by Celia Deane-Drummond, Professor of Theology, Notre Dame, USA
This post is one in a series of reflections on the 2018 conference held in Vancouver at Green College. The entire set of posts can be found here.
How do we understand the meaning of humanity in an age where our own technologies seem to be densely wedded to what it means to be human? As well as important philosophical questions about what it means to create technologies, the question that concerned us most at this first meeting was what does it mean to be human, the meaning of humanity as such. While recognizing that the proliferation of technologies of all kinds is presently unprecedented, the real question to me is how far do we need to go back in time in trying to understand such current proliferations? In the last decade or so I have become increasingly interested in the work of evolutionary anthropologists, as it seems to me that they touch on many of the same questions that are of concern to theologians. They are also concerned with how humans have made their own lives meaningful, and the structures in place that have helped them to do that. That is, what does it mean to even begin to think about our human existence at all as distinct from other creatures? How far and to what extend did tool use actually shape what it means to be human and in what ways might this give us clues to our own current attachments?
Early hominin tool use in the Pleistocene was shaped and honed in the context of a difficult ecological environment, where it was important for early humans to find ways to reinforce their cooperative social lives against great odds; giant fauna were looking for an easy meal in these largely hairless and seemingly vulnerable prey. Later their stone tools began to take often aesthetic shapes that went beyond simple functional usefulness and became signals to others about their particular social status. The stability of form for such tools over many thousands of years also reflected periods of relatively stable climatic and social conditions. Human societies that become our own sub-lineage, Homo sapiens, were also more outward facing compared with their relatively more inwardly looking but still sophisticated associate species, the Neanderthals.
The evolutionary theory that best matches what is known about the evolutionary record at this early stage in human history is sometimes called the extended evolutionary synthesis. Although controversial amongst more traditional evolutionary biologists, this theory tries to take into account the whole social and material context in the evolutionary process as part of a dynamic system. Hence, it is not enough to think of the environment as an “outside” pressure that then shapes or hones the genes that are “preserved” to the next generation in a characteristic conserving or “selfish” manner. Rather, there is rich dynamism between the learned cultural behaviors that are passed on through each generation and the natural and genetic context in which these movements are taking place. To put it bluntly: the social and ecological environment are just as important as shaping what ends up being preserved as the genetic make up of individual organisms.
Darwin did allow for something like this by talking about sexual selection as well as natural selection, but that aspect of his theory is often forgotten. Sexual selection is about the positive “choice” for others in reproductive processes, hence moving beyond the idea of natural selection that acts simply a passive “sieve” whereby only those who bear certain characteristics survive the longest, reproduce and then pass on their particular genetic endowment to the next generation.
The reason for the importance of this theory for the present contexts is that it brings back a stronger notion of agency in human evolutionary history. Philosophical questions about what precisely human freedom might mean then becomes particularly important, and how far and to what extent early humans were aware or conscious of the choices they made is worth pondering further. Cultural evolution tries to use a biological evolutionary framework to understand how cultural traits get passed on from one generation to the next or within a single generation. It differs from genetically based evolution in that it relies on different forms of transmission. Again, there have been strong objections to the idea that cultural evolution is possible at all, especially when the thought experiment is used that some sort of reproduction is necessary. Cultural evolution is distinct in that many ideas are conserved rather than change randomly in the way mutation might take place in the case of genes, but biologists have found that this explanatory filter does provide some insights into how human societies work.
The important issue for theologians and philosophers is to recognize that cultural evolution is not the only explanatory tool that is useful to understand the process of change in human societies. Other tools, including different ways of understanding historical trends, or even analysis of change in meaning of terms and values through time are also worth pondering. Tensions arise in the science-religion debate if cultural evolution is presumed in a reductionistic way to be the case; for example, where religion is thought of as an epiphenomenon or even a spandrel of some other evolutionary advantageous process.
My argument in this short blog is that theologians and philosophers should not be afraid to delve into deep evolutionary history, even if they might want to sit lightly to the explanatory powers of evolutionary psychology. Its new disguise as cultural evolution is rather more promising, but philosophers need to be watchful of its implications. It does, however, provide some important clues about the deeply historical patterns that have shaped human becoming in the past and present, and in this respect, theologians would do well to welcome such research. Jens Zimmerman’s cautionary note about transcendence is equally important here: reducing that transcendence to a different explanatory mode through biology is unfounded. However, that does not mean that we can ignore questions about why our fascination with tool use arose, or how such tool use could be possible at all given our own limited brain development at this stage in human history. Philosophers and theologians may even enlarge that debate by raising questions that evolutionary anthropologists and archaeologists have not yet considered.
Also, in any discussion of what it means to be human, an underlying issue when considering tool use or new technologies is how and in what sense we might define the meaning of life. What is life rather than non-life, and what do tools do to a definition of specifically human life if they are incorporated into human lives? Does it matter if we become cyborgs or not? What about our relationship with other animals where those animals are manipulated through technological tools of human making? Does “cowness” as well as “humanness” differ in cyborg life worlds? The very earliest hunter-gatherer societies got by through close observation of the living world around them. They sensed space, time and the presence of living things in their specific agency. Have our technological tools replaced the agency of other living things, and become substitutes for such agential relationships? In what sense might biologically based life bring a different set of relational commitments compared with silicon based “life”?
As a theologian I frequently come back to the idea of humanity being in the image of God, and that image being shaped by reflection on the ideal image or perhaps even the real image of God in Jesus Christ. If what it means to be human is based on reflection of a human who is understood also to be divine, how far and to what extent might our divinization depend or not on being biologically similar to the Christ who has saved us? Christ entered human history at a relatively late stage, comparatively speaking, after thousands of years of human evolution. How do we understand the relationship between what humanity is in Christ and the earliest humans, and how might that figure in relation to the one named as the first figure in human pre-history, Adam? Adam, it seemed, manufactured clothes and after he was driven from the garden began an agricultural project. Does that mean that we can only conceive of humanity as agents that did not just make tools, but were agriculturalists and pastoralists? More probable, it seems to me, is that Adam is representative of the kind of humanity known to the early biblical writers; they had no conception of a human history before that time. Further, receptivity to the divine and tool use is known to be far earlier that this in the evolutionary record. Gaining insights into the proliferation of that tool use, its social roles in the earliest human communities, and the motivation of those early societies in structuring their social life in the way they did may help us to understand more about our present history and what it means to be human.