The Seeds of Humanity
Hauser (Marc D.)
Source: University of Utah Website
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Humans create plays, operas, sculptures, computers, equations, laws, religions, guns, and soufflés. This is only a partial list of our achievements. In the history of life on earth, we are the only species to have created such creations. If a Martian landed on earth and had to develop a taxonomy of the living organisms, he could not be faulted for classifying the bees, birds, beavers, and baboons with the birches and baobabs, while placing humans in a group all on their own. After all, not only have baboons and baobabs never produced a soufflé, but they have never even contemplated the possibility. Baobabs lack the brains, whereas baboons lack the kind of brain that has both technological savoir faire and gastronomical creativity.
  2. These observations suggest the first radical proposition I will make: we are not animals. Forget all the news about our shared genetic heritage with chimpanzees. If the fact that we share some 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees is meaningful, then why isn’t a chimpanzee writing this essay, or singing backup for the rolling Stones, or working on quantum computing, or adjudicating over a legal case, or making me a soufflé? These facts about common genetic heritage just do not give us any traction into the problem of our uniqueness, our humaniqueness.
  3. In addition to our exceptional achievements, we are also a paradoxically variable species. Different human cultures produce different languages, musical compositions, moral norms, and artifacts. From the viewpoint of one culture, another culture’s expressions are often bizarre, sometimes distasteful, frequently incomprehensible, and occasionally immoral. Without doubt, the variation is massive, apparently limitless, and certainly meaningful to the individuals who share a particular culture. Nothing like this exists in other animals, even our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Looked at in this way, a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee — a cultural nonstarter.
  4. These observations lead, however, to a second radical proposition: the observed variation in human cultural expression, though unique, is superficial, concealing deep facts about our genetic constitution and the neural wiring it creates. What we perceive as differences between and within cultures is an illusion. The illusion is shattered, however, once we harness the discoveries of molecular biology and neuroscience to reveal four essential properties of human brain function:
    • Property 1: The only way to generate limitless variation in expression is by means of recursive and combinatorial operations. Recursion is a looping operation, where a rule is called up over and over again, adding new expressions, be they longer sentences, new musical scores, or tools within tools (think Swiss army knife). The combinatorics allow us to combine and recombine discrete elements to create new representations.
    • Property 2: Human creativity comes from our capacity to promiscuously play with thoughts from different domains of knowledge, allowing symbols for art, sex, space, causality, and friendship to combine, generating new laws, social relationships, and technologies.
    • Property 3: We spontaneously convert analog representations to digital symbols, providing discrete elements for our recursive-combinatoric operations, and achieving great economy of computation.
    • Property 4: Unlike animals, whose conceptual representations are anchored in sensory and perceptual experiences, many of our representational resources are highly abstract, with no clear connection to sensation and perception; language is one of many such systems.
  5. Together, these properties provide a remarkable potential, but also a set of constraints that limit the range of possible languages, musical scores, moral rules, and technological devices. What creates specific cultural variants is a process of selection among the biologically presented options, building Korean or French, Bach or the Beatles, punishable or permissible killings, and spears or missiles.
  6. To defend these two propositions, I develop four points in Lecture I. First, I provide a short preamble from research in evolutionary developmental biology (evodevo) showing that a core set of cellular operations and innovations, originating around the Cambrian some 500 million years ago, provided the source of all subsequent variation critical for constructing adaptive solutions to existing problems. On this view, much of the observed variation in animal anatomy and physiology, both extinct and extant, is superficial, relying on a basic blueprint, shared by all animals. Put simply, yes, there are tiny flies and massive whales, as well as spherical blowfish and cylindrical snakes, but there is one blueprint.
  7. Second, I showcase the idea that 50 years of research in modern linguistics, initiated by the deep insights of Noam Chomsky, leads to a stunning conclusion: the variation observed among the world’s languages is a trompe l’oeil, a dupe that makes us believe that we can create, willy-nilly, an unlimited variety of languages. Hiding beneath the surface of this canvas is a set of universal computations, optimally designed to solve the problem of linking sound to meaning. Paralleling the work in biology, every human is born with a lingua kit — a universal grammar — for building a range of possible languages. Inside the kit are two essential elements: recursive operations and interfaces or connections between modules of the mind. [ … snip … ]
  8. Third, based on the parallel developments in biology and generative linguistics, and the fact that there was a sudden and surprising emergence of cave art, sophisticated cooking, musical instruments, complex weapons, and linguistic symbols, I suggest that this period in our history represents the starting point for our cultured genome. At this point, and not before, every healthy human was born with a capacity to create any language, music, moral norm, or artifact. This leads to two conclusions. One, the birth of new languages, musical expressions, moral institutions, and technologies should not trigger a celebration of our creativity. Rather, these novel expressions should inspire a toast to the evolution of a cultured genome some 100,000 years ago, a biological architecture that provided the potential to create such variation. Second, the variation is superficial, created by a core set of generative computations together with promiscuous interfaces between different domains of knowledge.
  9. Fourth, by pursuing these ideas, and the currently available evidence, I provide an explanation for how, on the one hand, human and nonhuman animal mental life appears to share so many cognitive resources, and, on the other, how human thought and its remarkable capacity for cultural expression seem unique — an explanation for our humaniqueness. Specifically, I suggest that humans evolved a distinctive cognitive architecture by building from a set of ancient mechanisms, adding a small number of unique generative processes together with interfaces between modular, domain-specific systems of knowledge. [ … snip … ]
  10. The road map ahead is as follows. I begin in Lecture I with a discussion of our mental uniqueness, and how these capacities triggered a cultural revolution. This section also discusses why the observed variation in cultural expression is illusory, based on a core set of generative capacities coupled with promiscuous interfaces between domains of knowledge.1 In Lecture II, I take some of the ideas from Lecture I and apply them to a discussion of our moral sense, focusing in particular on the evolutionary and developmental origins of our intuitive ethics.2 I then end with a brief discussion of how these ideas can be misinterpreted with respect to prescriptive claims about human nature and humanity, and how they can be properly interpreted and harnessed to create a more humanitarian space on the planet.
  11. Marc Hauser is a professor of psychology and human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, where he is also director of the Cognitive Evolution Lab and co-director of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program. His research focuses on the evolutionary and developmental foundations of the human mind, with the specific goal of understanding which mental capacities are shared with other nonhuman primates and which are uniquely human. He has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005. He is the author of
    • Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think (2000),
    • Moral Minds: How Nature Designed a Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006), as well as the forthcoming volume
    • Evilicious: Why We Enjoy Being Bad.


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
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