Who Are We?

"Who am I?" "Who are we?" We hunger for an account of ourselves, a story about what sort of being we are. We seek such an accounting to help us discern what is ours to do, and to help us come to terms with our life and our world. To be at peace, we perceive, entails being at peace with who we are. Who, then, are we?

Arriving at self definition involves the interplay of sameness and difference. What category am I in, and what are the features that the members of this category share? And, within my category, what makes me distinct? Each of us belongs to many categories: we are female or male; we have a nationality, or a mix of nationalities; we have ethnicity, or a mix of ethnicities; we are members of a political party, or call ourselves "independent," we have a religious identity, which might be "none." We are human, ape, primate, mammal, vertebrate, animal, alive. Though there are times when we rightfully resist categorization -- when the confines of a group identity are constraining and the advantage of what the category label reveals is outweighed by the disadvantages of what it obscures of our individual uniqueness -- we also depend on what we see in "others like us" to learn about ourselves.

For much of human history, "others like us" meant the other members of our tribe. What we might or might not have in common with members of other tribes seemed largely beside the point. In the last two or three millennia, more of us began to see our identity as humans as increasingly important. "What does it mean to be human?" grew into a compelling question for many philosophers, poets, and other writers and thinkers.

In the 1970s and 80s, I was a philosophy student: undergraduate, then graduate. I remember that the question, "What does it mean to be human?" made me feel in the presence of something vital and important. The question seemed to matter because whatever it was that was unique to our species would therefore be a precious and sacred thing, something to cultivate. If reason is what makes us human, then we ought to try hard to be rational in all things. If use of ethical principles is the defining feature, then those principles take on grand significance. Or if humor and laughter make us human, then it behooves us to laugh. Presumably, whatever is uniquely human is something of which we humans should want to have more, or should, at least, vigilantly guard our store – lest some horrible result occur, called “forfeiting one’s humanity,” or “becoming inhuman.”

Moreover, the notion of "our shared human condition" appeared to promise a grounding for values that we could share and build upon to create a more just and peaceful world. The more we could discern and discover about the content of our shared human condition, the better our prospects for peace and justice.

What many of us have begun to see in the last 40 years is that what it means to be human is more deeply tied up with what it means to be animal than we had imagined. More of us have noticed that understanding who we are has more to do with grasping our commonality with other species than with distinguishing ourselves from them. The prospects for peace and justice call for attention to our shared human condition -- and also for attention to our shared animal condition. The task of self-understanding before us since Socrates urged, “know thyself,” is to bring awareness and presence to all of what and who we are. We are now better situated to see that this means not merely attending to our human nature, but to our animal nature.

There are some things we humans are really good at: like communicating learning and preserving it so we can build on it. We’re not the only ones that do that, but we are really good at it. Other things, humans are not so good at. Other species have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs live in a world of smells that we can but dimly imagine, and bats and dolphins live in a world of echolocation that we imagine, if at all, even more dimly. There are various differences between any two species.

Quite a large part of what I am, however, lies in the connections and similarities I have with all mammals, with all warm-blooded animals, with all vertebrates. I’m not going to truly know myself by picking out one or a few unusual skills. I know myself by grasping the inheritance I share with the gorilla, gazelle, goose, and gopher tortoise. My world is taken in through eyes and ears that work pretty much like theirs do. Many of them live in, and are guided by, a world of smells that I am mostly oblivious to – but not entirely. The fast-track connection between the olfactory and memory is something my brain also has. I hunger as they do, I am susceptible to the same the fight-or-flight adrenaline surges.

I do have a thin neocortex layer on top of the older paleomammalian system (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system of emotions) and even older reptilian system (brainstem and cerebellum), yet I remain largely driven by those brain systems that all mammals have – and even those that all vertebrates have. The cognitive processes of the neocortex govern me much less than the neocortex likes to believe. Indeed, perhaps the neocortex’s greatest glory, ironically, is that it has, over the many millennia since its emergence, developed the means to investigate itself and reveal its own relative insignificance.

For centuries in the West, the prevailing attitude has been, roughly, that nonhuman animals are basically machines, their behavior merely conditioned responses, while humans are more than that: free, capable of exercising intention and forming responses that transcend conditioning. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637), for instance, influentially declared that nonhuman animals were complex organic machines without the immaterial mind or soul that only humans have. Since the 20th century, however, research has been steadily closing the gap between our conception of humans and our conception of other animals. Studies have noticed, or elicited, elaborate, intentional, and apparently creative behavior in various species. Other studies come at the gap from the other direction: revealing that humans are not nearly as intentional as we often think we are. On this latter point, findings by Benjamin Libet and Michael Gazzaniga are especially instructive.

The Libet Experiments. In 1983, Benjamin Libet and others at the University of California, San Francisco, published the striking results of their experiments. In the study, participants were asked to voluntarily flex their wrist at a time of their choosing. Libet found that the neural signals for motion preceded the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds. “Put simply, the brain prepared a movement before a subject consciously decided to move!” Conscious intentions to move aren’t what cause our movements. This begs the question: why do our brains bother to create for us this illusion of conscious intentional control? Janet Kwasniak suggests that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action.” She suggests that “this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened. The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened,” the effects on my wiring are different. Thus, what we call “volition” is a perception of our own behavior rather than a generator of it. The illusion of intention (or, more precisely, the illusion that intentions precede and determine action), might be an illusion that human brains generate more strongly and consistently than any other species -- that remains to be seen -- but it is, in any case, a by-product of the systems that all animal brains have for learning from experience. We can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhumans are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or we are too.

The Gazzaniga Experiments. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga flashed two different images at the same time into the subject’s visual field. One image was in the part of the field that could only be seen by the left visual cortex, and the other only by the right visual cortex. The right brain saw a picture of snow covering a house and car. The left brain, at the same instant, saw a picture of a chicken claw. Gazzaniga then asked the subjects what they saw. The left brain has the language centers, so the left brain can articulate what it saw. “I saw a chicken claw,” reported the subjects. So instead of asking for words, Gazzaniga then presented an array of pictures and asked subjects to point to what they saw. Subjects’ right hands (controlled by their left brains) pointed to the picture of the chicken claw that the left brain saw. At the same time, subjects’ left hands (controlled by their right brains) pointed to the picture of the snow-covered scene that the right brain saw.

Gazzaniga then asked each hand to point to a picture of something that goes with the picture seen. The left brain saw a chicken claw, so subjects' right hands pointed to a picture of a chicken. Chicken claw goes with chicken. The right brain saw a snow-covered house and car, so subjects' left hands pointed to a shovel. Finally, Gazzaniga asked his subjects, "why is your left hand pointing to a shovel?" Now we’re in the language realm where only the left brain can express itself. If left-brain knew the truth, it could say, "I have no idea why my left hand is pointing to a shovel. It must be something you showed my right brain." Instead, the left brain instantly made up a plausible story. The patient said, without any hesitation, "Oh, that’s easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know.

In discerning who we are, this is a crucial understanding: our story about ourselves as intentional, purposeful, and rational is made up after the fact. My neocortex and forebrain and language centers are really, really good at making up stories to rationalize whatever it is they notice I’m doing. But that’s not where the doing came from. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion I live in.

We cannot dispel, once and for all, the illusions of control, and the rationalizing stories of ourselves that our brains concoct. We can, however, better understand the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work. This understanding helps us begin to befriend our animality, our selves.

I am made, as many species are, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of me find their greatest comfort and ease. Human social systems eventually yielded our technological systems, and between the two, I often find myself sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element. David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.”

I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. They are only a small part of who I am, and they are a part that raises challenges. The language centers can generate powerful narratives that hold me enthralled and leave me oblivious to nonlinguistic awareness of the world around me.

Descartes posited a dualism of immaterial mind and material body. For Descartes, the complex organic machine of the body determined most of human behavior and all of nonhuman behavior. The immaterial mind/soul unique to humans guided only a small part of what humans do, Descartes acknowledged, yet that immaterial mind was the crucial separator of humans from all other animals. A “naturalized,” updated version of Descartes' thesis might replace Descartes’ concept of a special immaterial mind with a concept of special material brain parts. The point that these brain parts are only a small part of what we are would then seem to parallel Descartes’ acknowledgment that the complex organic machine he called “body” determines most of human behavior.

To understand who we are, I believe we must go beyond Descartes, even in a naturalized version. Certainly, the human brain is distinct from any other species. After all, every species' brain is distinct. The distinctions are matters of degree, not of kind – and the distinctions of degree to which the human brain can lay claim are slight. Other mammals have versions of the forebrain that imagines the future, the neocortex that cognizes, and Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, the human versions of which comprehend language. The human versions are as animal as the nonhuman versions, and as animal as our bones and guts are. Our animality, then, is not merely most of what we are; it is all of what we are.

Closer contact with, and awareness of, the animal in me engenders a greater respect for my fellow beings who share the burdens and the glories of the human condition -- and those beings who share the burdens and glories of the mammalian condition, or of the warm-blooded condition, or of the vertebrate condition. Heightened self-awareness leads to greater respect for my fellow vertebrates, and greater respect for my fellow vertebrates heightens self-awareness.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that seeks to honor wildness as sacred. An earlier time described the material world as fallen, sinful, or, at best, crass. Then the scientific view has encouraged seeing the world as mechanical and inert. The emerging ecospirituality connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world. Connecting to our own animality – attending to, honoring, and loving what in us is wild and unpredictable – is of a piece with connecting to our world as well as understanding who we are.

Both ancient and medieval theology and modern science have told us that our senses are not to be trusted – that the true reality of gods, God, Platonic forms, or of quarks, quasars, and black holes was not to be grasped by the senses. Yet it is corporal sensations that offer us the enchantment of birdsong or the wonder of the moon. The ever-shifting reality in which our animality resides resists any finished theory, refuses the would-be tyranny of our concepts, and loosens the constraint of experience into expected categories. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more open to the nuances of the unexpected in experience.

We humans have for so long defined ourselves only as members of the category human. I have spoken of the value and necessity of recognizing and connecting more deeply to other categories: primate, mammal, warm-blooded, vertebrate. In this essay, I have stopped at vertebrate in order to focus on expanding our self-awareness and identification that far. It’s a start. Yet this delimitation, too, is finally false. Ultimately, what I am is also the crustaceans, the arachnids, the insects. In the end, each of us is also the oak trees, the algae, and the bacteria. In the end as in the beginning, we are the mountains and rivers, stones and dirt, air and clouds, moon and stars.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It remains to us to grasp that we are not part of this interdependent web. Each one of us is the whole thing.