On Human Nature (WIP)

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“What scientists do when a paradigm fails is, guess what, they carry on as if nothing happened.”

After watching this TED video of Elaine Morgan, updating us about the latest evolutionary research supporting the hypothesis that we evolved from primate ancestors who dwelt in watery habitats and the connection between nakedness and water in mamals, I thought I’d share my unedited essay on Elaine’s other examined ideas about m/other-child interaction from her book “The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution From a New Perspective“. Many paradigms need updating these days!

So, first the TED video updating on how we evolved, followed by my essay updating how we become somebody (interested folks might also like to see my (shorter) post about this.)


Seeing Somebody There


The broader context of this essay explores the fact that we humans are socially interactive creatures: “bodies-in-interaction.” Our individuality, the development of the self and/or the I, is an “emergent” aspect of the human condition.

Fact is italicized since the history and current thinking about the human and how we are, think, know…has managed to omit this fact. Why so, and what differences it makes in how we think about the human, the world…are at the heart of this discussion.

The human has been characterized as each (physical) individual, essentially separate or independent of others – at least early on in life. The individual has been characterized in terms of knowledge or mind: the individual is taken to be an embodied mind. The mind – how we know or have knowledge – is the factor of our being which is raised to the status of definition of our being.

In my experience, thought, and observations, this is not an accurate characterization of the human. Though it has been the completely dominant idea of the human – particularly in Western thinking – it leads us away from the experience and truth of our being – tends to focus on certain of our (presumed) abilities as definitional – and mis- or under-estimates many others. The facts of our faces being central to our being, for example, has been hardly studied or much considered in thinking about what is the human.

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Who are cops…the police? Mostly guys, mostly white. In the past few decades a few women, more and more “ethnic” persons: some African-American, in Minneapolis-St. Paul they reflect the recent immigrations…somewhat…as far as I know. Not too many Hmong persons, a few Latinos from various countries…

Who are we…in thinking about the police – wondering how they think about us, and what they’re “up to?” How many of us would like to be cops? Do police “like” being cops, or filled to various levels of…fear, import, wondering about each next person, in each approaching moment?

How do they get to be cops? I mean what’s inside their heads, their thinking, that we might get to understand in their terms – more than in our reactive minds?

Also important – maybe very important is the fact that they dress in “uniforms.” Uniforms seem to take individual identity and help make them all into police – cops. (Where has their “individuality” gone?)

More signs: their cars, bright flashing lights, rear seats which can be made very separate from the front ones; painted black and white (in lots of places). Quite obvious. (Except that we might forget to notice them when we’re driving a bit too fast: over the speed limit. And they can make really loud siren noises which instill us with fear and the immediate reaction to stop, and pull over.)

All this to say that the police have quite a “presence” in the world: in many/most senses they are all “alike.” Uniform…has several meanings and even more connotations. (The differences between police and the military? – has gotten a bit complicated and confusing especially in these moments driven by war, terror, fear… (Observing the RNC meeting in St. Paul last fall: the police “looked” remarkably like military – faces obscured, wearing odd/different uniforms, carrying threatening looks and clubs. Whatever it takes to “keep the peace” said the mayors!)

Sargeant Crowley and that “Uppity Professor” (from Harvard no less), “Skip” Gates. What were the exact circumstances? Never totally clear: perhaps so “obvious” to many of us, that the moment-to-moment “facts” don’t seem very important to the situation.

A white cop (likely with some ethnic background which might still be “important” – was very important a couple of generations ago – Irish Catholic? Boston, a long history of Irish Catholics bathing in money and power. But we should remember the movie, “Gangs of New York” pitching the Irish immigrants against the (then) white Protestant majority to taste those senses of their history. Tough (mostly) guys? Ethnics, culture: what sorts of culture do the police have? “White ethnicity: gone entirely or some residuals?

And an African American, in many ways “the African-American Professor” in these times when being “Black” is taking on some “new” meanings, especially as Barack Obama is our President. And Harvard: In “spite” of being at Harvard, Gates is probably the most important historian/critic of what is African-American. Read the rest of this entry »

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(Part 1 on my teachers. Part 2 touches on this line of thought, part of how it stalled, and impact on society. Part 3 is on “languaging”. Part 4 summarizes some lessons learned from my teachers.)

Who am I? A deep and developing question. But I did have several teachers who helped me to formulate my thinking and directions.

Above all, Ray Birdwhistell – the originator of “Kinesics,” the study of the human body-in-interaction. He was an Anthropologist who was the best observer of people I’ve ever met – observer in the sense of seeing people in careful and detailed senses. He was trained as a “classical” dancer, and seemed to see all others as performers in life’s dances. And he didn’t only concentrate on each individual. He also/always noted how they interacted: in groups, in life’s varieties of social contexts from infants to older, the ordinary and the exceptional in every sense; richer and poorer, healthy and injured and “odd” and…; ethnic, linguistic. His ways into the world were always expanding. Life is social, interactive: the individual…?

My Teachers - My Teachers - Ray Birdwhistell, George Trager, Henry L. Smith Jr., Norman McQuown, ...

My Teachers (click image to enlarge)

Ray was a student of the Chicago School of Symbolic Interaction – heirs of the American Pragmatist, George Herbert Mead, and the anthropologists who wandered the entire world. His work wandered from American Indians to the average family dynamics, to the sick – physically and, particularly, mentally. And he directed me to the U. of Chicago, Anthropology, where I continued my studies with linguist Norman McQuown – under whose tutelage I (and family: J, and infant daughter Amy) studied a Mayan Language (Tzotzil) and lived in Chiapas, Mexico for two years deeply immersed in both Indian and Ladino (their term) cultures during this time.

Ray was also a student in the line of thought and active fieldwork (life is fieldwork!) of Franz Boas: Margaret Mead (especially), Gregory Bateson, influenced his thought. Read the rest of this entry »

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It begins on the first day of teaching, now entering my thoughts as the new school year approaches…so rapidly. The course to come will be splendid, the best ever: I feel so “sharp,” so ready to espouse/spout the truth to come!

I note all the students sitting there, not merely at ease, or with various sorts of questioning appearances. Rather they are mostly staring at me, “their” teacher; rather staring “through me” looking to see…what, who? Am I, can I ever be, who they want somehow to penetrate; to be…?

In those instants, beyond the talk which I talk of the course to come, I wonder who they are, who they see in me. And who am I, runs so rapidly in my being, that I find it difficult – so difficult to grasp my own “presence” – and remain the teacher I would be, even as I am anthropologist to them and to my own being.

Writing in response to Christopher Kelty’s post on Savage Minds about Experimental Philosophy (x-phi), I am pleased, perplexed, pensive… I have lived (still do!) the life of the Anthropologist who would be doing philosophy, and imagine that we might one day find each other. Soon?! Maybe.

Trained principally, to study language and behavior and sociality/culture, I begin by including “myself” in the study of anyone’s language, culture, thought…Who am I, where am I, how did I get here, how to be the “measurer” of all things?

As a self-proclaimed “Anthropologist of the Ordinary,” I understand the temptations to study the “exotic,” but note that the ordinary human is much more exotic than we have noted. The human body which exists in the world with others’ bodies (the Pragmatism of G.H. Mead inserts itself into this approach) is a brilliant and ongoing piece of work, that we seem to want to underestimate as some derivative of the idea of mind.
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“The heart-stopping thing about the new-born is that, from minute one, there is somebody there. Anyone who bends over the cot and gazes at it is being gazed back at.”

Elaine Morgan, The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective, p. 99, (1994).

Currently, a revolution in the study of the human: begin by observing others – and oneself…observing. The ancient trap: to extrapolate from us mature thinkers about human nature, directly to all the wonders about how we are…and how we know.

What was ignored, left out in our attempts to describe and understand? Lots! The facts about the newborn – but, perhaps even more so – the facts of the m/other observing her new-born – and the power of her to remain involved with her new-born, and all of what this entails. Most of this part of the human story has been neglected until very recently: now, developing “Attachment Theory.”

We do not survive unless some one who gazes at the newborn: and sees, interprets what she observes as “somebody” (usually the birth mother – but whoever takes responsibility so many moments especially for the first several years of life and development – thus m/other).

We are not individual bodies, but our body in the world with others’
bodies: being observed, observing others. “Somebody” there!? – means that somebody is “looking back” at us looking. We’re not merely body hanging-out in the world, absorbing the world via our senses.

And what does looking-observing entail? This is not very obvious, even though it is “common” experience: it involves looking at an infant’s face, and noting something about the eyes and the areas about the eyes, being held in some “tension.” This tension is pretty much like the tension of others’ faces that the m/other interacts with.Zero Days Old, photo by Matthew Miller

But her face is also being held in the kinds of tensions which involve “looking at” somebody. The infant is “captivated” by m/ other’s face as well.

How do I know this; or think that I do? Primarily from the work of Rynders and Horrobin – who worked with Down Syndrome children and their m/others. Whatever is “different” about such children (mostly muscular – but remaining poorly described), it is very difficult to see “somebody” there. The muscles which move or shape the face of the infant are apparently missing or non-useful. As Rynders explained to me: he asks the m/others of Down children to “hang-in” with them for a few months – they will be able to move, smile, find some muscles to move their eyes which others can “read” as “somebody there.” And this generally works: the first Down Syndrome child to be able to read by age 2 and ½ was reported in our local paper just a few years ago.

The fact that children are deeply, constantly, engaged with m/others – not much in our thinking about the human…until now. Why not? How could this be? – should help us to begin to be more deeply engaged, critically, in what is human nature!

The most usual description – actually more a metaphor – about the human condition tried to address the questions of how we know, are infinite or “symbolic” in our scope, and led us to posit that we are deeply and basically body and mind: two-part creatures…but pretty much alone in the world with respect to how we know, and are.

Instead, Attachment Theory, deriving much from Pragmatist G.H. Mead, suggests that infant “somebody”, joins or virtually becomes the m/ other who sees somebody there. This will radically alter how we understand how the child develops language and knowledge, as we further study the more actual development and experience of each child (us).

Mead – a “symbolic-interactionist – noted that we are essentially social creatures who “emerge” transformed into our individual self – the I that I am, you are. Attachment Theory goes even “further” – suggesting that the infant “joins” or “becomes” the m/other; does not merely study the world, but gains knowledge by studying m/other.

M/other presents the world and knowledge to her infant: in what I dub the “Question-Response” System: the few questions about the world (Who, what, when, where, how many…), are responded to by “open” sets of responses: essentially infinite in number when combined in syntax.
Thus finite and infinite: don’t need to go outside the human condition to explain how we are and how we know.

As the child develops – becomes abler, stronger, faster, dangerous to itself – the m/other needs and wishes the child to emerge into its “self” – an increasingly less dependent, more its-self, eventually the “I” who each of us sees as our-self.

“Somebody” there: a most powerful moment in the human experience – essentially neglected in the depiction and understanding of human nature. Hopefully this insight will enable us to more fully describe the human as-we-are, rather than how our ancient theories have claimed (still claim) that we are.

Sniff! Sniff? The odor and smells of racist thought – the modernist forms of Social Darwinism – are hangin’ round. And in some of the most interesting and influential places and forms.Recently, the illustrious Wall St. Journal (WSJ) ran three straight days of editorials about who should get to partake of our exalted Higher Education opportunities. Charles Murray – the sometimes extinguished purveyor of IQ (“The Bell Curve” – with R. Herrnstein, ’94) – seems to make the case that half of us are smarter than the other half. Smarter, that is, by our “nature,” born better, born worser; smart-stupid.

Too-tired mothers, not very involved or intellectual families, kids who don’t “appear” like your college stars, cultures of poverty, immigrants? Never mind!

Training for the menial, clean up the slop…not enough. Our schools have gone from not many, no child-labor laws, to universal schooling in less than a century. In that period, a few years of school transformed into high school for most, and college has become almost a necessity: K-16. Education, at least the credential, is now crucial for qualifying for decent paying jobs.

Who deserves…who deserves what? Murray simply assumes that the Bell Curve and IQ portray the human condition both correctly and adequately.

photo by Joe Mehling, Dartmouth CollegeWhen the more mature amongst us were young, IQ was the mantra of once a year. Mensa was the gathering group of those who had the highest IQ’s. But the “Rosenthal effect” showed in 1978 that teacher’s expectations were very powerful in predicting and shaping IQ. And we no longer got “tested” very often. (Who gets to make up IQ tests, anyway?)

The truth? Or are we talking mostly politics, culture, history, class…? Lurking is Social Darwinism, the idea from a century ago and more, that much of life is predetermined. Going back to thinker who is most revealed in Murray’s push to teach the “Great Books” is Aristotle. We find in his politics which preach the necessity of monarchy to maintain the world in peace and politeness that: “some men are destined by nature to be kings, and others to be slaves.”

Don’t the rich deserve to be rich: smarter (and they work “harder”)! The survival of the socially “fittest.” (I don’t think so).

Democracy…under attack? Murray showed up on Bookspan about a year ago when Harvard’s beleagured late president – Larry Summers – played a similar card in claiming that men are a bit “smarter” than women…a very old story as well. This time Summers got fired. But the ideas lurk in these times of political oddness and unrest.

Whose America? Whose world? Who deserves what? Are we born free and equal, or are we “prewired?” The tabula rasa or Blank Slate which began American democracy: or arranged about the depiction which the Bell Curve conveys?

I think Democracy, however complicated and changing, is more human, more “interesting,” more of what schools and teaching are toward. Read Aristotle! – surely, but critically, and with a sense of what his ideas have wrought, and continue to ring in the Wall Street Journal…of all places.

Begin with the idea that we’re all (ALL!) born geniuses, and we’ll be teaching toward a common-good future. Inspire the future: that’s what we teachers try to do, as we try to inspire our kids to grow, and grow beyond today.

With the idea of IQ already having determined the future, we teachers are prone to celebrate those who already appear talented, and to neglect or dismiss those who haven’t already blossomed. This is a bad idea for future Democracy, and a negation of the joys of life…to come.

Pope Benedict XVI has recently said that Western culture is

“unable to undertake a real dialogue with other cultures in which the religious dimension is strongly present. Nor is it able to respond to the fundamental questions about the meaning and direction of life,”

Pope Benedict states that meaning and morality are available only within religion. I respect the fact that most of those who are believers, do find meaning in their lives and act morally, inspired by their faiths.

But I think that religious claims to meaning and morality are as much looks backward, as attempts to understand these rapidly changing times: how to go about inspiring the present and future?

The Pope has much history, texts, philosophy, and prophecy on his “side.” The current rise in the import and power of religion signals a “return” to the past, as much as the desire to live in the present and future.

This tradition – Western thought – takes a narrow view of the human. Differences between our experience and historically informed descriptions and prescriptions for living are bound in ideas of the human, much less than in examining the human. It is now time to examine the human more thoroughly and thoughtfully, to see how we are and how we know.

Pope Benedict claims that only religion provides us with meaning and morality. This claim is an aspect of thinking that the human is a two-part “thing”: part body and part soul. It mostly neglects the body, and doesn’t pay any attention to the fact that we are bodies interacting with others. We live all alone, as it were, in a world in which the problems of knowing others and ourselves are removed from the human experience. Thence meaning and morality are available only through religion.

But this is not an accurate depiction of the human. We are body – and we “become” ourselves as we “emerge” from complex interactions with our m/others (the person who takes on the enormous responsibility for her infant). The born body is not the locus of the mind, soul, or self. Much happens to us: we are “transformed” in becoming our selves, the “I” who “has” a soul or mind.

Meaning develops in these relationships, leading to the further development of the self. Other persons are always “present” in our being and thoughts even as we are and grapple with the complexities of meaning in our ongoing lives.

Developmental psychologists (Alan Fogel: “Developing Through Relationships” and Alan Sroufe : “Emotional Development: The Organization of Emotional Life in the Early Years”) have recently understood that infants are “attached” to their m/others, and that the study of the infant “alone” is an error in illuminating our being: ideas derived from Behavioral Biology/Ethology of Konrad Lorenz – (“Bretherton: The Origins of Attachment Theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth” (PDF)– Developmental Psychology: 1992. 28. 759-775) joined with the insights of Pragmatist Philosopher, G. H. Mead (“Mind,
Self, and Society
”) whom I invoke in these elaborations of meaning, and morality.

Mother and child: photo by http://flickr.com/photos/tim166/

One of my works in progress, “A Meaningful Life”, attempts to frame our thinking in the widest terms, as an introduction to how “religious” or “prophetic” thinking enters many of our lives; or doesn’t. It attempts to frame the sorts of queries and questions which enter our thinking about deep and intense issues as reality, existence, ideas, change – all of which have risen in our thoughts in the past few decades.

The particularities of Western religion – including Christianity and Islam – take us into the thinking of change and permanence: an ancient and continuing battle. Why is this so powerful right now: because the world is changing so quickly that any earlier balance between change and permanence feels frantically like chaos. We seek permanence: and permanence is found in the forms of Platonic thinking which grants meaning only to the soul, only to the notions of the everlasting deity who presides outside of time and of life. Change? Life is but a dream, a chimera?

In this depiction, meaning is to be found primarily outside of our existence; from particular texts, prophets, histories, churchly organizations. And these are amazing histories, as they have become not only contemplative but also highly political in the recent battles for minds and for the concepts of meaning and morality.

What questions do we ask? About death, or about life: in which order? What directions, what solutions, whose authority will certify us; satisfy us; calm or excite us in our quests for meaning?

This will, in turn, take us into the issues surrounding morality. “The Genesis of Morality” is my attempt to note that our self, the “I” who I am, emerges from an attachment with the most moral of all persons in each of our lives: the m/other who dedicates herself to each next moment of our being.

And, as we move toward becoming more like independent selves,
m/other attempts to get us to take care of ourselves – as she would. These moments are the Genesis of Morality in each of our lives. And we move on from here and there to the present – complicated, questioning, especially in changing times, as we continue to grapple with meaning and morality.

The questions surrounding our human “agency” emerge as definitional of the present, and inspirational of the future. We shall embrace life, the present, moving and inspiring the future, even as many political and religious thinkers are looking for prophets, texts, and “truth” in the ideas and philosophers of the past.