Sunday, January 24, 2010

Let's Talk About Us and Them

Last night I watched the last of the series The Human Spark on the PBS website. Lots of brain imagery and stuff like that. It was fascinating. The technology available today allows people to look at the ways the human brain works in ways unimaginable just a short time ago. Watching this series as well as an earlier series called Becoming Human, it was interesting to me to see how thinking in the field of evolutionary anthropology has itself evolved since I was in grad school in the mid 1990s. Being a sociocultural anthropologist, I was never fully immersed in the evolutionary side of things, but I still hold a fascination about how we got to the point where we started to develop culture and in the ways culture helps us both develop in positive ways as well as limits us in very detrimental ways. In terms of what makes us human, there has always been a huge emphasis on the brain—especially the size of our brains--and now with the developments in genetics, brain imaging and new fossil finds the theories and insights about how we got to be us are being refined and adapted to the new evidence. And it is now possible to test theories and get a better sense of how things actually work. It was interesting to me that there is much more work being done on how culture impacts the brain and how it gave us the adaptive advantage. I am biased, of course, but I think this is true—culture has an impact in ways that people usually don't think about. There is language, of course, and other symbolic thinking. But they are also now coming around to the idea that the fact that we have always lived in social groups gave us an evolutionary advantage. Language developed in a social context. I have read books in the past about the evolution of language and I always wondered how the people that were arguing for purely biological language capacity could overlook what seemed to me to be the obvious. Having the physical apparatus to create the sounds for language is important, but it's certainly nowhere near enough for actual meaningful language. You have to have a system of symbols, because that is what language is. The sounds don't mean much unless they have a symbolic meaning attached. And in order to have an agreed upon system of symbols, you have to have a group that can communicate within itself. It's of no use to talk if no one is listening or getting any meaning from the noises you're making. So clearly, the physical possibility of language is meaningless unless there is a social group in which meaning can develop. And so it is nice to see that social groups are gaining more attention in terms of evolutionary adaptation. Not just in terms of language, either. With the new studies they are doing, they can learn a great deal about how preverbal children respond in various situations and make inferences about what this may mean for the rest of us. There is increasing evidence—as if we needed it—that we really are connected. We need each other. We will rise up or fall together. In a very fundamental way, we will either continue to develop ourselves in a positive direction or we will destroy each other. The social systems that we developed in our evolutionary past served as an advantage when it came to survival—by forming groups and institutions our human ancestors were in a better position to adapt and survive. But now those very groups are being used to draw clear lines between groups in ways that are not so helpful. There has always been us and them. But now we have the means to try to destroy them—whomever they may be. This is dangerous. This is not adaptive. This will lead to the destruction of us and them, not just them. There has always been us and them. There always will be to some degree. But we have these incredible human brains that are more amazing than anything else that seems to exist at this time on the planet. Surely we can use them in ways that will allow us to still be us and to allow them to be them without feeling like “them” is a dangerous group that must be eliminated. Can we not look a little bit beyond us and them to realize that on a very basic level we are all us. We are all human beings. We can separate ourselves into manageable groups and have all of the little pockets of “us” we want while at the same time knowing that there are many, many groups of “them” out there who want basically the same things we do. In the end, at a very fundamental level, it's only us. That's all we've got.

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