Posts Tagged ‘DNA’

15. Linguality and its consequences


The philosophical term ‘linguality’ is the translation of Heidegger’s concept Sprachlichkeit. In the work of another hermeneutic philosopher it appears even as ‘linguisticality’, but for humanosophic purposes the word ‘linguality’ suffices. However, our definition is not exactly the same as Heidegger’s.

What is then the humanosophic definition? We already defined ‘humanosophy’: the humanist/philosophical view on human nature as the mental condition of an ape who has begun to use names for the things, gradually finding himself in a named world, in a virtual ‘words-world’. The definition of linguality in this context (in another sense than just ‘the ability to use language’) is obvious: with ‘linguality’ we mean the mental predisposition to experience the world in concepts. This is the characteristic that makes us humans unique among all animals.

Seen from a wider perspective, linguality is the latest, most complex culmination of a natural, even universal development. According to the American astrophysicist Eric Chaisson, the universe started with the simplest kind of complexity: the mere fusion of hydrogen and helium into primordial stars. This fusion produced complex molecules that endured in the clouds of dust around the implosions of those first stars. In favorable environments, on some planets of the second generation of stars, such complex molecules (matter) could generate even more complex combinations, like RNA on Earth. In the rare ideal circumstances on our own planet Earth, the complexity of matter progressed step by step to the evolution of DNA, and eventually of more complex life forms. This evolution was about finding ever more refined tricks to absorb energy from the environment. The cell was a step, and so was the super cell, was multicellularity, were organisms, were sensory organs, were brains, was intelligence. Living in groups was a step. The lingual consciousness of humans is the ultimate trick, the (preliminary?) culmination of complexity of matter in the Universe. But: still serving to absorb energy from the environment to stay alive and multiply.

Our lingual consciousness, the grasping, comprehending understanding of the world, started with the first gestured name. In the beginning, it was still rather inadequate. Nevertheless, eventually the humans had to rely on it: they had made instinct secondary. When you no longer use an organ it will shrink, and something similar happened to our instinct. Because the humans began to understand their world with a lingual understanding that was still weak and unreliable, they fell prey to incertitude. Therefore, this is the first major consequence of linguality: it made us into worrying apes’.

By itself, incertitude is not a new phenomenon in the Universe. When an animal comes upon a situation where his instinct cannot give an adequate impulse, it may feel uncertain. But for humans, incertitude became a more permanent part of daily life experience.

One cannot live with constant incertitude, so the early humans developed two anguish allaying mechanisms. The first one was repetition: rhythm, dancing, singing, rituals: I already mentioned some scholars who suggest that human ritual behavior reduces anxiety. Tradition has the same effect: doing things the same way they had be done since many generations. Consequently, the early humans were astonishingly conservative. Over more than a million of years, the form and material of their hand-axes showed virtually no change. In their named world, the most important tradition and ritual was the danced singing of the creation story every night around the camp fire.

The second anguish-allaying factor became belief: a firm inner conviction that things are the way we want them to be, or at least are the way somebody with status and/or authority says they should be. In primitive times humans were not yet acquainted with the concept of authority: in the group, they were more or less equal. Therefore the most important parts of their belief were not based on some kind of authority, but rather on magic (fear allaying ritual actions) and myth (tradition-based elucidations of the world).

Until our scientific times, it was never important whether a story was true. It mattered only if it was a good (useful) story, a story which people wanted to be true, which was felt to be relevant to their existence. Just like in a later era, in the time of patriarchal society, the story of the birth of Eve out of a rib of Adam became a good story because it was just what the men wanted to hear, as a reinforcement of their supremacy. Such stories had to be true.

The thus acquired certitude enabled our ancestors to intervene in their environment. As I said before: names for the things also gave them (a feeling of) power over the things. linguality created a distance between the understanding brain and the object, the understood thing or phenomenon. Humankind became a factor in nature that mastered a mental but also an instrumental power over the world, the first critical intervention in the natural environment being the control of fire. The inner conviction that some ritual words – such as incantations, charms or spells – evoke magical forces that can create or destroy, is just as ancient. Knowing somebody’s name gives a feeling of power over him. Naming somebody can be felt as disrespectful, or even be understood as violating the named one’s integrity (which is why in several traditional religions, including Judaism, the actual name of the feared powers (be it natural elements such as a tiger or a volcano, or the gods, or a single God) may not be spoken aloud.

As another consequence of having names for the things, the ability to exchange complex thought scenarios with each other became a powerful new strategy: two know more than one, and people now could share their thoughts and overcome the biggest problems. Essentially, this is the power of democracy.

Some other consequences need to be mentioned here. Between the lingual creatures and their environment, an apparatus of thousands of concepts (the sign language codes associated with representations in the brains) arose, which created a ‘virtual’ world. All things in our world are named things, but how can we be sure that this is the only world? Many philosophers (Plato with his cave metaphor; Kant with the thing as representation and the thing in itself) wrestle with the feeling that, besides the world we know, there is a another or even more real world, but one which slips out of our hands as soon as we try to name and know it: talking about it is by definition not possible. Perhaps this philosophical ‘second’ or ‘real’ world exists in the larger part of our thinking: lingual consciousness takes only 20% of our actual thinking.

A last important consequence was the emergence of the bastion of holiness. Our ancestors kept their incertitude at bay with belief and magic rituals. They believed when and where they couldn’t know for sure: these beliefs were imagined certitudes, pseudo-elucidations, not based on hard evidence. Deep in their minds, incertitude lived on. So the necessary elucidations were canonized into holy elucidations. Holy is unassailable, untouchable: something holy may not be doubted or called in question. But this runs counter to the progress of our lingual consciousness, our knowing, our rationality. To the only ability which can really free us from incertitude. This contradiction between holiness and rationality is the most dramatic consequence of our growing into lingual creatures.

By briefly discussing these important consequences of the emergence of our named world, a world consisting of named things, I hope to have given some meaningful context to my new up-filling of the concept linguality.

20. Good natured


This is the title of the philosophically most relevant book of primatologist Frans de Waal (1996). Now we get to the point I mentioned before: that during 95,5% of all the time that our species can be considered human, our ancestors lived as gatherers-hunters. In these millions of years, our human nature has been formed. In the most recent eight thousand years (0,5% of our history) that we have been living as settled farmers, our original gatherer-hunter nature has been frustrated, but not wiped out.

First, something about a question that has been much debated in the last few thousand years of philosophy: is human nature intrinsically good or bad? Many philosophers from the past, for example Plato or Hobbes, tended to the second option. In many forms of religious belief, for example ultra-orthodox Protestantism, an inherent badness – sinfulness – of human nature is postulated as well. On the other hand we have had philosophers, such as in the 18th century Enlightenment, who opted for a positive – sometimes even naively positive – view on human nature: just let Reason reign, install true democracy, and everything will be alright. Both views on human nature are simplistic and one-sided because implicitly, they are based on moral presumptions about what constitutes “good” versus “bad” behavior.

In more modern philosophy, the trend is rather to avoid such moral presumptions about human nature. Modern philosophy has often (and not always in a fruitful manner) been reduced to playing with words and abstractions, while claiming to not being able to contribute much when it comes to moral matters. Whether we like it or not, by avoiding such moral positions, modern philosophy does no longer function as the moral beacon it once, alongside religion, was in human society and has made itself in a social sense largely irrelevant.

As for the anthropologists, they too seem to follow a pessimistic philosophical view on human nature. In the 1950s, shortly after World War II, among them the “killer ape hypothesis” of anthropologist Raymond Dart was influential. According this hypothesis, war and interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution. Science writer Robert Ardrey expanded on this idea in African Genesis (1961), suggesting that the urge to act violently was a fundamental trait of the human mindset. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz also emphasized this pessimistic view of human nature with his book On aggression (1966). According Lorenz, animals, particularly males, are biologically programmed to fight over resources. Movies such as Planet of the Apes (1968) show that this issue affected popular opinion[1]. In 1996, Wrangham and Peterson followed the Dart/Lorenz trail in their influential book Demonic Males, suggesting an evolutionary connection between violent chimpanzees and violent man. However, in the same year the Dutch/American ethologist Frans de Waal countered with his influential book Good Natured.

The reader will already understand that the humanosophic view follows the latter view. Wrangham and Peterson even presume that our H. erectus ancestors deceived others and waged wars. We think that war emerged simply as the result of overpopulation: as the consequence of a social, not an inherent problem. H. erectus groups were sparse and needed each other for their survival. When two groups met each other, this was more reason for feast than for war: the groups needed each other for interchanging experiences and partners, and presumably for handing out sparks of fire[2]. As for the deceiving, we already presumed that H. erectuses were sign language communicators, for whom deceiving is more difficult: with body language, it would mean having to hold many muscles under more conscious control, which is difficult even for present-day sign language communicators.

Other convincing concrete evidence of our assumption of peacefulness is furnished by the most primitive people of present-day mankind: the scarce little populations of pure gatherer-hunters, like the Inuit and the San people. If it had been our ancestors’ nature to deceive each other and to wage wars, then these last of the gatherer-hunters would demonstrate a similar war-faring culture. But on the contrary, these are very peaceful people.

Many of the other primitive groups we know today, like the Yanomamö in the Amazon area and the Mountain Papuans in New Guinea, are not just gatherer-hunters anymore but rather horticulturalists. These groups live in a totally other situation than the gatherer-hunters: a situation of overpopulation, since too many groups have to share limited resources. This situation leaves them no other choice than to fight for survival. It is such overpopulation that forced them to give up the pure gatherer-hunter lifestyle. But in the long run of human history, this overpopulation is a relative recent phenomenon.

Human nature as we view it, is a three-stage rocket. The first stage we share with all living creatures, even with bacteria and plants. It is the individual drive to take as much energy as possible from the environment to stay alive and procreate. It is this self-centered survival drive that still gets the upper hand in real or imagined panic situations.

The second stage: our ancestors were group animals. By living in a group they were able to extract energy, to stay alive and procreate, in a more efficient way than an individual. Theoretically there are three kinds of groups: firstly the insect-groups like ants or bees where the individual is no more than a component of one collective organism, secondly the herd-groups like swarms of fishes or sparrows, and herds of zebras or buffaloes[3], and in the third place the social groups of highly self-conscious animals such as elephants, dolphins and apes.

We are apes, so for our second stage we have to look to the group animals and especially to the bonobos and chimpanzees: our next of kin. In the permanent survival fight between their groups, chimpanzees have an individual interest in being a member of the strongest group. To keep their group strong, they must minimize the internal fights. When two chimpanzee males do have a fight, then afterwards they try desperately to reconcile. Bonobos use sex for minimizing internal group tensions.

These group animals to which we humans belong, are driven by two contradictory impulses: egoism (the me-myself-and-I drive) and altruism (you have more chances to survive and to pass on your DNA in an harmonious group, so you must curb your egoism). These two impulses are at right angles to each other and would condemn individuals to a paralyzing indecision if they did not have a calming mechanism at their disposal: manners, rules for social intercourse, culture, ‘norms and values’. Basically this mechanism is present with all group animals,[4] and in a more complex manner, similar mechanisms still keep us humans together. In moralistic philosophy, the two opposite impulses (altruistic vs. egoistic) often correspond with concepts of good and evil.

This ‘norms and values culture’ only works within a coherent group. It does not extend across different groups: in fact, it is a form of egoism-as-a-group. It does allow aggression and violence against any other groups. But we saw that the groups of Early Humans were small (about 25 individuals) and rare, and so they needed each other. During the countless centuries that our ancestors were Homo, there was rarely any reason or opportunity for aggression and violence between groups at all. The groups needed each other for their survival: for exchange of sex partners, knowledge and experience. When two of these groups met, it was occasion for a feast.

However, as for the moralistic good and evil, how should we label violence against other groups of the same kind? Good or evil? So we have to define what is ‘good’. Good is what is conducive for the survival. For the individual survival? Then purely egoistic, self-centered behavior would be ‘good’! But usually such behavior is not good for the group as a whole: from the group perspective, such egoistic behavior is ‘evil’! So ape groups developed ‘norms and values’, developed a primitive form of morality: for a group animal, good is behavior that is conducive for the survival of the group.

As for the third stage of the human nature rocket, our ancestors developed a social norms and values culture that extended beyond the limits of one’s own group: as long as our ancestral Early Humans were pure gatherer-hunters, they were are able to behave as noble wilds, living in harmony with their natural environment, with each other, and even with other human groups. And because that long-long time has determined our human nature, we are still noble wilds in our deepest desires. For humans, harmony is good.[5] ***It is the result of natural selection: in the harsh environments groups with harmony flourished more than quarreling groups. After thousands of generations, inclination to harmony became an innate tendency.

We still long for harmony, we still feel that being kind to each other is the most livable basis for society. Since we became AMHs (the last 100.000 years after 2 million years of being gatherer-hunters) this basic social feeling got perhaps somewhat frustrated when larger groups of 150-200 individuals evolved. But it only got frustrated totally after we became horticulturalists, with all the warfare and machismo that this recent lifestyle implied. The lowest point was reached in the class-based societies since 5000 years ago, with slavery, mass cruelties and monotheism.

Today we have a chance for recuperation. The unique quality of humanity is that we are capable of reflection. This capability may be seen as a further refining step on the path of extracting energy from the environment and of passing-on DNA. On the basis of reflection we may become aware that all groups of humans have the same interest: surviving on the planet Earth. Beyond our own planet, there is no alternative place available for extracting our energy and for passing-on our DNA. Once we see the need for it, we humans have the capability to make the next step beyond group harmony: global harmony between all our groups.

Our universal basic story, the science-based new ‘creation story’, may serve as an essential building stone for this reflection.

So are Wrangham & Peterson wrong with their Demonic Males? No, not wrong, but biased and overlooking the long-long evolutionary human history of low population density that repeatedly brought us to the verge of extinction. Wrangham & Peterson and their adepts see only ‘stage’ 1 and 2 as human nature. They are obviously ignorant of the peaceful nature of our longtime pure gathering-hunting existence, unaware of the more recent effects of overpopulation, and therefore unacquainted with the overall historical development of human nature.

[1] perhaps influenced by the German/American humanist psychologist Erich Fromm, in 1986 under US auspices the Seville Statement on Violence stated that while patterns of human aggression may be inherited, warfare need not be a necessary consequence

[2] even today Andaman groups have to ‘lend’ fire when their own fire has been extinguished by accident

[3] the herd is still the best environment for the individual to realize its me-myself-and-I interests, but its survival is best served by being as un-individualistic as possible in appearance and in behavior

[4] Frans de Waal Our Inner Ape. Why We Are Who We Are (2005)

[5] *** Not for humans only. Recently biologist Radersma of University Groningen published his thesis (2011) about research on great tits. Nest with an equal number of male and female chickens flourished better than imbalanced nest: less quarrel and competition and loss of energy