Monday, March 16, 2015

Becoming Human

“In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” Morgan’s Canon


The truth is, we are animals with the potential to develop humanness. Homo sapiens share the following behavioral traits with other species within the Great Ape family:

1.     Formation of social structures
2.     Establishment of pecking orders through demonstrations of dominance
3.     Cooperation within social in-groups (groups of apes/people with which one member identifies and belongs)
4.     Competition/conflict with social outgroups (groups of apes/people that are different from the ones within which a single member belongs and identifies)
5.     Use of language and development of unique cultures[1]
6.     Utilization of instinct and intuition in decision making[2]

Likely related to some unique brain structures,[3] two potential abilities that may be used to define "humanness" are higher order critical thinking and higher order empathy skills.[4] [5] Other animals have been shown to demonstrate critical thought and empathy, so these traits in and of themselves are not exclusively human. However, the human capacity for cultivating these skills to extremely high levels is unique. For our purposes, humanness should be understood as an artificial, social construct and not a scientific distinction. 

Higher order critical thinking and empathy are skills that require development. So, though genetics determine whether or not one falls into the biological category of homo sapiens, a subspecies in the Great Ape family,[6] the characteristics that define true humanness present on a continuum and are not fully developed in all members of the group, Homo Sapiens.

Like all Great Apes, homo sapiens form families and social groups. We LOVE our in-groups whether they be political, religious, regional, national, or sports related. We establish pecking orders within these groups based on dominance. On the playground, human dominance is often determined by who is biggest. As adults, dominance may be determined through superior intelligence, physical strength, wealth, attractiveness, ambition, confidence, or any number of other factors. 

Like chimpanzees, we will often cooperate with our ingroup, but we tend to view outgroups with suspicion. Our nature is to consider them threats and often to classify them as “lesser than” or even “evil.” This instinctual behavior is at the root of all forms of bigotry. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is easy to understand that a “go to” position for early humans of assuming people who are different are threats would be more adaptive than assuming their benevolence. In the natural environment, early humans were constantly at risk, so tendencies resulting in cautiousness aided in their survival. 

Intuition governs the lives of all animals. It is closely related to instincts housed in primitive brain regions. Intuition, or “gut feeling,” is an automatic, cognitive short-cut that provides a crude, organic, sort of meta-analysis of the culmination of one’s entire life experience relating to a given concept.

Dictionary.com defines critical thinking as, “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.”[7] The scientific method was born of critical thought. It is a process designed to factor out emotional human biases, such as ingroup/outgroups behaviors. Prior to the advent of the scientific method, our natural tendencies towards preconception and superstition were the primary stumbling blocks to the advancement of our species.[8] [9]

By nature, critical thinking leads to more questions than answers. For a skilled critical thinker, issues are rarely simple. Because critical thought requires approaching a problem from many angles and many perspectives, solutions tend to come in shades of gray rather than black and white. H.L. Menken wasn’t far off the mark when he said, “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution… and it is always wrong.” The animal within us is highly attracted to simple solutions.

Prior to the Enlightenment, humans used a simple catch-all to explain any phenomena beyond our understanding, “God.” Few seemed to notice that “God” really wasn’t much of an explanation at all. It simply moved the goal post back one yard. If God causes all things, then what causes God? “God” is still the catch-all for unexplained phenomena. Science has been able to provide evidence-based, rational explanations for most of the physical phenomena we encounter in daily life. The expanse of unknowns that homo sapiens now use God to explain has shrunken to a handful of areas.

Homo sapiens are often not inclined towards critical thinking, and therefore, have a much greater tendency to interpret the world in concrete terms. For human animals, conforming to a solution posed by dominant members of their ingroups is obviously the "right thing to do." They may interpret the failure of critical thinkers to do likewise as "crazy" or "stupid." Conforming to the decisions of dominant members of one’s group is a trait human animals share with other primates. Critically evaluating the relative merits of dominant group members’ decisions is unique to true humanness.

Higher order critical thinking does not come naturally to any species. It requires ongoing training and self-discipline. The difference between the skilled critical thinker and the average thinker is as dramatic as the difference between the physique of a professional bodybuilder and that of the average couch potato.

Some guidelines for critical thinking:

1. High levels of certainly often correlates to low levels of critical thinking (Think, talk radio hosts and New Age gurus)
2. Objective evidence and logic outweigh popular views and intuition
3. "Feelings" are not evidence. "Common Sense" is not evidence. "Faith" is not evidence. "How I was raised" is not evidence. "Anecdotes" are not evidence.
4. Changing positions when opposing evidence outweighs supporting evidence is the hallmark for critical thought.
5. Ego is the greatest obstacle to critical thought.[10]

The scientific method has proven a magnificent modality for examining the world through critical thought. Application of the scientific method has enabled us to advance beyond the wildest imaginings of our ancestors. That said, alternative theories to the scientific consensus are a VERY good thing. On occasion, the scientist who disagrees with the consensus will be able to demonstrate strong opposing evidence. As opposing evidence accumulates and eventually outweighs supporting evidence, the scientific consensus will shift to the new position. So, if and when evidence opposing immunization or opposing climate change theory accumulates to the tipping point, good critical thinkers (like the scientific community) will shift to the new position.

All organisms demonstrate a tendency to avoid harm. Even amoeba will avoid aversive stimuli. This is one of the basic premises of operant conditioning. Behaviors that yield pleasing results tend to be repeated. Behaviors that yield aversive results tend to not be repeated. Amoeba have no need for morality, only self-preservation.



But, we are not amoeba. Humans are social animals requiring the assistance of other humans in order to survive in the natural environment. For humans, self-preservation is interdependent with preservation of "the tribe." Other social animals like wolves, lions, and buffalo will predictably behave in ways that promote the health and safety of the ingroup over the health and safety of the individual. These animals species engage in what might be considered benevolent behaviors even without benefit of higher cognitive functioning.


Humans are the only species capable of higher order empathy. Higher order empathy does not mean "sympathy." Many species demonstrate sympathy. The term “sympathy” is from the Greek “sympathia.” It actually means to “feel with someone.”[11] If you feel sad because someone you know lost a loved one, you are demonstrating sympathy. Sympathy can be instinctual and often requires little effort.

Higher order empathy requires the complex attempt to cognitively "see through the eyes of another." Empathy requires effort and imagination. To empathize is to “project” you into another person’s frame of reference.[12] It is our nature to criticize others from our own egocentric viewpoint. This is why we tend to judge the driver in front of us as an idiot when he slams on his brakes but feel perfectly justified when we have to slam on our own brakes. With huge effort, it is possible to put our collective ego aside and, on some level, understand the world from another person's perspective.

Research on feral children has shown that empathy is a learned behavior.[13] Higher order empathy is an extremely difficult skill that many humans rarely even try to master. If all people demonstrated true humanness and regularly employed this skill, conflict with each other and the destruction of other species could be virtually eliminated. Children reared in environments devoid of contact with people do not demonstrate humanness [14]

Take a look in the mirror. Do you practice humanness? If so, you are likely experiencing deep, meaningful relationships with other people. And, you also suffer deeply when you become aware of social injustices (homophobia, racism, genocide, intolerance, man’s inhumanity to man, etc.). You are not easily duped by the barrage of manipulative, emotionally charged, nonsense you receive from the media, the pulpit, and the political arena. You are likely able to override primitive emotions to some degree, enabling you to maintain a healthy body and a stable mind. Your moral code comes from evaluating an ideal based on universals such as “harm done,” “fairness,” and “empathetic understanding” rather than from “how you were raised,” cultural norms, or religious/legal text.

We are all human animals, and this is not a bad thing. We are literally wired to be such and wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, some of these animal traits are not adaptive in a civilized culture. With hard work, metacognition, courage, and a tireless commitment to intellectual honesty, we can all come closer to being truly human.










[1] Kappeler, Peter M., and Joan B. Silk. Mind the Gap: Tracing the Origins of Human Universals. Berlin: Springer, 2010. Print.
[2] "What Is Intuition, And How Do We Use It?" Psychology Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[3] "Newly Discovered Brain Region Is Uniquely Human, Scientists Think."International Business Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[4] Nussbaum, Martha Craven. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
[5] Elder, Lina. "Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines." Inquiry Winter XVI.2 (1996): n. pag. Web. 28 May 2014. 
[6] "Mammal Species of the World : A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference."(Book, 2006) [WorldCat.org]. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 June 2014.
[7] Open Source. (2014 ). Critical Thinking. Available: http://www.reference.com/browse/critical+thinking?s=t. Last accessed 28th May 2014.
[8] Harris, William. "How the Scientific Method Works." HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks.com, 14 Jan. 2008. Web. 09 June 2014.
[9] Killeen, P. R. "Superstition: A Matter of Bias, Not Detectability." Science199.4324 (1978): 88-90. Web.
[10] "Chapter 2: Six Steps Of Critical Thinking." Chapter 2: Six Steps Of Critical Thinking. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[11] "Empathy vs. Sympathy on Vocabulary.com." Empathy vs. Sympathy : Choose Your Words : Vocabulary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[12] Empathy vs. Sympathy on Vocabulary.com." Empathy vs. Sympathy : Choose Your Words : Vocabulary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[13] "Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature." Choice Reviews Online 31.08 (1994): 31-4641. Web.
[14] Plessis, Susa Du, and Jan Strydom. "Chapter 7." The Right to Read :Beating Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities. N.p.: n.p., 2000. N. pag. Print.

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