Monday, November 28, 2011

On the Uniqueness of Homo Sapiens

We live in a creative universe. To the best of our knowledge, the universe has only three means of creativity: 1) the self organization that gives us the galaxies, planet system, and the origin of life on earth; 2) Darwinian evolution that has given us the amazing biosphere and our biological existence; and 3) the intentional creativity of humans, that gives us such things as Chartres Cathedral, Bach's French Suites, and the computers that we're all typing away on.  We humans may be of no special importance to the universe (for importance is a category of the living, and the universe as a whole is not alive), but as the loci of one of only three types of creativity, we are certainly quite unique within the universe.


  1. I'm always dubious about trying to find something uniquely human. A bird's nest, for example, seems to be just as intentional as a cathedral.

  2. Reply to Jonathan: There is reason to be skeptical about the claim to human uniqueness, but o say that a bird's nest is as intentional as a cathedral, strikes me as about defensible as saying that a bird's nest is equivalent to a crystal.

    The difference between a bird building its nest and the growth of a crystal, is in the accumulation of genetic information per Darwinian evolution. Crystalization does not evolve, nest building does.

    Similarly, the difference between a cathedral and a nest is that nest building is purely the result of Darwinian evolution, while Cathedral building is largely the result of the accumulation of information through cultural evolution, which has a quite different mechanism than Darwinian evolution.

    Whether building a nest can be called an intentional act or not is largely a matter of semantics. But all the given nests of any given species are largely similar. If birds are making choices, they are minor. To explore architecture, on the other hand, is to see a tremendous diversity of structures, serving a vast range of purposes, and representing a vast number of well informed choices. And of course we architecture is but one of the multitude of activities in which humans create. The diversity of human creations now rivals the creativity of the biosphere.

  3. I suppose if you would have called it cultural creativity, I wouldn't have batted an eye. I agree that culture is a different mechanism in that evolution works on heritable information while culture acts on external information that must be transmitted outside genetics, epigenetics, etc. In that way, a bird's nest is informed by a different process.

    However, even in culture we are not unique. Other animals have been shown to transmit information via culture, so we can't claim to be the sole locus of this form of creativity. As with many other things like tool use and language, we are only its superlative practitioners on planet Earth.

  4. Per the comment "As with many other things like tool use and language, we are only its superlative practitioners on planet Earth."

    I think this is where the idea of "emergence" provides some clarity. Yes, other animals have some ability to use symbols and thus possibly have some degree of culture. Other animals may have some degree of intentional behavior, apart from instincts. But only in the humans do these take off and do we find something genuinely and remarkably different happening in the world because of it. In short, these represent an emergent property in humans. An emergent property is one that results in something fundamentally new and (from the point of view previous to the emergence) something unexpected.

  5. Emergence is a whole 'nother can of worms. :)

    An emergent property is only unexpected from the perspective of a lower-level metaphor. For example, it would have been difficult to predict biology using the metaphor of chemistry because of the limitations of the metaphor, not because biology is something wholly new that doesn't depend on more fundamental laws such as those modelled in chemistry. So in the case of animal culture, we would have trouble predicting the emergence of culture based on the metaphor of biology. Therein lies the emergence.

    We humans use culture in ways orders of magnitude more intense than our animal cousins. An intensification is not the same as an emergence. Otherwise, the fertility of insects and bacteria represents an emergent property when compared to mammals. We use culture more intensely than any other organism, but the culture used by crows, for example, is just as emergent as human culture, just less intense. We are the superlatively cultural Earth species.