I am a big fan of Frans de Waals and his approach to finding the roots of our humanity by understanding other animals. This was Darwin’s great contribution in 1859 with On the Origin of Species and then in 1871 with the Descent of Man. I tend to think of this as a more recent idea in our culture, which until the 16th century, was governed by religious precepts—you know, humans, especially the males, are specifically blessed by god. I have read, though, that even some ancient Greeks climbed Mt Olympus and not finding the gods, conceived of a natural reality rather than a supernatural one. Ah, well, just a minority. Western civilization’s weltanshauung of humanity, however, was based upon a monopoly on spiritual transcendence (lucky white people, ain’t that a coincidence!?) and that continues to be the case more than we might estimate today. It took modern science until Darwin to gather in that any and all humans are biological and evolved and evolving (well, maybe). That was 1859.
Well, now I read in Honore de Balzac’s 1835 novel Pere Goriot this sentence, “The bold philosopher who shall investigate the effects of mental action upon the physical world will doubtless find more than one proof of the material nature of our sentiments in other animals”. He is talking specifically about the ultra-altruistic parenting instinct old father Goriot shows for his daughters who, though rich because of his sacrifice, have abandoned him to poverty and ridicule. Balzac’s prescient metaphor is amazing; a realist writer intuitively understood the truth of such an idea and used it to show the depth of parental love in the midst of a rich narrative about a rather vain shallow society. Science came to this revolutionary formulation some 20 years later, but then, when I consider the knowledge and wisdom of agriculturalists, such a way of thinking was surely commonplace, albeit framed by the religiously defined ladder of life. If art mimics life, then science mimics art, and I mean that literally—see my posts about memes and mirrors. And where does religion fit in? Just a conceited imagination running away with you, necessary perhaps but not good or bad necessarily. Travel on.