Thursday, April 6, 2017

Adam, Pt. 2, What Makes Man Man?

What makes man man? That seems like it would be an easy question. Each one of us can identify a human being when we see one and easily differentiate between a human and our nearest biological relative the chimp. The easy answer to what seems like an easy question - and the most frequent answer - would be the answer a recent contributor to posted: "I accept the biological definition for Homo Sapiens." By that I suppose he meant it is in the DNA.
   However, biologically there is only about a 1% difference between chimps and humans. That does not seem sufficient to account for what we all see as rather extreme differences, differences that allow humans to build space ships while chimps use only very simple tools, differences that allow humans to write poetry and operas and create temples dedicated to what they conceive of as God while chimps are still chattering about food sources and who's the alpha male of the group.

   That has led researchers to look for additional processes that determine the expression of characteristics that may have lain hidden in the genome of our common ancestor. Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D. and professor of biology at Washington University, where she teaches cell biology and molecular evolution, believes that the secret of extreme differences between humans and chimps is found in the genetic switches.
If the chimp and human protein-encoding genes are virtually all the same, then are there any interesting differences in their switch regions? Given the bottom-up nature of development, mutant switches could have large-scale consequences. NPR

   In other words, a mutation in a gene that operates as a switch could change the development of the organism and a species in a big way. It could switch on and cause the expression of genes that had evolved over time but had lain latent and unexpressed in the genome. Is that what made man man? Hard-core biologist types would say yes. But there are other voices.

  David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D.,  associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of The Human Nature Project, says, "Answering this question is not as straightforward as it might appear."
Can’t we turn to science for an answer? Not really. Some paleoanthropologists identify the category of the human with the species Homo sapiens, others equate it with the whole genus Homo, some restrict it to the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, and a few take it to encompass the entire hominin lineage. These differences of opinion are not due to a scarcity of evidence. They are due to the complete absence of evidence − or, to put the point with greater clarity, the absence of any conception of what sort of evidence can settle the question of which group or groups of primates should be counted as human. Biologists aren’t equipped to tell us whether an organism is a human organism because “human” is a folk-category rather a scientific one. ...  In deciding that all and only Homo sapiens are humans, one is expressing a preference about where the boundary separating humans from non-humans should be drawn, rather than discovering where such a boundary lays.    Psychology Today
   After a lot more words, Smith's comments boil down to this: we don't really know what makes man man. But it isn't as simple as DNA.

   Maybe common sense is the way to go. Common sense says we are different from other animals in our ability to create and appreciate art, our ability to think abstractly, our ability to think about ourselves (consciousness), our ability to imagine, and our sense of right and wrong. There are other traits that might be added, but these are basic. Those traits can be seen in all humans and through history back to the time when we can detect humanness in our distant ancestors. They are, in fact, how we detect humanness. They are seen in the artifacts humans have created and in the occupations of the human mind as humans have told stories and pondered philosophical questions.

   What chimp asks the existential questions of "who am I; what am I here for; where is it all going?" But every human does at one level or another. What chimp creates art for the sake of art.  No chimp engages in philosophy or art ... or religion.

   Literary aside: It is something of an amusing irony that if human beings are totally the product of their DNA, as some who are resistant to religion and fully committed to a naturalistic universe claim, religion is coded into the human DNA. We may as well try to eliminate the writing of novels as eliminate religion; religion like story telling is hardwired. If humans are totally the product of our DNA.

  It is difficult to see how those things might have evolved naturally, even given Goodenough's switches. There is something else. What is it?

   It is at this point that religion, specifically the Bible, might be consulted. The Bible in a very old and very intriguing story tells about the origin of man. And for those who listen to the story carefully, it is remarkable, especially when we consider how long ago the story began to be told. The story is the narrative of Adam and Eve.

   The narrative, as many have noted, has elements of allegory, the talking snake, for example, and perhaps the two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Anyone acquainted with literature can recognize that. But it is also tied to a specific, identifiable place, Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It has the feel of real history, despite the allegorical elements. And it makes the claim that this is where man began.

   Pure science types will, of course, object. In their narrative, man began very long ago in Africa as our pre-human Hominid ancestors climbed down out of the trees and began to roam the savanna. And that is that. But listen to the Bible's story.

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