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Must A Human Be An Ape?  The Ultimate Problem of Self-Classification
Steve Fuller   Jul 12, 2018   Ethical Technology  

How humans came to descend from apes
The Oxford English Dictionaries define ‘human’ in three ways, which are listed in the following order: (1) whatever distinguishes people from God, animals and machines; (2) whenever people behave in a highly desirable fashion; (3) whoever is a member of the genus Homo. These are really quite different definitions. The first has the greatest conceptual clarity, but its clarity is limited to the realm of the conceptual. Making that definition work in practice is diabolical. The second is unclear in both theory and practice. However, it taps into the original meaning of ‘human’ – namely, the outcome of some normative project that requires extensive cultivation and training, one which today we identify with the ‘humanities’. The third is the most recent definition, since the very idea that humans resembled – let alone were descended from – apes in some deep sense dates only to the mid-eighteenth century European Enlightenment. That was when the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus first named our species Homo sapiens.

It is worth dwelling on the third definition because it effectively serves as common ground for today’s debates between evolutionists and creationists, who otherwise would seem to have polar opposite views about the nature of humanity. Evolutionists believe that humans are literally mutant apes who managed to find hospitable environments that over thousands of generations has enabled them to extend their differences from the rest of the apes. In contrast, creationists believe that no matter how complicated one makes this evolutionary story, it still cannot explain humanity’s distinctiveness. Yet creationists are themselves inclined to understand the ‘value added’ of humanity in terms of God’s injection of a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ into some apelike creature. This was the original sense in which Linnaeus had coined Homo sapiens, which was taken up by evolutionists a century later, courtesy of Darwin’s main contemporary rival, Alfred Russel Wallace. Indeed, Wallace proposed three moments of divine intervention in an otherwise naturalistic process. These correspond to the transition from non-life to life, plant life to animal life, and ape life to human life.

In short, evolutionists and creationists appear to agree nowadays that apes provided the platform on which the human was built. Their disagreement is limited to what or who was responsible: Was it the blind processes of natural selection or the strategic decisions of a divine creator? The narrowness of the contested terrain shows the extent to which evolutionists have managed to dictate the terms of engagement with their creationist opponents. Interestingly, Linnaeus, himself a devout Christian creationist, is arguably responsible for this state-of-affairs. He regarded apes and humans as resembling each other so much – both in terms of outward appearance and internal organs – that only the divine injection of an immaterial soul could make a decisive difference between the two types of beings. Under the influence of the Bible, it was natural to interpret these similarities as indicative of apes being ‘degenerate’ humans, in the sense of ‘fallen’ creatures who emerge only after Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. And insofar as all humans continue to manifest some more or less apelike qualities, they too display their own fallen character.

Evolutionists fortified by the fossil record have now persuaded most people that apes preceded -- not succeeded -- humans in the course of natural history. However, even back in Linnaeus’ day, a half-century before Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed the first theory of biological evolution, people were haunted by the physical similarity of apes and humans. Both devout and secular thinkers struggled to come up with empirical criteria by which humans might be distinguished from apes: How can you tell that some apelike creature has a soul? The Enlightenment’s default position here – as in most other issues – was to secularise a Christian policy. Instead of trying to convert the heathen by getting them to understand the Bible, they would see whether apes could communicate in a way that enables them to be educated by humans.  Education thus became the preferred vehicle of mass conversion across species. This remains an empirical project within primatology, which in recent times included a simian subject named 'Nim Chimpsky', after the most celebrated linguistic theorist of the second half of the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky.


Did humans ascend or descend from apes?

To be sure, during the Enlightenment some thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau ran clever rings around this line of thought by arguing that humans have primarily used language to create property relations and hence grounds for incessant conflict. In that respect, if language is indeed the mark of the human, then our use of it marks our fallen status. Here it is worth recalling that Rousseau’s taciturn ‘noble savage’ was modelled on the orangutan’s solitary disposition. And of course the early Marx’s conception of primitive communism as a lost utopia to which modern humans might someday return owed much to Rousseau’s vision of a pristine humanity innocent of the self-alienating nature of excessive communication and commerce. 

Nevertheless, the more mainstream Enlightenment idea that apes might become human, rather than the other way round, prevailed in the long term. Here Lamarck’s original theory of evolution played a crucial role, as it was founded on a very strong sense of the self-improving capacities of all life forms. On this view, apes aspire to be humans but are prevented from doing so only by their habitats. And thus was born the great progressive ideologies of the nineteenth century that became the standard bearer for Western modernity.

What is most striking about this trajectory is just how much the concern with apes ends up driving the definition of the human. Yet, the Western preoccupation with primates only dates from the early modern period, which is to say, the start of Europe’s world-historic colonial expansion. Apes were marginal creatures on the Western horizon prior to regular voyages to Africa, South and East Asia and Latin America. Only one monkey figures in Aesop’s animal-based fables, and apes are not to be found in the Bible. Even in the Qur’an apes appear only in a brief and disparaging light. Moreover those ancient and medieval thinkers who showed great respect for animals never singled out apes for special attention. The great physical resemblance between apes and humans only started to be noticed by Westerners once they began to see many different sorts of humans and many different sorts of apes. And given that the context of these sightings was largely one of conquest and exploitation, it is perhaps unsurprising that a transfer of affections and a blurring of judgement across species lines have taken place over the centuries.

Indeed, Darwin himself originally came to elevate humanity’s primate lineage while trying to understand his instinctive revulsion to slavery, which occurred as he was also being exposed to many different human habitats, including ‘primitive’ ones, while serving on the H.M.S. Beagle. And there is no doubt that animal rights activists have scored their biggest rhetorical – and legal – successes when they have treated the plight of apes as comparable to the plight of slaves. Yet arguably, domesticated animals specifically bred for food -- cows, pigs and chickens -- are regularly subjected to at least as much if not more cruelty from humans as apes are. I do not wish to dwell on the irony implied here -- that the animal rights movement privileges apes because it remains fixated on an anthropomorphic understanding of animals. It is a point that animal rights activists themselves recognize and continue to debate. But as the first two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionaries suggest, we had a conception of the human long before we discovered our great physical resemblance to the apes. I want now to return to the significance of this point.


Humans not from apes?

The Abrahamic religions are in general agreement that humans are the privileged element of divine creation. It is even common among Christians who follow St Augustine’s strong reading of Genesis to claim that we are created ‘in the image and likeness of God’. However, there is no reason to think that our physical resemblance to the higher apes is relevant to this point. That Jesus, who Christians believe to be the ‘Son of God’, was born of a human mother simply reflects God’s attempt to communicate with humanity by inserting a version of himself that humans could recognize as one of their own. The Biblically relevant sense of ‘image and likeness’ is to do with humanity’s species-unique albeit imperfect godlike capacities to know, create and love. To think that apes are the animals most likely to have these capacities simply because they bear a physical resemblance to humans is little more than idolatry from a strictly theological standpoint. But one can also raise doubts from a more strictly biological standpoint.

As has been already observed, humanity's striking apelike appearance acquired metaphysical significance less than fifty years before Lamarck had introduced 'evolution' and 'biology' into common currency – and certainly no more than a century before Darwin’s theory. The problematics of humans having 'ascended' (Lamarck) or ‘descended’ (Darwin) from apes were immediately tied to human slavery and racial discrimination, which carry over to this day and have been extended into issues relating to animal welfare more generally. However, what biologists today call the 'modern evolutionary synthesis', or 'Neo-Darwinism', dates only from the 1930s and reflects developments relating to the understanding of life's genetic composition and historical trajectory, neither of which were very clear in Darwin's day. As a result, the larger significance originally ascribed to humanity's similarity to apes becomes less clear. On the one hand, the degree of genetic overlap among all of life’s species – including both plants and animals – is much greater than their vast differences in appearance would suggest. On the other hand, the fact that humans happened to have evolved from the genus Homo turns out to be a product of radical contingency married to strategic entrenchment – what Richard Dawkins memorably called the ‘extended phenotype’.

To be sure, the early twentieth century field of ‘philosophical anthropology’ tried to tie humanity’s distinctive features to modifications of our apelike equipment. Special attention was thus given to our upright posture, our reversible thumbs and, most of all, our large forebrains. And certainly the brain remains the most interesting feature of humanity’s embodiment. But it is also the most mysterious. Today the human brain is nearly four times the size of the chimpanzee brain and uses a fifth of the human body’s energy supply. Yet this still makes the brain vastly more efficient – albeit also more error-prone -- than the most powerful computers in its capacity to process thought.

This point can be missed if we are too easily impressed by the ability of computers to perform specific sets of intellectual tasks more efficiently and accurately than humans. For its part, the human brain routinely performs a very wide range of such tasks all at once, most of them with relatively little external input. Recently a supercomputer programmed with a neural net that simulates the human brain’s activity took forty minutes to process the equivalent of what two percent of the human brain does in one second. This provides a good measure of the challenge that artificial intelligence faces.


Humanity as cosmic brain?

The more we explore these fascinating issues about the human brain’s uniqueness, the less relevant our ape ancestry becomes in determining what it means to be human. Instead, the focus shifts to features of the humanly constructed environment that has enabled the brain to grow and become configured – or ‘programmed’ – in certain increasingly distinctive ways. Nearly a century before Dawkins coined ‘extended phenotype’, biologists had already talked about the ‘superorganic’ realm that facilitates the collaboration of members of the same or even different species in the aid of storing, transmitting and enhancing collective intelligence. It is fashionable nowadays to speak of the ‘extended mind’, but we could equally just talk about information technology, from the advent of writing to the smartphone, as the ‘second nature’ in which humanity has flourished.  

Due to its distinctive biochemical composition and relative plasticity, the brain appears to be the only organ that is needed to make us human. In the 1970s, the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam famously presented a thought experiment in which we turn out to be ‘brains in a vat’. It remains so compelling because we can intuitively imagine that every other organ in our ancestrally ape bodies could be turned into a virtual extension of the brain’s thought processes. This explains why those older philosophical preoccupations with our upright bodies and reversible thumbs have largely disappeared as criteria for telling humans apart from apes. But philosophers continue to struggle with ‘consciousness’ or ‘intelligence’ as the stuff uniquely produced by the brain that in principle at least could enable the rest of the world to appear as its virtual projection.

As our sense of humanity has got increasingly distanced from its apelike past, it has become easier to entertain the idea that other species might have comparable or even greater levels of intelligence than our simian cousins. Thus, arguments are increasingly made within biology for the existence of what is alternatively called the ‘hive mind’ or ‘distributed intelligence’, ideas which do not presume that the ‘brain’ is a discrete organ found in each member of a given species. Metaphysicians have long spoken about this conception of life as ‘panpsychist’. At one level, it would seem to provide a more hospitable environment for humans by presenting the world as a prima facie more intelligent place to inhabit. But it also places a greater burden on humans to define what entitles them to a privileged position amongst all these different forms of intelligence.

In conclusion, it is worth considering a hypothesis advanced by the British founder of the modern evolutionary synthesis, Julian Huxley. The grandson of Darwin’s famous public defender T.H. Huxley, Julian struggled with defining humanity’s uniqueness in the mid-twentieth century, a time when the atrocities of the Second World War suggested to many that humans can never escape their apelike ancestry. However, Huxley remained positive about the human condition. He argued that while all life forms obey the laws of evolution, only humans know what they are obeying, which then gives them the opportunity – perhaps even the obligation -- to direct the course of evolution.

Huxley styled himself an ‘evolutionary humanist’ for whom the emergence of Homo sapiens marked the emergence of an executive control centre for all life, a phenomenon that he sometimes likened to a cosmic brain. In this context, he coined ‘transhumanism’, a term that has acquired greater currency over the past twenty years as a futuristic movement dedicated to overcoming virtually all physical constraints on the human condition. But another and decidedly more ambivalent legacy of Huxley’s line of thought is what ecologists today call the ‘Anthropocene’, namely, the proposition that humanity’s impact on the Earth since the Industrial Revolution has been so great that we now hold the primary responsibility for whether life as such survives at all. This was probably not exactly what St Augustine had in mind when he stressed our having been created ‘in the image and likeness of God’, but that does seem to be what defines the uniqueness of humanity today.

Steve FULLER is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of 25 books, the most recent of which is Post Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Anthem Press, 2018). This piece originally appeared in Turkish translation in Sabah Ülkesi 56 (Summer 2018).

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.

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