On the Uniqueness of Humankind


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Cumulative Culture as Increasing Number of Innovations

Having established the continuity between ourselves and the other animals, what are the differences—for they are many? For a start, sport. Then there is culture: music, art, television, video games. We love exploring, be it going to the moon or just on holiday for a couple of weeks. We spend vast amounts of money and effort on science. Two more characteristic features of human life are vital to mention. Firstly, we understand our actions to have absolute moral value, above and beyond their practical usefulness, and irrespective of whether we get found out!

Our actions are absolutely good or bad. And we understand ourselves to be personally responsible for our actions, unlike the animals. For instance, we may put a dangerous dog down, but we blame its human owner for not controlling its bad behaviour. Secondly, what most distinguishes us from animals is religion. Human beings throughout world and throughout history have looked for God, or for gods.

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We recognise that the world and ourselves are not self-explanatory but rather need some higher cause. Where authentic religion is absent, we do not find happy rationalists but rather false religions, superstitions, addictions of one kind or another—and despair. They may have very complex behaviour, but it is essentially focused on biological needs. We have biological needs too, and they are important to us.

But ultimately we get bored with things of only biological relevance. They are not the meaning of our lives, not the things we cherish dearly. The phrase is telling. All of this means that we transcend our material makeup as animals. Being animals is not enough for us. We transcend control by our physical environment and our biological instincts. For example, we have an instinct to eat, but we can choose to fast instead. In other words, we have free will. Our bodies obey the laws of science, but we are not simply controlled by them—there is more to say.

We are not robots. What we choose to do is irreducibly personal: it cannot be fully understood in terms of external influences, brain chemistry, and so on, although these have a part to play. Nor are our actions random—free will is not about being chaotic. This idea of freedom has a certain mysteriousness for us. We cannot understand it in terms of the material world around us, because matter is not free. So if we try to understand the difference between ourselves and the other animals, we need to look further than our brains.

It is true, our brains are about three times larger than would be expected for a primate of our size. But brains are material things. Bigger brains just make smarter animals. The lack of real burials for very long periods during the Paleolithic Era led to believe that human beings used to abandon their dead on the spot, outdoors, as several human groups still do.

Although we can not deny the existence of certain attentions to the deceased, whose traces have faded with time, it is in caves that we find evidence for real burials. This practice, though, is not likely to have been used for a long. The moment human beings started burial practices, death might well have "changed meaning" for them.

It is difficult to imagine why they started burying corpses: was it a matter of hygiene? Did they intend to protect corpses from wild animals as a sign of affection? Were they precautionary measures in case of return from death? Did they reflect the will to set up a dwelling with the suitable equipment for life after death?

A kind of propitiatory ritual expressing the deceased's desire for protection? There may be more than one answer, considering that primitive men used to bury their dead following diverse rituals which, however, clearly showed intentionality. Here are some illustrative examples regarding this. The oldest burials currently known are those found in the Caves of Qafzeh and Skhul, Palestine, which have been dated around 90, years ago. In Qafzeh, the remains of the skeletons belonging to about twenty individuals have been unearthed alongside with Musterian products Musterian is a culture dating from the Middle Paleolithic period deriving its name from the prehistoric site in Le Moustier, France.

A double burial stands out among the others: it shows a young woman lying on one side with her hands on her lap, her legs drawn up, and a child placed at her feet. Another one contained the skeleton of an adolescent lying on his back with his arms bent open on each side of his head and his hands holding the antlers of a big cervid next to his ears. On his breast were pieces of duck eggs, while traces of a fire and a piece of limestone had been placed on his abdomen; his legs had been drawn up. Was it an offering for the dead to take with him? Some authors underline the symbolic and spiritual importance of the equipment found in this tomb as far as future life is concerned: the image of deer, that lose their antlers in spring to have them regenerated, may have symbolized fertility and immortality for several peoples in ancient times.

Burials containing funerary equipment were found in some Neanderthal sites. Other Neanderthal burials have been discovered in Amud and Tabun, Palestine. In Teshik-Tash, Uzbekistan, the remains of a young Neanderthal boy have been unearthed next to five trophies of ibex horns. In Shanidar, Irak, the remains of several individuals have been found, including a child, dating from different epochs: the oldest one dates back to 70, years ago, while the most recent to 45, years ago.

One of the corpses buried in Shanidar lay on and was surrounded by flowers, as confirmed by the analysis of pollens. As we can see, the cult of the dead and the attention devoted to them are clearly documented. As far as Europe is concerned, complete and relevant documents are available on Neanderthal burials, even though area surveys had been often skipped in the past, especially for the first finds in the early 20th century. In La Ferrassie the remains of the skeletons of two adults and five children were unearthed, the latter buried in truncated cone-shaped pits.

Flat stones have been found on the head and shoulders of one of the adults, while the stone covering the tomb was engraved with small cups, whose meaning is still uncertain. Burial practices continued on during the Upper Paleolithic Era, when they become enriched with new elements, namely funerary equipment.

What Makes Us Human?

In Cromagnon five skeletons were found lying on the surface of Aurignatian firesides culture of Upper Paleolithic with a large quantity of shells and drilled teeth scattered on and all around them. The skeleton in Combe Capelle was found in a pit: its head, surrounded by shells, was looking northwards, while other shells had been placed on its shinbone and beside the third dorsal vertebra.

At its feet were Musterian and Micoquian flints. Various burials have been discovered in the Grimaldi cave, some of which contained many funerary belongings shell necklaces, flints, command sticks, and so on. Even the choice of the objects appears to have been accurately symbolic.

Not only do they express the consciousness of death, but they also convey compassion for the deceased, and an idea of future survival. In fact, they are all tools meant for accompanying them in another life, reflecting their desire to transcend death. The position of the dead varies from tomb to tomb: the remains are found in a resting position, maybe crouched Grimaldi, Predmost with their arms bent and legs drawn up differently La Chapelle, La Ferrassie, Chancelade, and so on.

There are many possible interpretations for this difference: the will to prevent the dead from coming back from death, the idea of giving them back to Earth in a fetal position, the will to reproduce the sleeping position. The same is to be said for their position compared to the cardinal points: sometimes they look northwards cave of Barma Grande , westwards Grotta dei Fanciulli [Cave of the Children], Grimaldi cave , or southwards Arene Candide [White Sands] cave.

The use of red ochre was observed in numerous Musterian and Upper Paleolithic burials; as we have remarked, it may have symbolic meaning with reference to blood, and thus to life.

It is likely that not every burial had mystic-religious contents, just as modern-day burials. Even in present-day societies, there may exist religions which do not have burials, and burials not implying any particular religious idea. The need for this distinction has been emphasized by many authors cf. Nonetheless, the burials where objects of a high symbolic meaning were found -trophies and parts of animals, flints, shells, colored substances, and so on- are likely to express religious feelings, in addition to the evidence of attention for the deceased, because they reflect their belief in powers and entities transcending their immediate life needs.

Although it is impossible for us to understand from what religious beliefs their faith in after-life stemmed, ritual behaviors offers, positioning have been observed in many cases, which are somehow connected to the sacred and surely refer to a supernatural sphere. In the Upper Paleolithic, prehistoric men used to express their "religious" soul in the representations of furninshings and wall painting which often accompanied the fossils of more recent ages.

Unfortunately, at that time, a religion based on a system of beliefs had not been developed yet. Although their artistic representations are rich in varied and complex symbols concerning the religious and social spheres of the prehistoric society, a religious system is still missing.

Magdalenian wall representations around 15, years ago are regarded as the culmination of the Upper Paleolithic arts, even though figurative arts had appeared well before. As a matter of fact, statuettes of animals —mammoths and reindeer Germany — dating back to 40,, years ago, and bearing incomprehensible figures and symbols, have been unearthed in different European regions. In Africa, too, and namely in Tanzania, rock depictions have been discovered expressing undisputed artistic skills.

Their refined shapes led us to consider them as subsequent to earlier representations. Similarly, the paintings in the Chauvet cave in France, which have been recently discovered and dated to 30,, years ago, give evidence to a considerable artistic level, in addition to showing figurative subjects of a certain interest.

An extensive literature exists regarding the arts in the Upper Paleolithic Era. In this specific context, though, the most relevant aspects to focus on are, in our opinion, the main figurative subjects of this art and the way they have been interpreted with reference to possible religious contents. However, exploring the inner world of prehistoric men through objects, engravings or paintings is rather hard. It is not so much a question of collecting the different elements like the tiles of a mosaic, but that of understanding some complex structures such as spirituality, the inner world, and the social life of prehistoric men, only from the signs they left for us.

Women, maternity and procreation are some of the most represented subjects in furniture art. In this art, women's anatomical features were usually highlighted, perhaps as a sign of cult, or perception of a sort of sacredness in their possibility to give new life. Hunting scenes were frequently depicted in wall paintings, and the different frequency with which different animals were inserted has led us to believe that, besides being important to prehistoric men for their sustenance, the animals had a symbolic meaning connected to their religion or social life as well.

Magic-religious interpretations have been advanced for most of the hunting scenes, with reference to both propitiatory and fertility cults. Not only was it important to provide game for the community but also to ensure that the animals' biological cycles, which were known to prehistoric men, would never lack fertility. The reference to magic-religious rituals is confirmed by the representation of costumes, masks, dances and special ceremonies.

Numerous authors remarked that they represent "scenes" more than "actions". Undoubtedly, it is a complex symbolism, and giving it a global interpretation may prove to be as misleading as bringing it back to a single system. This is true both for wall paintings and furnishings: no system is, and will ever be, able to account for all the aspects of prehistoric art at a time. The moment interpreting becomes only a question of applying a system, it tends to distort facts to make them coincide with theories. Obviously, it was not arts for art sake, even though many representations convey a clear artistic meaning.

Both magical features and sexual symbolism are observed in the arts of the Upper Paleolithic era. Raised to a sacred or social dimension, it is difficult to understand where magic ends and religious sense starts, the latter being perhaps connected to various rituals, including initiations. The life and interests of prehistoric men have been internalized by their arts through a system of beliefs which are unknown to us, but which are likely to have been multiple and maybe even less coherent than in the following epochs.

In prehistoric men's mentality, vital needs were highly humanized and intertwined with social life. In this view, it is likely that the diverse activities and spheres of human life -from hunting to initiation, from procreation to the organization of clans- did include a religious dimension.

What makes humans special? | Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

The propitiating of natural powers and elements, which were still mysterious and competing with humankind from many points of view, stood side by side with the need for success and safety of the group. We should better consider the caves as the "sanctuaries of prehistory," in which great artists left only fragments of the inner social life of their groups. At this moment, a more naturalistic and social side, idealizing and transcending the immediate biological needs of human beings, was added to the cosmic religiousness inherited from the previous eras.

We must remember that the human beings who frescoed the caves during the Upper Paleolithic period were the same that used to bury their dead and looked at the after-life with a combination of fear and, perhaps, hope. Most of the matters at stake in the relationship between scientific thought and biblical revelation are connected to the paradigm of evolution which, as far as contemporary science is concerned, tends to provide a complete explanation of cosmic reality as well as biological and human realities.


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Difficulties may arise both from science and religious faith: from science, whenever it claims to answer all the questions existing on the origins and ultimate meaning of humankind and the universe; from religion, whenever it shows the same will to be all-embracing up to the point of describing how the universe formed and the living species appeared.

Rendering absolute methods of knowledge which were relative, has caused misunderstandings and incomprehension, which have often characterized the relationship between science and faith in modern times, notably in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century We should not make science say what it "can not" say because it goes beyond the sphere of its knowledge, as well as we should not make the Bible say what it "does not want" to say, because it is not part of its religious message.

From a biblical-theological point of view, the theory of evolution is important only when connected to the principle of creation. In itself, the concept of evolution opposes fixism -that is, the immediate appearance of all the species at a time- not creation. Only that which exists can evolve. It would make no sense to deny creation because of evolution, even though there have been supporters of this position.

In order to appreciate whether it is compatible with evolutionary theories or not, an in-depth analysis of the concept of creation is required. Creation concerns the existing reality as a whole: sky and the Earth, plants, animals, and human beings.


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  • As regards the way in which God may have created it, the narrative and symbolic character of the Book of Genesis emerges from the literary analysis of the first pages of the tale. The six work-day frames presenting creation in the first tale aim at underlining that the God of creation is the God of Israel, i. It is not a scientific message: it is a religious message whose hard, essential core are not the allegories or the literary images, but the truth on the origin of all things, through a creative act of God.

    As it marked the beginning of time and history, the act of creation confirms that the whole reality is absolutely dependent on the Creator. And that dependence will linger on, thanks to a sort of "continual creation", i. The theological affirmation of creation includes not only the beginning of all things, but also the fact that any created being remains totally dependent on the Creator, up to the extent that a creature would vanish if God's will were to be lacking.

    Evolution presupposes creation. God's creative activity is inherent in the things and transcends them at the same time; it makes things exist according to their own features and laws. Various Christian thinkers attempted to highlight this characteristic, although sometimes they did it in diverse perspectives.

    "Humankind is unique in its incapacity to learn from experience"

    In the light of evolution, creation is an ever-lasting process —a creatio continua— , in which God becomes visible to the eyes of believers as the 'Creator of the heaven and earth'" Insegnamenti , VIII,1 , p. With his outstanding Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences dated October, 22, , John Paul II proves that, by this time, creation is accepted in a context where "new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution" Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences , ORWE In this conceptual view, evolution is not a problem as long as we accept that the whole reality was created by God and that even its development, however it may occur, corresponds to God's project.

    Evolution does not mean that creation is superfluous. The concept of creation can be understood only within a metaphysical frame; it is a philosophical-theological category, while the concept of evolution is a scientific interpretation of the history of living organisms in past eras. The message emerging from the New Testament, and the theology of John Paul II in particular, underlines a crucial aspect of creation, that is its dynamism which casts it into a future beyond the time dimension.

    The Epistle to Colossians tells about God's project for creation, a creation "seen" in the perspective of Incarnation: "All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" Col Jesus Christ , the incarnate Word, is at the beginning of all things and, at the same time, at the end of history. It is in the light of Christ, the God-made-man, that the full meaning of humankind and creation is understood: as noted by Bouyer "it is thanks to the projection in time of God's son, His eternal image, that humankind could come to life.

    God's Project for Creation: Finalism or Chance? As we approach the analysis of the evolutionary processes which led to the present structures of both inorganic and living worlds, a question arises spontaneously: what is the finality of the cosmos? The mechanisms advanced by the synthetic theory of evolution modern synthesis to explain the origins and development of life are based either on a rigorous indeterminism or on the randomness of the phenomena which are believed to have occurred, even though other forces were undoubtely at work, such as natural selection.

    If evolutionary changes are accidental, as Darwinism claims, and the needs imposed by the environment, which is changeable as well, are accepted, there seems no ground possible for any project. Moreover, whenever it arose, the project would be totally apparent. In their doctrine, which we may call "evolutionism" and not evolution anymore, Darwin and his most dogmatic followers denied the existence of any project or finality in evolution. The process of evolution is based on the small changes affecting a population, namely what genetics calls mutations and errors in DNA replications.

    These changes appear to be as accidental as the external factors triggering natural selection. Obviously, accidental does not mean lacking in physical causes, but they tend to exclude a general project, the existence of a mind as a separate entity able to view the whole world in a single glance. In this view, even the appearance of human beings would be totally accidental. Darwin's theory accepts a teleonomy. In particular, it holds that some behaviors or functions are established and preserved because they are convenient even though they are aimless.

    The same is to be said for the transformation of the species, where finality might be only apparent. As a matter of fact, in J. Monod's opinion cf. Chance and Necessity , , natural selection is the great demiurge whose task it is to conceive the programs and directions of evolution to give the impression that it is moving towards a specific aim.

    In his view, teleology has been completely left aside. The evolutionary lines form through natural selection, and the same happens in the artificial selection applied by cattle breeders. Neodarwinists refer to orthoselection more than to orthogenesis. Jacob cf. Mayr, one of the fathers of the synthetic theory of evolution, is rigorously Darwinian. More moderate positions have been adopted by Simpson, Dobzhansky and Ayala, who admit evolution may be somewhat oriented in specific directions. Simpson support the existence of a directional force influencing the evolutionary processes, while Dobzhansky admits evolution might be directional, but not necessarily directed by anyone, without excluding a global tendency in the process of evolution.

    Ayala suggests an inner, undetermined teleology, while he excludes that the process of evolution may be purely aleatory.

    The Bible, The Passage Of Genesis

    In practice, human beings are regarded as a fortuitous event just as any other living species: they are the outcome originated by the occurrence of totally random genetic and inner events, not the culmination of creation as taught by the biblical revelation. Copernican revolution would act in biology by dethroning human beings from their top position and presenting them as any other animal species. However, such a vision seems to be rather conjectural. Holding that randomness and chance are the ultimate explanations for the process of evolution, including the diverse patterns leading to the various classes of living beings in a relatively short timespan, appears to be either an admission of our ignorance or the prejudicial refusal to go beyond present knowledge, a position based more on ideology than on science.

    The theological implications of the problem are clear. If, according to the Judaeo-Christian revelation, the existence of a superior project of God for creation was to be recognized, how could it ever be reconciled with a process of evolution encompassing both specific evolutionary directions and events caused by random factors only?

    The question is particularly delicate as far as the human beings are concerned, because they are presented as the culmination of creation, almost the top of God's work. As a matter of fact, the problem of explaining whether finalism and chance are compatible between themselves is philosophical more than theological or even scientific. However, even scientists admitting evolution were unable to find a common ground. Who knows whether the indeterminism of mutations advanced by molecular genetics nowadays is the final response to the genetic factors of biological evolution?

    From a paleonthological point of view, the history of evolution highlights the development of the human line in the strain of the Primates following the formation of the great phyla and the classes of the animal and vegetable worlds. In particular, Teilhard de Chardin suggested that the process of hominization was to be considered as an "arrow" in the evolution of living organisms. Therefore, is finality only apparent or is it hidden but real? However the appearance of humans may have occurred, their position among living beings is unique in its kind, and all scientists agree with this statement, regardless of their religious beliefs.

    This uniqueness stems from the self-consciousness and reflex psychism characterizing human beings, namely from the culture they produce, more than from their physical conformation -the morphological differences between them and the Primates have proved, in fact, to be slight. To tell the truth, the existence of a superior project can be neither demonstrated through scientific trials, because it escapes empiricism, nor excluded on the basis of scientific assumptions. Although specific directions and organized structures emerge in the evolutionary process, it is true that the new structures emerge from the remains of previous flops.

    This is because the forms which are unfitted to the environment, which is changing as well, succumb to physical factors and biological agents and give place to the fittest for survival and reproduction. The struggle for life has characterized biological evolution which has led to new and more complex forms of life through selection.

    Evolution, however, is found to have different speeds for different species. Even if the logic of nature may appear to be cruel, it is continually working to establish new balance between the environment and the species, aiming at "a global order of nature" obtained by the competitive interaction of the various actors in the ecosystem. In this view, it is still reasonable to suppose that the laws governing matter and the living structures through which the global harmony is achieved do pursue an aim.

    It is logical reasoning, not a strictly scientific demonstration. From a strictly scientific point of view, some scholars accepted a global finality without excluding chance for accidental events. Teilhard de Chardin claimed that evolution came about through chance and probability. Referring to de Chardin's view, Ludovico Galleni suggests a probabilistic model of evolution "following preferential lines which are probable, although not strictly determinable.

    There is no need to think that each mutation must have had a special meaning, a goal. As a matter of fact, some of these mutations have allowed or contributed to the formation of privileged directions in evolution. Moreover, in the debate about chance or finality, we must make a distinction between the finality of specific biological structures originated by phenomena of self-organization and coordination such as an eye to see, a limb fit for climbing or keeping the upright position, teeth to cut or chew, and so on and finalism as a global project on a large scale.

    There might be specific finalities without finalism. Ganoczy reminds us that while teleonomy accepts special finalities for the evolutionary processes governed by physical and chemical laws, even when unpredictable, "the debate concerning the final aim of evolution could never be dealt with by empiricism. The fact that creation implies determinism and chance at the same time, is not a contradiction. Paulot observes: "'Chance' is undetermined comparing to us and indeterminable when ascribed to the nature of matter, but it is known to God: both necessity and indeterminacy are God's creatures.

    According to thsi author, creation "has the strength to comply with a project whose content God did not want to determine all by Himself. From a phenomenological point of view, the world might be the result of random processes; but only from this specific point of view, as the actual course and results of cosmogenesis are allegedly thought out and wanted by a divine intelligence. Interesting observations on the metaphor of creation as a game have been made by J. Arnould To sum up, even considering the perspectives opened by scientific observations, we feel we are facing a finalism which is real, not apparent.

    Generally speaking, it may be the consequence of physical or biological causes which are partially still unknown, such as physical and chemical laws, principles of order, unknown properties of living matter, and external factors. They are those which allow accidental circumstances to occur within certain limits. At most, finalism may have been originated by the combination of random genetic events, namely macro-mutations, and selection, influencing biological programs which have formed little by little to develop into more organized structures.

    In this light, they respond to a project on a wider scale see Facchini, The Holy Scriptures tells that God has specifically intervened in the creation of the human being. Compared to the other creatures, he and she who were created "in the image and likeness of God" Gn bring with them a sort of "transcendence" originated by the spiritual principle animating them.

    How could an evolutionary process involving human beings be understood in the light of this truth? Apart from the moment the human threshold was reached, can we claim that human beings have emerged from the animal world? The question has been tackled many times by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

    A first, basic teaching is contained in Humani generis , Pius XII's encyclical: "The magisterium of the Church is not opposed to the theory of evolution being the object of investigation and discussion among experts. Partly in opposition to these anthropological views on humankind biological disciplines underline the extensive similarities and common characteristics between humans and other species. Apparently, these biological findings concur with the criticism of anthropocentrism, which is expressed in Western philosophy of nature and by ethicists.

    The proceedings of the conference documented in this volume approached the theoretical and practical concept of the "Sonderstellung" against the background of present day knowledge in biosciences. Furthermore, by interdisciplinary efforts, an attempt was made to clarify those conceptual problems that arise with the idea of the uniqueness of humankind.

    The present volume partly takes up and further develops topics that have been raised by volume 15, On Human Nature, that was published in this series in Product details Format Hardback pages Dimensions x x 9. Illustrations note XVI, p.

    Other books in this series. Add to basket. Rationing in Medicine F.

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