The animal within
What does it mean to call someone an ‘animal’? What does it mean to be ‘inhuman’? To put it another way….. what are the characteristics of humanity that that set us apart from other great apes?
Naturalistic theory (gene based)
According to Dutch psychologist Frans De Waal, the question of what makes us different is misleading in itself. That’s not to suggest that there are no differences between humans and other animals. Rather, De Waal suggests that all our human characteristics evolved from (& can be glimpsed in) other animals. These characteristics may not be so well developed in other animals but they’re there, none the less.
Our tendency toward patriotism and nationalism is mirrored in the group living and inter group violence of other primates;
Our inherent sense of justice has parrallels not only in primate behaviour but also the reciprocal behaviours (and outrage at cheats) of a range of mammals from the great apes to wolves and even bats;
Our species’ tendency to experiment with varying methods of heterosexual and homosexual sex is shared throughout the natural world (especially among our close cousins, the bonobos);
‘Human’ charity and selfless altruism exist not only among many mammals but indeed our rather weak-willed version of kindness is far surpassed by many, not least by the social insects.
In short De Waal argues that there is very little about humanity that cannot also be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Even our cultural developments such as fidelity, fealty and honesty have their roots deep in our evolutionary past.
Veneer theory (culturally led)
Veneer theory is also interested in human culture but it differs from naturalistic theory in that Veneer theorists see human culture as an almost artificial overlay, a ‘veneer’ laid on top of human society but lacking in other animals.
As we know already from our earlier discussion of evolutionary theory in part 3 progress is gradual and each new development builds upon what has gone before. So it seems more than a little odd suddenly to change the rules just because we’re talking about humans. In fact from my perspective it seems almost as though Veneer theorists are trying to retain a sense of ‘special status’ for humans.
Of course there’s nothing new in this. Darwin’s bulldog himself, Thomas Huxley, advocated much the same idea in the late 19th century. The term ‘veneer theory itself is much more modern, being coined by De Waal himself as a label for the theory he was so keen to criticise in his book ‘Primates and philosophers: How morality evolved’
It is unfortunate that the whole of ‘veneer theory’ rests upon the idea that human morality appeared ‘by chance’ without, so far as I have been able to ascertain any evidence supporting that assertion. Veneer theory truly does seem to me to be a mere act of faith. As such I will devote no more time to it – at least not in its purest sense.
Naturalistic veneer theory (culture as an expression of the genetic imperative)
Robert Wright, in his book ‘The moral animal’ attempts to bridge the gap. His argument is sometimes expressed as the ‘Russian doll theory’ in which every evolved individual contains within him an infinite regression of evolutionary predecessors.
Russian doll theory sees morality (and by extension ‘culture’) as the inevitable result of evolved animal expediency. Whereas chimps are territorial and aggressive toward newcomers for practical reasons, we humans rationalise our evolved (naturalistic) brutality and develop a cultural ‘veneer’ called loyalty. In this way we can pretend that our patriotic (I might say jingoistic) viciousness is somehow ‘moral’ and yet the primate drive remains. Australopithecus afarensis, Homo erectus and Homo habilis lie just beneath the veneer of the outermost ‘Russian doll’ or Homo sapien.
Russian dolls and empathy
Let’s take an example.
Empathy, that perennial favourite of anti evolutionist creationists involves two distinct traits. Humans generally possess both of these:
1. Emotional contagion: Experiencing what others feel (the emotional equivalent of a contagious yawn);
2. Empathy: The ability to understand another individual’s feelings intellectually (without having to feel it yourself).
Interestingly all the non-human great apes together with elephants and dolphins demonstrate emotional contagion although only humans and bonobos have been shown to possess empathy. In other words the human trait of empathy is just as evolved as our bipedal gait and our opposable thumbs.
As I made clear from the beginning of this series I’m writing it to aid my own studies and I value comments that help me learn. As it stands currently I find myself convinced of naturalistic veneer theory but I may well be wrong. If you know better please let me know but past experience does lead me also to advise that….
Creationists need not apply.