Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Understanding human speciation in a broader sense

In response to my last post on human exceptionalism dmfant writes:
going back to our being creatures of habit why isn't the differences in our response-abilities (our place in the family-rhizome), from other beings as human-beings, just a matter of evolution and adaptation/socialization?
Perhaps it is but which adaptations, which socialisations, which habits?  Which ones are particularly important?  Which are particularly destructive?

We can accept that we are the product of unexceptional processes and still ask how we exceptionalise ourselves within all of that.  While all living things are subject to evolution not every living thing shares the same evolutionary pathways.  If humans are a species then we can ask what it is about their pathways, in the ways they persist in particular, that is exceptional relative to other pathways, each of which is exceptional in its own way (Stephen Jay Gould was good on this kind of point).

So, we must ask not 'what distinguishes humans from all the rest of existence?' but rather 'what marks human pathways off from all the other pathways that all have their own particular qualities?'.

To believe that human being is so exceptional that it makes all other existents homogenenous by comparison is as foolish as it is dualist.  To believe that human being has its own qualities, its own resonant frequencies and that all other natural kinds (in all their fuzzy-edged glory) have their own characteristic kinds of resonance too is a pluralist tenet - and an entirely sensible one, in my view.  The search for only one exception - the human exception and the human exception -, the dualist task, is barbaric, as I have argued before.

Of course, no amount of exceptionality can extract us from our complex worldly relations.  If the Gaia hypothesis is true then we are inextricably bound up in not only evolutionary processes on the biological level but on practically every level - chemical, geological, atmospherical.  If we recognise that every atom in our bodies was once part of a star then this realisation is taken even further.

So, I suppose what I'm saying is that understanding human speciation (in a non-biologically reductive sense) is an ontological and political imperative.  It's a political imperative simply because 'knowing oneself' is an intrinstic part of subjectivation.  Becoming more human (not more than human), amplifying the best parts of the human condition, becoming alter-human - this requires a grasp of human speciation in the broadest possible sense.


  1. ah you are making a prescriptive move, this sounds like what Terry talks about in terms of individuation, tho no ontological Given-ness/Necessity/Imperative to such moral preferences/orientations that I can see, part of why I prefer "mere" anthropology, keeps the ethical/political focus on the particular critters making the choices/moves.

  2. I'm not sure that I'd call it 'prescriptive.' Indeed, I'm very interested in how the 'particular critters' speciate, individualise, differentiate themselves! What makes the human human is a completely open question - I'm just saying that it's one that should be pursued. If I'm prescribing anything (I'd rather say 'proposing') it is a question.

    Of course inasmuch as I'm talking about human beings in general I am generalising, by definition. But there's no reason why any one version of 'the human' need be asserted chauvinistically or from the 'outside.' I think the point is that in order to have any possibility of a political subjectivity that can engender human solidarity (and thus any kind of politics of care) we must first have a (at least one) concept of the human, as complex and unstable as that may be. Indeed, it doesn't really matter if all our concepts of the human are different so long as they overlap - so long as we are all enveloped in a shared pool of ideas that may be greatly variegated but are all in conversation with one another. So long as there are meeting points among them.

    And it seems to me that we *do* have this kind of pool of entangled concepts of what it is to be human as a matter of fact. A quick look at the world confirms that 'the human' is a meaningful concept for a very large number of homo sapiens (though by no means all). There are many ideas of the human, some good, some bad - some based on sciences, some based on religious dogma, some based on philosophy, others a combination of all these things and more. 'Diving into that pool,' if you like, is certainly an anthropological task. It's the anthropological task par excellence.

    I may not be entirely coherent in all of this though, that's for sure. And it all presupposes particular political values, but that is surely a given.

    As a starting point we could say that humans are the species whose speciation cannot be understood in *only* biological terms. The problem with that is, of course, that the social lives of e.g. primates are now well documented. This 'more than biological' idea supposes too much, makes humans too exceptional - plenty of species have 'culture' of one sort or another.

    This is the best I can come up with at this point:

    Humans are the beings whose mode of being demands anthropology.

  3. This seems like a sensible position. Humans have powers of cultural acquisition (for example, capacities for joint attention) and higher-order thought that no other existing creature on Earth possesses. The fact that you can't raise a macaque as a human child isn't a result of some political-ideological machine.

  4. @david

    Quite. Some non-human primates have discernible forms of sociality and use tools. So, it's not an perfectly clear dividing line - but then does it need to be?