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Wikipedia photo of Frans de Waal by Catherine Marin

Frans de Waal and how natural our human nature is

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By Jim Downard 

With the support of the Daniel and Margaret Carper Foundation, for some years Eastern Washington University has been sponsoring a string of splendid public lectures by notable scientists and philosophers (including Steven Pinker, Bart Ehrman and Lawrence Krauss).  Last week I attended the invigorating talk by renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, on the deep roots of what we had too long tended to think of as quintessentially human: tool use, social cooperation, empathy and a sense of fairness.

I took a lot of notes on the science work being alluded to which documented how animals thought to lack consciousness or an ability to cooperate intelligently in fact showed both, from crows to elephants along with a broad swath of primates.

In the Q@A spot afterward, de Waal was asked if there were signs of religion or ritualistic thinking among animals, and de Waal said he was unaware of anything that clearly showed that.

That’s generally true, though I had already encountered some work on the deep roots of superstitious thinking.

But it’s fair to say that the sort of “spiritual” and “religious” thinking we humans do may be unique to us.  For it may be argued that to do such things requires an ability to tell stories, both about we think may be true, and what we want to be true.  For that, you need language, complex and grammatical, to extend the range of an otherwise natural perception of time (before and after, and the ability to plan ahead, which is known among animals, as de Waal noted in his talk).

Language also expands our range of social reciprocity, where our reputations (sustained by language) amplifies how we behave (or want to appear to behave).

Just how far back the language thing stretches in our human lineage is one of ongoing curiosity.  The brain centers devoted to language have a long pedigree, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in the brain show up way back in Homo habilis, millions of years ago.  But without even one living Neanderthal to chat with, even our closest and most recent hominid cousins are off the map when it comes to being certain about whether they talked to one another, or under what grammatical constraints.

For my part, I suspect grammatical language has been a functioning part of our brain kit since at least Homo erectus, but that’s a matter of scientific surmise on my part.  There is evidence, incidentally, that our language systems have hitchhiked initially not on the vocal call mechanics of primates, but by their gestural systems.  We often talk with our hands for very good reason.  Language as articulated mime.

At the very least, though, Frans de Waal was quite correct to remind his audience of Darwin’s great insight, that out vaunted human nature differs more by degree than by kind relative to our animal cousins.  That is nothing to be ashamed of, or outraged, but rather to marvel at, and hopefully learn more about the extraordinary “intelligence” of organisms other than ourselves.

Such curiosity and honesty is part of what makes us human, after all.

Jim Downard

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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