Darwin and Human Nature- Day 1 (or “Acknowledging that we are no different from animals is the only thing that separates us from the beasts”)

I’m currently down in Cambridge for the CRASSH ‘Darwin and Human Nature’ conference. Unable to find a desk in order to do some proper work, I thought I’d write up an account of the first day. Ordinarily I’d have tweeted throughout, but my phone decided to give up on me (although having just checked I can’t see much on the twitter front).

So, as the title of this post might suggest, today was largely focussed upon the boundary between humans and animals, a boundary that sometimes sees types of human excluded to the realm of animal, and some animals raised above the status of humans. I was, for instance, reliably informed that at least one nineteenth century scientist considered dogs superior in intelligence to women because they were much more readily trained. Owning neither a dog nor a woman I am not in a position to comment.

I’m not going to go session by session, but will instead pick out some of the parts that I found particularly striking. Needless to say there was much more to the day than I am able to capture here, but I’m too lazy to be more rigorous.

The pre-eminent position of dogs and wolves in Darwin’s study of man was an early highlight. When you know from the excellent literature on nineteenth century breeding precisely how important the dog was in this context, you feel pretty stupid for not thinking about how the animal may have informed research outside of artificial selection (at least I hadn’t until this morning). The animals heightened sense of smell Darwin considered revealing, opening a window into mans primitive evolutionary past and allowing a glimpse into his psychological present. An academic hole-in-one occurred when the quotation that ended this first presentation was immediately seized by the next. I know it’s geeky to highlight something like this, but it’s so rare that I thought a record of it should exist somewhere other than in our fallible human minds, which leads me to…

Associationism. I’d not heard of the concept, but it originated with Locke and refers to the way in which ideas that may or may not possess a natural connection can nevertheless become fused in our minds. The bright screaming redness that passes through my mind when I think about Jim Davidson is an example of this phenomenon. We were treated to a very clear description of how Darwin thought about some important aspects of thinking, and how these could be inherited. One instructive distinction that emerged was that between imaginative thought, the building of ‘castles in the air’, as opposed to the creation of a proper train of thought, which Darwin found particularly exhausting. It was exhausting because there was nothing familiar about the process, each thought having to be crafted and associated to the next. This he believed provided important clues about how habitual behaviours could become embedded and ultimately heritable. Those most habitual of instincts, emotional responses, were analysed in a later paper, in which Darwins ‘Expression of the Emotions in Man’ was considered from a theatrical perspective. A strong case was made for the placing of these well known photographs in the context of their performance. Many of the more hammy examples were not, as is often assumed, just supposed to be capturing human emotions, but seemed (at least this was my understanding) to offer a series of tools for analysing what an emotional response might encompass. Darwin invited his readers to recreate these emotional displays, including instructions for how to look like a crying baby. When the speaker read these out I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience fighting the urge to follow them.

Finally, an early paper called for us to resist exaggeration when discussing the differences between humans and animals, whether we conclude these to be of degree or kind. Much of the discussion throughout the day repeatedly referred back to this suggestion. Rather than blind ourselves to the obvious differences, repeatedly emphasising what we share with non-human animals, it was argued that we should instead transcend this discussion. While I am sympathetic to this project, I don’t think that by the end of today we had a clearer picture of what such a world might look like. Instead of transcending this debate, people continuously stressed either one side or the other. Indeed the speaker who introduced this project gave us some (very good) reasons for questioning why we should be so wedded to stressing differences of degree rather than kind, without going beyond this. Perhaps tomorrow we will start to see what it might mean to leave this debate behind, for now it still looks very much to me as though one must, even if only for pragmatic reasons, choose to emphasise one rather than the other. While making such a choice might not tie YOU to any particular set of beliefs (for instance you could choose to emphasise that the differences between humans and animals are differences by degree, not so as to increase a belief in the value of nature, but so as to relinquish any notion of human responsibility towards the environment, “if man is only a less hairy ape then why should he be made to clean the place up?” type of argument) the choice you make will nevertheless resonate in particular ways depending upon the social/geographic/historical context in which you live. Or perhaps that’s balls?

Anyway, there you have it, the ramblings of a sleep deprived historian of agricultural science with Darwinist envy. Day 2 to follow tomorrow, or perhaps Sunday, or perhaps never, depending on how my free will operates (bonus conference reference!).

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the picture attached to this post, Galton’s relationship with Darwin was discussed, as was Chris Renwick’s argument for the significance of their pangenesis tests. These two rabbit portraits I accidentally found while wandering around Cambridge. They are, as it happens, perfectly demonstrating the effect upon coat colour of a reciprocal blood transfusion in the parent and f1 generation simultaneously (i.e. none).

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