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June 1, 2008

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What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Sort of a mini-Edge Question over at Wired Science: What does it mean to be human?

I liked Daniel Dennett’s answer:

We are the first species that represents our reasons, and can reason with each other. “The planet has grown a nervous system,” he said.

That’s a nice twist on the usual (to my mind, pretty fluffy) gaia-talk. Language is important because it’s an interconnect. Earth has supported nodes for a long time: bacteria, fish, dinosaurs, dragonflies, all that. But humans (and other smart species, like chimps and dolphins) introduce edges for the first time — connections — so suddenly larger patterns can start to form.

It’s just math!

Posted June 1, 2008 at 9:13 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


The Edge bias creeps in to some of the answers, too: all of the cognitive scientists think it has to do with the brain and language, the geneticists our genome, the anthropologists our symbolic traditions, the physicists our ability to make hypotheses and survey the universe. "What does it mean to be a human? Why, that's just one of the questions I address in my new book!" ... ;-)

Maybe I'm being too harsh, since in part each of these people were brought in to represent their areas of expertise, and to give answers that could represent what their fields and their work could contribute. But imagine a different slate of well-known intellectuals, not necessarily scientists, answering that question, possibly in more surprising ways, almost definitely differently.

Wasn't too impressed with the Wired summary, but I assume more was said than Wired was able to blog. Just based on the Wired summary though, I'd say the most useful answers were those that contradicted natural assumptions.

Patricia Churchland points out that our brains are not structured very differently from other mammals'. We have not found human-specific brain structures. This point seems useful to me, and somewhat profound.

Furthermore, as our understanding of avian brain structure has been revised over the last 5-10 years, we've realized that avian brains have most of the same functional areas as mammalian brains. Although avian brains look different structurally, they do most of the same things.

Key quotes from Avian brains and a new understanding of vertebrate brain evolution:
"Although the avian pallium is nuclear, and the mammalian cortex is laminar in organization, the avian pallium supports cognitive abilities similar to, and for some species more advanced than, those of many mammals." . . . "although the avian pallium is not organized cytoarchitectonically into layers, its nuclear subdivisions bear marked similarities in connectivity and molecular profile to different layers of the mammalian neocortex." . . . "many birds have cognitive proficiencies that are quite sophisticated, and some birds and mammals have cognitive proficiencies that clearly exceed all other birds or mammals. As these cognitive functions are carried out by the six-layered cortex in mammals but by nuclear pallial areas in birds, it is clear that the mammalian six-layered cortical architecture is not the only neuroarchitectural solution for the generation of complex cognitive behaviours."

The geneticist also brings up the important recent understanding that humans are not genetically very distinct from our nearest (and not so near) animal relatives, at least as far as coding regions of the genome are concerned.

I would say the obvious difference between humans and other animals is our capacity for abstraction. This has both up- and down-sides. Other animals live much more in the moment, while humans tend to lose touch with reality and live according to schemas. Hence the pithy Buddhist summary of the modern world: "lost in thought".

This occurs on many levels. Compare an artistic savant's inborn ability to draw precisely what he sees, versus the more typical human tendency to reproduce the true visual world poorly. This is interesting also because savant brains work more like autistic brains, and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin insists that some of her unique empathy with animals stems from her own autism and her consequent tendency to see the world more immediately and less abstractly. So I would say the autistic mind gives us insight into the difference between humans and other animals.

Similarly, the finding that in some cases children's memories are more reliable that adults', because the children are less prone to conflate the memory of what actually happened with abstract ideas about the meaning of what happened. Again, I would say the child brain gives us insight into the difference between humans and other animals.

Obviously the ability to think abstractly also yields many benefits such as our symbolic tendencies, creativity, cross-modal problem solving, etc.

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