I want to convey and discuss how deeply biological I believe our humanity is and to start off this task, I think a narrative of exemplars from my life’s learning can provide important context. This begins with reading the work of Susanne Langer in college and thereafter; her writings focused on symbolization and art, then moved on to the biology of mind in her three volume magnum opus, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling. From there I became interested in linguistics, especially psycholinguistics, so that I read Chomsky, the many who carried forth his ideas about grammar, and David McNeil, Lev Vygotsky and many others who extended this focus on child development. This led to my gaining my M.S. in speech and language pathology and developing even further my interest in language and brain. Thus, as I worked with children with language learning disorders, I read more linguistics and began a survey of the great brain scientists of the day, Luria, Pribram, Jackson, and many others, including Norman Geschwind.
I had the good fortune to attend a conference he organized and spoke at during this time. Given the brain science of today, it seems eerie to remember that prior to Dr. Geschwind’s work in the late 60s/early 70s, many if not most neurologists believed that the two cerebral hemispheres were virtually identical. Dr. Geschwind told us that he took a 6 inch rule down to the basement where brains were preserved for study and measured the plenum temporale (one nexus for language processing) in this sample and showed that the hemispheres were indeed quite different. Of course we know today that lateralization differences appear throughout the different levels of the nervous system in humans and other animals.
I took something of a break from language and brain and pursued my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I had planned on specializing in neuropsychology but both my graduate program and clinical internship lost key faculty and resources in this area and I became interested in the more severe psychopathology evident in children and adolescents. This led to learning more about attachment and trauma and this led me back to understanding brain development and the impact of experience during the sensitive maturational period and later on in adulthood. Another myth fell by the way as I learned that contrary to what I had been taught over two episodes of graduate school, neurons continue to be created well into adulthood.
Finally I have had the pleasure most recently to delve back into aesthetics, the philosophy of mind and brain science with a renewed focus on the biological roots of humanity. This means to me to learn about psychology not as a social science but as a biological one, to assess philosophical thinking in terms of its understanding of mind as organic rather than machine, and to muse at the incredible and not always beautiful variety of human thinking, action, and culture. It also means taking stock of human religious or, better, spiritual experience and of the reductionistic materialism of some, even most, good science. Both spiritual and scientific experience place a premium on our ignorance: of our poor understanding of the origins of life and mind, of our lack of knowledge about the universe, its origins, its inclusion of dark matter, and what a difference the scale of measurement makes, and finally, as William James endeavored over a century ago, what to make of the varieties of religious experience. I have the good fortune to live during a time when such questions are meaningful and intellectual freedom permits such enquiries for the most part.
An important assumption here, as trivial as it may seem, is that humans are animals. If you listen to how many others address this matter, you will frequently hear about “humans and animals,” even in scientific discourse about “studies in humans and animals.” The missing word “other” here is a logical necessity in my mind. I do not think people say they are going to buy or to study “apples and fruit” in quite the same way. Separating ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom seems a normal enough reaction to our symbolic capacity with its consequences for our consciousness, art, science and engineering. Separating ourselves from the animal kingdom seems to me a religious error and the source of a rationalization used in justifying slavery, racism, sexism, cruelty and other inhumane acts.
However, kinship cannot be denied, especially today when genetic science shows how completely all of life on this planet is related. Going further, consider the story recently about a scuba diver leading a group of underwater tourists to watch stingrays off the Hawaiian coast. He noticed a dolphin swimming with difficulty around the humans. When he went away from his group, the dolphin approached him and exposed his difficulty, fishing hooks and lines entangled tightly around his fins preventing normal locomotion. The diver took out some diving tools (well prepared wasn’t he?) and began to cut the lines and try to extract the hooks. The dolphin not only permitted this but cooperated with it, at one point swimming to the surface for a breath and then returning for the diver to finish the job. A similar story is told of a whale who when freed from entangling net and ropes by divers swam around experiencing its regained freedom and then went and tapped each diver’s mask with its beak.
What is salient here is that the dolphin did not go to the stingrays seeking help and that he permitted a human with sharp tools and pliers to cut away at line and remove a hook. The whale did not thank the divers’ hands but their faces. Even more than the prosocial, as we term it today, behaviors and engagement of the animals involved, I am fascinated by the connection between them, most assuredly a mental one, an empathic communication and establishment of some level of trust. Cetaceans have also evolved social and thinking brains and more will be said of this later, but consider this thought experiment. Tuna fisherman used to use nets that also captured and killed dolphins. Public outcry led to the development of different net designs and fishing practices to minimize this unwanted consequence. Thinking about this, placing oneself in the dolphin’s ‘shoes’ so to speak, finding oneself captured in a net with a bunch of tuna, ‘dumb’ fish you eat, in their situation, you work your way through the panicked mass and find yourself trapped by the net. The tuna struggle and exhaust themselves against the net to escape, but you, the dolphin can appraise the situation differently. You can see their futility and you can see the blue depths beyond where your freedom lies. Maybe you can seek the net opening to escape; more likely you will expire by drowning, understanding that freedom lies not in the struggle with the net but in the blue depths beyond. This is an anthropomorphic projection, I know, but not that far really from what cetacean understanding must be. Humanity depends upon such things.