Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Unique by Degree

So what makes humans unique then? Is it being made in the Image of God?

This has little meaning for me, though it might be constructed afterwards. I think we have to start with evolution, and not simply evolving but evolving evolvability. The building up of complexity out of simplicity (something demonstrated by iterating virtual numbers in simple equations with real numbers) comes to patterns in species that have collective behaviours, and one of these collective wholes seems to include parts that would seem to be redundant. Evolution does not just include survival of the fittest, but patterns that are successful in passing on genes and a bit of spare too.

The spare, the immediately unnecessary, the redundant, is part of a successful species when an environmental catastrophe and shift in conditions takes place. A whole population may be wiped out, but just a few, formerly redundant, yet maintained, suddenly are right for the new conditions. Redundancy might be excess or might be difference, but a 'clever' species looks after its lesser members for that stormy day.

We humans are not only conscious, but are conscious about being conscious. Some higher animals may have an aspect of this. See a dog look in a mirror. For some the reflection may be interesting, but some are aware such that they ignore it. But we have evolved through successive human species (and a few human species came to dead ends) to have this reflexivity in spades. This conscious about being conscious allows for us to empathise and put ourselves in another's place: thus the development of the Golden Rule becomes possible and seen in so many religions. Do to others as you'd be done to, and all the close variations.

Does the dog do this? No, but in pack life there is a kind of loyalty, and many dogs also behave like baby wolves to show some dependency in an exchange with humans that gives and takes, securing its own place and yet giving too in that securing. Exchange spills over into gift: the gift also includes an element of surprise, the unseen. The dog has clear wants, but a dog that puts its head on your lap knows (we reason) that it is giving as well as receiving in a clear relationship.

Animals many probably seek out such a relationship of give and take, therefore exchange and gift. We humans develop these at an idea level.

Dogs and other animals do not go to the dog library to find out what to do, or seek a strategy. It is rather about close environment, given the brain power available. However, humans have deposits of language that are precise (libraries) and we also have imprecise language (like music and some paintings). Both involve exchange; but spill over into gift (for example, we talk but we gain conversation - and conversation is the place for the gift). I think dogs have imprecise language, a symbol world that is more than just reactive. A dog will fuss over a toy, for example, particularly an odd shaped toy, and that fuss is because the toy means something. It might mean it came from the leader of the pack, the human, or that it is under its command as it chews, but it may also be shape and presence and activity. Also there is imprecise language in terms of sound shapes that mean walks and food, and excitement follows, and movement. Again they are close environmental symbol places, and so is the food to move the bowl around and the walk to know the places passed and the markings left. Dogs are also tribal in the sense that they are in and other dogs are interesting but in another group, and there are different groups so some dogs get on and others are other.

We do a lot of these things ourselves: like relating to others, arranging cupboards in a particular way, walking the same way, arranging ourselves in tribes and having out groups, and fussing over shapes and objects. But the precision of language we have, and the sheer complexity of social arrangements, and our ability to put ourselves into the place of the other, brings forward an ethical dimension and responsibility that is quite a compelling demand.

In that sense we are unique: but unique by degree and not by kind. We are in the same evolved tree. The dog's eye is like our eye, and from the same fantastic evolved elements that spread around so many species. But the human brain brings forward that extra ethical demand, and thus the ethical crime when the demand is not met and neglected. In that sense one might grope towards a reverence for life that is God image like, but that's just a shortcut expression for what is consequent from such self-consciousness and the ability to maintain a library.

It is silly to say that one day a dog may evolve into saying, "Hello." They already do. When the dog wags its tail there is an exchange, but there is a gift in the welcome.


Erika Baker said...

I like to think that people at some stage realised that their lives can have a purpose. To say you're created in the image of God confers a huge amount of security, but hand in that an equally huge amount of responsibility for other humans and, indeed, for all of creation.

I have always rather liked the image and the sense of purpose and "goodness" it conveys.

And, yes, uniqueness also applies to animals. It is not negated by the mechamisms of evolution. That which randomly arises is no less unique than if it had been planned. My pregnancies could have resulted in any random babies, only when they were born did it become clear that they were the two unique invidiuals who now share my life.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I agree with all of that.