in the good and honest use of these miraculous powers. Divinity shines there, in this unique human inheritance: the ability to share our selves in a process which creates us as distinct selves, the ability to build common enterprises together, the ability to cling empathically together against the darkness. Divinity shines there in human love and human community. Divinity shines there. Divinity shines here.