The Science of Human Nature

The Science of Human Nature

A book review of

The Emergence of Personhood: A Quantum Leap? (2015)

Edited by Malcolm Jeeves


I had my doubts about this book. I was interested in the topic. Is is possible to believe human beings are distinct from other species while also believing human beings evolved from other species?  Human beings share a great deal of DNA in common with other species.  According to the internet we share 90% of our DNA with cats.  Does that mean a human being is merely 9% more valuable than a cat?

But I also had a concern about the book.  The diversity of authors contributing to the volume seemed to defy coherence. Not only was there a great diversity of fields, but also a great diversity of philosophical assumptions. Jeeves’s introduction explaining polyphonic discourse aiming at harmony rather than unity, did nothing to encourage me.

But two things changed. Firstly, as I read the book, most of the contributors gave some explanation of the scope of what their discipline could and could not contribute to answering the question. At some point I realised that trying to understand the origin of human nature is like trying to figure out how to build a plane while flying a plane. You can’t stop and pull the plane apart while it’s flying. Similarly, we can’t study human nature without engaging our human nature. With this limitation, it makes sense to look at the issue from as many different perspectives as possible.

Secondly, when I got to the end of the book, despite the fact that all of the contributors disagreed with everyone else about something, I did feel like I had a coherent sense of the whole. Not necessarily the whole answer, but at least the whole of the question. Although there wasn’t consensus in the book, nevertheless I came away with a sense of a likely broad answer that seemed to fit most of the evidence that was presented.

This is encapsulated by an analogy given by biologist Francisco J Ayala. “Thresholds occur in the physical world as well. For example, water heats gradually, but at 100C boiling begins and the transition from liquid to gas starts suddenly.” (p99) This idea pulls together both the gradualist and quantum leap ideas. I found this particularly striking in Tattersall’s chapter on the evolution of reason.

“Judged merely by the remarkable velocity of transformation in human life since the first African stirrings of symbolic behaviours…our modern cognitive style emerges as something considerably more than an incremental improvement on what preceded it. Evidently, our mode of reasoning is qualitatively unique. And the indications …are that the potential for this radically new cognitive mode…was acquired as a single package. What’s more that acquisition was very recent, having occurred within the tenure our anatomically recognisable species, Homo sapiens.” (p46)

This book will not be to everyone’s liking. If you want a book that simply tells you what you want to hear, this is not it – The contributors all disagree with each other! Nevertheless, they all “accept the explanatory powers of …the neo-Darwinian version… of evolution” (p6) and they all seem to agree that human beings are in some sense distinct from all other currently living species. If you agree with that framework, you will find this book stimulating.

If you have found this review helpful, you may like to read the book; listen to talks by the contributors eg: Roy F Baumeister, What is the self? Francisco Ayala, Evolution of Ethical Behavior and Moral Values: Biology? Culture? Tim O’Connor on Freedom, Human Persons, and the Problem of Evil; or we would love to share with you what we believe is God’s purpose for human nature.

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