A biology of human nature?

Human beings are not like other organisms, and intelligence cannot be explained in biological terms. That is why the biology of human nature has so far remained at the most general level, without any biological account of, say, the specifics of history or consciousness: biology is incapable of going any further without exposing its own irrelevance.

This may seem to be an odd attitude: after all, what scientific alternative is there? There can be no doubt that our ancestry is exclusively biological, that everything we do relies on definite kinds of biological structure and function that are plainly the products of ordinary evolutionary and developmental processes, that human beings have to be successfully adapted to quite routinely biological demands and a comprehensive biological environment, that human beings reside on the same biological continua as other organisms, and so on. To take only some of the most widely cited examples of our animal nature, if we share so much of our nervous systems and the vast majority of our genes with other primates, not to mention many other features (much of the structure of our haemo¬globin, for example), how can I argue that human beings demand a fundamentally different kind of explanation from other organisms?

But if I may reverse this conventional argument, even if human beings had developed out of, yet were now qualitatively different from, the general run of organisms, we would still share a good deal with them. After all, life is not a chemical reaction, but it does rely on chemical structures and their activity. So how much would have to be different for such a change to be considered qualitative? Plainly, if we limit the question to strictly quantitative terms, we do not know. In fact, it is intrinsically unlikely that any question about qualitative differences could ever be answered sensibly in quantitative terms – so many per cent difference in this factor or that, so much growth in our encephalisation index, and so on.

So why should we assume that sharing 50 per cent of our genes, our nervous system or any other biological attribute with another species – or even or 90 per cent or 99.999 per cent – means that there are no qualitative differences between us? A pile of rocks might easily share practically all of its physical content with a Gothic cathedral, but one would surely question whether they were in any important sense the same! There may be some quantifiable sense in which more is better or worse, but even that would not tell me when it became qualitatively other. Conversely, were our encephalisation index twice – or a hundred times – that of our nearest relative, would that mean that we were qualitatively different? Why not conclude that we would still be essentially the same, only more so? In fact, on what grounds would either conclusion be justified? Such an argument would only make sense if one assumed that potential qualitative differences could be meaningfully investigated in quantitative terms. Yet it is precisely the validity of this approach that is in question here. To insist on a biological explanation of human nature solely on the grounds that human beings share many overt features with other organisms is quite empty, since it is not the things we share with sheep or artichokes that make human beings interesting (or indeed human) but rather the things that are different.

In summary, arguments from continuity, ancestry and empirical resemblance can tell us nothing decisive about the qualitative relationship between human beings and other organisms. On the contrary, they assume that there is no qualitative difference here – otherwise what would be the point of the comparison? Perhaps we are just like other organisms, perhaps there is a critical sense in which we are quite different, and perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. But there is nothing in biology that can tell us which is the right answer.

One assumption made by many claims for biology’s precedence over any other approach is that, unlike the humanities, biology is scientific. It is a fair point – biology is indeed scientific (in general terms), whereas the alternatives by and large are not. But it does not follow that if we apply biological methods to human beings, we will get scientific answers. After all, we plainly would not get a scientific account of human existence if we restricted ourselves to the methods of physics or chemistry: as far as I am aware, there is no chemical formula for feudalism. We would merely get a reductionistic trivialisation. Similarly, if biological concepts and methods are not capable of grasping what it means to be a human being, then the results of any would-be human biology must be equally trivial.

If, by contrast, we start from the assumption that the purpose of science is to provide a solution that is adequate to the problem at hand, whatever that solution turns out to be and whatever the methods by which we must arrive at it, then the assumption that biology is the right starting point is much less compelling. In particular, if we share a great deal with other organisms – a proposition I would not dream of contesting – the reverse is not true. The things we share with or inherit from non-intelligent organisms seem to have very little to do with what it means to be human. It is very hard to look at any aspect of human nature that human beings themselves consider important and not suspect that trying to explain such a thing in biological terms is a fool’s errand.

To take only the most obvious way in which human beings differ from other organisms, any credible theory of human nature must explain why human beings have a history while other organisms – even our closest relatives – have none. It is after all only by virtue of the historical dimension of human nature that I can have the same biology as a Cro-Magnon hunter or a medieval Javan peasant yet live a profoundly different life. It is only by virtue of our capacity for history that human beings have moved from being a few thousand slow, weak scavengers to the single most important factor in the environment of practically every other large species on the planet. As I shall try to show in the main body of this book, all this follows from the specifically intelligent nature of human beings.

To repeat, other organisms have no history. It is true that all organisms change over time, that many are altered in substantial yet reversible ways by the actions of their predecessors and contemporaries, that these changes can have a collective effect that is more than the sum of its parts, and that these are all features of historical change. Nevertheless, all changes to all non-human organisms seem to be explicable in terms of changes to their biology, changes in the environment in which they live or (as in the case of social primates) completely localised, transient and contingent changes in relationships between particular organisms. In particular, there is no fundamental change to (and certainly no advance in) the social or practical conditions in which they collectively live and act (as there is in the case of human history), and as a result no changes of which the organisms in question could either take account or exploit in their own further development.

For example, for all their apparent capacity for mutual imitation, social facilitation and even intentional teaching, not even the perfectly real differences in social organisation between chimpanzee troops seem to reflect much more than the accretion of accidental and incidental changes. A given chimpanzee society may well be different from what it was a hundred years ago or from another chimpanzee society on the other side of Africa, but these changes could not be said to have come about by virtue of the self-development or re-structuring of chimpanzee society. Nor are they actively constitutive of the development or the self-organisation of the chimpanzees who live in such societies – there is no possibility of progress in the offing. Nor are they changes that the chimpanzees involved seem capable of noticing, let alone fathoming or taking into account in their subsequent actions. So they are not really historical changes at all.

Conversely, it seems unlikely that the changes that have taken place have systematically altered how chimpanzees inhabit and experience their environment, as historical changes in human societies have transformed not only the scope but also the nature of human activity, organisation and awareness. Finally, it certainly could not be said that chimpanzees are aware of their position in history – in relation to a cultural heritage or a family lineage, for example – or that they act as they do specifically in terms of that historical position. If they did, then chimpanzees would be historical beings too. But they don’t, so they aren’t. And even if there were hints of historicity among the primates, there is none at all elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

So, given the fundamental significance and consequences of human historicity, no explanation of human nature that could not also explain history could possibly be correct. Given both that human beings are above all else historical creatures and that biology has no concepts that are capable of dealing with history, then as soon as one accepts that human beings are historical beings, any appeal to biology is rendered futile.

Our consciousness also seems to set us apart from other organisms. Again, it does not seem to distinguish us absolutely from other primates and perhaps a few other species, but there seems to be very little reason to think that it is at all pervasive, even among the more sophisticated echelons of the animal kingdom. Yet the consequences of our consciousness are so vast that they leave even the most sophisticated primates lagging behind quite small children. As human beings, we have ways of structuring our consciousness of things and events, such as symbolism, metaphor, logic and mathematics, rules, science, ideology, imagination, values and even bureaucratic procedure, that are literally infinitely more powerful than anything other organisms have produced. Again, if other organisms showed any sign of such abilities it might be appropriate to compare them with human beings. But they don’t, and given the radical importance of consciousness to human activity, and the lack of any explanation of consciousness in biological terms, it is again hard to see why one would even begin looking to biology for an explanation of human activity.

It is tempting for biologists to reply to this argument that consciousness is plainly highly adaptive. But then so is having a history, and so would being lucky or being able to perform miracles or having all your wishes come true, but that does not mean that, if an organism possessed such abilities, they would be open to biological explanation. Being adaptive is at best an explanation for why things that already exist persist. It is never an explanation for why they come into existence in the first place (that would be teleological), for their structure (adaptation is a wholly functional criterion) or for the processes and mechanisms through which they operate (which are all wholly transparent to the notion of adaptiveness). Since, as I shall argue in detail below, what is peculiar to intelligent activity is the special character that is conferred by its unique structures, processes and mechanisms, and indeed its ability to act in terms of, among other things, its expectations and plans for the future, plainly biology will have little to offer by way of an explanation.

This difference goes to the very heart of biology, even to the point where the mechanisms of evolution itself are overthrown. For what is the process of ‘random variation and natural selection’ but a process whereby the functioning of an organism is changed in some way that is not directed by any sense of that functioning’s functionality; and the functionality of that functioning is determined by external factors (the forces of selection)? This is precisely the opposite of an intelligent action. For what could be more typical of intelligence than deciding in advance what it was trying to accomplish (reaching a goal, sustaining a value, realising a design, and so on), then defining the process, mechanisms and steps whereby this outcome can best be achieved (a plan, a tool kit, a resource list, a work environment, etc.), and then proceeding to work towards that outcome, all the while adjusting and re-adjusting one’s actual actions to suit changes in effectiveness, circumstance, and so on? And even when we fail, is there any obstacle to learning directly from our mistakes, as there so obviously is for strictly biological adaptations?

Indeed, isn’t all this indispensable to that most hallowed of intelligent actions – science itself? How, for example, would it be possible to ‘do’ evolutionary theory if one relied of the indirect methods of evolution itself? How does one construct and perform an experiment, if not by constructing a hypothesis, defining procedures for arriving at an outcome, and then evaluating what the outcome means in relation to the original hypothesis? Or does each new idea emerge at random, emitted into an external environment with which it has no intrinsic connection, where it is then subjected to ‘selection’ by equally extraneous forces that deal solely in terms of reproductive efficiency and effectiveness, as opposed to truth or even empirical correctness? Do the scientists who initiated this process remain oblivious to the entire process and its outcome, as a non-intelligent animal is of the evolutionary origins, significance and consequences of its actions? Such would be the case if scientific knowledge were the product of natural selection.

And so on, through every arena of human activity. Other organisms hunt and forage; we have a global economy. A few other organisms make elementary tools; we hunt quarks and quasars, create new elements, build complete artificial environments and write equations for the end of the universe. A few social insects apart, other organisms have relationships with a modest local group; we operate a global society with billions of members. The most advanced non-human organisms are capable of a level of representation broadly equal to that possessed by a small child; adult human beings have full-blown natural language, art, religion, philosophy, programming languages, logic and mathematics, science, law… And they all appeared in the twinkling of an eye, evolutionarily speaking – far too fast and far too precisely, in fact, for random variation and natural selection to have created them, or for them to have emerged from any known biological precursor, or for any organic structure or process to have directed their construction. Once one adds to this how extremely difficult it is to describe the formation, operation and change of human individuals and societies in biological terms – the one-sided, circular and self-serving arguments of the adaptationist lobby notwithstanding – it becomes difficult to draw any conclusion other than that, the frenetic attention biologists pay to human beings notwithstanding, seeking a biological account of the specifically human aspects of human nature is a futile quest.

This still leaves one tenuous link between biology and intelligence: the primates, dolphins and perhaps other species that can also make a realistic claim to at least some of the tell-tale features of intelligence, such as language, self-awareness, and so on. Their claims are by no means universally accepted, but I have no doubt that human beings and chimpanzees have a good deal more in common than chimpanzees and ants. But in what way does that fact contradict the view that there is a qualitative difference between biology and intelligence? If there were such a difference and it was not brought about by fairy dust or a divine spark, then surely one would expect intermediate forms? After all, is a virus alive or is it, as Peter Medawar put it, ‘simply a piece of bad news wrapped in protein’? Clearly, it depends what you mean by ‘alive’. In some circumstances, yes, a virus qualifies as alive, or at least as the kernel of a living thing; in others, certainly not. And likewise, whether a chimpanzee, a whale or a parrot is intelligent depends on what you mean by intelligent. By the criterion of consciousness, then yes, they probably are, to a limited extent, especially when provided with the right ‘scaffolding’; but by the criterion of historicity or clear intelligence in the absence of any external support, then perhaps they aren’t. But that does not mean that the concept of intelligence is incoherent, that history and consciousness are not characteristic of intelligence or that a fully developed intelligence would not have both to the full. It means only that the different aspects of intelligence, like the different aspects of life, come into existence in a somewhat disorderly way.

And what if we were to discover that chimpanzee societies have a history after all, replete with highly structured social systems and major phases comparable to feudalism and the like? What should one infer from this fact? That human beings are just organisms after all? Or that chimpanzees have joined human beings on this side of the (empirically broad and indistinct) divide that separates biology from intelligence? It is after all not the purpose of the present account to argue that human beings are different; rather, it is intelligent beings that stand apart, and if chimpanzees (or whales or African grey parrots or even nematode worms) stand with us, then so be it.

One last point about the relationship between biology and intelligence. At present, the main non-human candidates for intelligence proper are the chimpanzee, the parrot and the dolphin. Note how unexpected this would be from a strictly evolutionary point of view. Primates are quite closely related to the one definitely intelligent species of which we know – ourselves – and it seems that the most intelligent primates are (with some notable exceptions) those closest to human beings. But primates, dolphins and parrots share no common ancestor that could possibly have been intelligent, so how do we explain the fact that such distantly related species share this common (yet most uncommon) feature? As far as we can tell, insofar as they are intelligent at all, dolphins, parrots, primates and human beings are all intelligent in the same sense, and their respective intelligences embody a case not of evolutionary convergence but of evolutionary identity. The resemblance between chimpanzee intelligence and dolphin intelligence is not like the similar streamlining of dolphins, sharks and ichthyosaurs: they are not merely structurally similar but structurally identical. For example, they all seem to develop through the same stages and they all seem to make much the same characteristic unforced errors while immature – clear indicators that the underlying structures are identical. Given that, from a biological point of view, such identities are completely inexplicable, plainly routine biology is not the answer. On the other hand, if intelligence is indeed a novel structure rather than the cumulative effect of strictly biological changes, then it is just as plausible that it could have arisen in parallel from many different biological ancestries as it is that life itself could have arisen from many different pre-biotic chemistries.

In short, there may be other organisms that have also started to break away from the constraints of a strictly biological existence, but to argue that human beings have not done so would be preposterous in the extreme.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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