Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Being a Post-biological Being

Modern science has the threefold division of the physical sciences, the life sciences, and the social sciences.  While a common faith believes that in theory biology can be reduced to physics and sociology and culture could be reduced to biology, in actual practice this cannot be done.  Further, the modern idea of emergence suggests that the faith in this reduction may be misplaced.  There are interesting implications of this threefold division of the sciences. Here I will suggest one of those implications: it can help clarify some of the ambiguities of the concept of “nature.”

In modern Western culture, the word “nature” is used in two, quite different ways.  In one sense we use “nature” in opposition to artificial.  Artificial means intentionally created by humans.  Taken to its extremes, this opposition represents a dualism that has long been a part of our culture, and finds its most extreme expression in the dualism of Descartes.  But we also use the word “nature” to refer to everything that exists.  This is what it means to say that all of nature had its beginning in the big bang, or to say that humans are a part of nature.  

If we reject dualism, we are still left with the question of why the division between natural and artificial seems so natural.  Indeed, according to anthropologist Mary Douglas, this divide is pretty universal among peoples.  I will suggest an answer to this based on the tripartite divisions of the sciences.  

The division between natural and artificial is equivalent to the division between the biological and the social sciences.  Unifying ideas of biology include the cell, genetics, and Darwinian evolution.  Perhaps the most important unifying idea of the social sciences is culture.  

In the language of emergence, culture is a genuine emergence from biology, analogous to the emergence of life out of chemistry.  It has been noted that humans are genetically very similar to chimpanzees.  Yet, humans have organized the Library of Congress, put members of their species on the moon, and instantaneously communicate intricate ideas to fellows humans located all over the globe.  Chimpanzees have figured out how to use a stick to help them get ants.  

If humans are genetically similar to chimpanzees, then the obvious conclusion is that genetics has little to do with this difference.  The real difference isn’t in genetics, it is in the evolution of culture over the past 100,000, or so, years.  The chimpanzee is a biological being with a small addition of learned behavior.  Humans are cultural beings that (often to our dismay) are still thoroughly embedded in biology.

In sum, the dualistic division between the natural and artificial should be viewed not as a division between nature and human, but as a division within nature between the biological and the cultural.  From the narrow perspective of biology, humans may be just another species of animals, but from the more cosmological perspective of emergence, humans are the loci of one of the three major emergences (each the subject matter of one of the three divisions of the sciences) in this part of the Universe.  Far from being just another species, we are another type of being all together, a post-biological being.  This is the reason that the social sciences cannot be reduced to the biological sciences and the reason that we need a third genre of sciences, with unique methodology, to study humans.

Being post-biological beings does not put us apart from nature, but shows instead how we are a very interesting part of the evolving, self-organizing, wildly creative, all-inclusive realm of Nature.

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