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The Galileo of Biology and the Teeming Human Animals Around Us
Social media isn’t connecting a billion super special super smart creatures together into a network, but connecting a billion completely biologically unremarkable animals together into a network. If you misunderstand who we are, you’ll continually be surprised at the irrational herd-like destruction we’re capable of.
We look back at pre-Galileo times and imagine our ancestors to be so primitive. How silly that we actually believed the Earth was the center of the universe!
But we’re still, to this day, holding onto an analogous pre-Galilean viewpoint. Not of the Earth and its relation to the Sun and stars, but of humankind itself in relation to the other animals.
Sure, we all believe we’re animals too. But nearly all scientists still believe there’s something special about us humans, and it’s that internal “special sauce” that explains how it came to be that we’re such an astronomically different sort of creature today than the other animals, with language and clothes and cars and iPhones and on and on.
I don’t believe there’s ANYTHING biologically special about us humans. And as my daughter recently pointed out to me, “That makes you the “Galileo of biology!” Now that’s a title I’d be happy to have on my tombstone.
So, what is the “geocentric” view of what we humans are, relative to other animals? There are in fact broadly two Homo-sapiens-centric viewpoints.
The first is the “blank slate” view, the term Steven Pinker uses in his book of the same name that criticizes the view. On this view, whereas animals are teeming with instincts and don’t have much plasticity, we humans are the disproportionately plastic ape, and can be shaped in almost any way. It’s thatthat explains how we ended up such a stand-out species on this planet.
Now, that’s just wrong, and Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, does a great job at blasting it apart. We’re just as much piles of instinct as all the other animals. I talk about similar issues here in this Science Moment video:
To the second “geocentric” view on humanity, they admit that, yeah, we’re filled with instincts just as other animals are. But, in their view, our internal special sauce is a peculiarly human instinct that does all the work explaining our unique situation here on Earth. Steven Pinker is a great example of this view, and he argues we have an extra language instinct (and has a book of that name). Others suppose we have some special sorts of neurons that do the trick.
You see the game. Both sides of the human nature argument assume that humans have been given some special biological gift, and it’s THAT that explains who we are today. Like the geocentrism that Galileo was fighting, these are all just variants on a Homo-sapiens-centric viewpoint of humankind. (See one of my critiques of Pinker here.)
For more than a decade I have been central in overturning this Homo-sapiens-centrism, and pushing us toward a modern zoocentrism (i.e., animal-centrism).
My viewpoint is covered in several of my books – Vision Revolution, Harnessed, Human 3.0, and On the Origin of Art – but my main argument is simply this: Humans have no biologically special sauce. None. All the stuff that makes us seem so different from the other animals today are results of cultural evolution shaping artifacts to fit us. And, specifically, the way cultural evolution does it is by something I call “Nature Harnessing,” or shaping the artifacts to be like nature.
For example, I have argued that writing itself has culturally evolved over time to look like the contour-conglomerations occurring in natural scenes among objects. Letters look like nature, and thereby harness our visual object recognition, “transforming it” into a reading machine. (See Chapter 4 of Vision Revolution.)
Similarly, speech itself has culturally evolved to sound like natural events, built out of hits (plosives), slides (fricatives) and ringing objects (sonorants and vowels). That’s the topic of Harnessed, in which I also provide evidence that music itself has culturally evolved to sound like humans moving hither and thither, thereby harnessing our existing human behavior recognition systems.
We’re not any more plastic than the other zoo animals. And we have no interestingly different instincts either. But we did manage to band together in sufficiently large groups, with sufficient continuity, that cultural evolution could get up and running, and when that happened there was a new evolutionary designer shaping us. Ahem. Not shaping us at all, but shaping artifacts to fit our unchanged ancient biology, and thereby giving us new powers.
In that way we became the Human 2.0s we are today, totally “beyond” our Human 1.0 biological selves. And… yet, our biology is exactly the same as our Human 1.0 ancestors. The difference is that we’re now soaking in a society filled with evolved artifacts that harness us.
My framework for making sense of events like those over the last year emanates from this sort of extreme zoocentrism in conjunction with cultural evolution. It’s always about our evolved (animal!) psychology and the cultural artifacts interacting with it (e.g., social media networks).
It’s the complex dynamical forces of societies that turned smart ape Human 1.0s into brilliant modern Human 2.0s. And it’s complex dynamical forces of society that can malfunction and transform us into echo chambers of righteously angry cult members, sliding us “sideways” into “the imaginary” via mass delusions, the ones behind every totalitarianism, which is what we study at FreeX.
This is the framework by which we can make sense of the events over the last year. And hopefully prevent them from occurring again.