Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach

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Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach by Malcolm Jeeves

How do recent scientific discoveries challenge and complicate — but also enrich and illuminate — the traditional Christian portrait of human nature? 

In Rethinking Human Nature an international team of scientists, historians, philosophers, and theologians presents both the wisdom of the past and the cutting edge of current scientific research to explore answers to this question. Their discussions — examining our brains, our genes, our ancestors, our societies, and more — lead to a richer, more nuanced, and more complete understanding of what it really means to be human.


  • Evandro Agazzi
  • R. J. Berry
  • Alison S. Brooks
  • Franco Chiereghin
  • Felipe Fernández-Armesto
  • Graeme Finlay
  • Joel B. Green
  • Malcolm Jeeves
  • Jürgen Mittelstrass
  • David G. Myers
  • Janet Martin Soskice
  • Fernando Vidal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802865571
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 02/23/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Malcolm Jeeves is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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Rethinking Human Nature

A Multidisciplinary Approach

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6557-1

Chapter One

How to Be Human: A Historical Approach Felipe Fernández-Armesto

My wife — I sometimes fear — thinks I am a beast. My students may stare at me as if I were an alien. Usually, however, my fellow-humans have little difficulty in recognizing me as one of themselves. I find it easy to return what, for the present, I take as a compliment.

However unalike we look, and however great the chasms of culture that separate us, humans form a community of recognition, from which no member of the species need be excluded. This experience of acceptance is now so common that it is hard to believe that in historic terms it is a rare and recent innovation. For most people, in most societies, for most of the past, the limits of humankind were narrow. Humans did not normally recognize each other as such; and the idea of a moral community coterminous with our species would have seemed unconvincing or even unintelligible. Typically, members of one human group acknowledged no kinship with others. They felt, indeed, closer to some nonhuman animals, with whom they shared their lives or mythic ancestries, than to fellow-humans from elsewhere. Most languages had no word for "human" apart from whatever term designated the group. The outsider would be called by some other name, usually roughly translatable as "beast" or "demon" or "monster." Monsters proliferate in lore and legend not because people are imaginative but rather the very opposite: a failure of imagination is responsible, for humans have generally found it hard to conceive of strangers in the same terms as themselves. This is surprising, since one might expect mutual recognition by creatures of a single species to be innate, crafted by evolution to facilitate the selection of mates and the identification of rivals. In humans' case, however, the evidence suggests that this is not so, or, if there is a human recognition-instinct, that culture has occluded it.

So how did we get our present, relatively generous and inclusive notion of humankind? How did our moral community become species-specific? And are the stories of how these outcomes happened really over, or could we take them further and include more beings in our definition of humankind? Further or alternatively, could we stretch our moral community to reincorporate nonhumans?

I propose to approach answers to these questions by sketching briefly the historic outline of two stories: first, of the expansion of our notion of humankind, and second, of the exclusion of nonhuman animals from our moral community. I shall then look at the progress and consequences of some current and recent scientific or scholarly developments, which, I believe, make it impossible to hold the present line around our moral community. These developments have occurred principally in five fields: genetics, robotics, human rights theory, paleoanthropology, and primatology. Other contributors, in the pages that follow, deal with the implications of genetics and paleoanthropology. I shall concentrate on the lessons of primatology, which are perhaps the most challenging and potentially subversive. Between them, the developments I have in mind raise or reinforce a major dilemma for moral philosophy — what we might call the Peter Singer dilemma: How, in the light of present knowledge, can we continue to justify a species-based moral community? I hope to end by suggesting a new solution, or at least a new response.

The story of the expansion of the notion of humankind can be summarized readily. It is hardly surprising that most human groups have been introspective, because inward-looking communities of recognition were characteristic of the long phase of cultural divergence that occupied most of history, from our ancestors' first migrations out of east Africa something like a hundred thousand years ago. Cultures isolated by mutual incomprehension were unlikely to develop inclusive notions. But the dominant trend of global history for perhaps the last ten thousand years has been a form of reconvergence, in which, with increasing intensity, the peoples of the world have reestablished mutual contact. It is not surprising that humans' ability to enfold one another in mutual recognition has grown meanwhile and in consequence.

Documented first in the thought of Indian, Greek, Chinese, and southwest Asian sages of the first millennium BCE, the idea of a common human identity, transcending barriers of culture and differences of appearance, appealed to universalist empires and universalist religions and philosophies in the same period. Familiarity can breed respect as well as contempt, and the growing range of cultural exchange helped to break down barriers to mutual recognition between formerly sundered peoples. Monsters, however, continued to lurk beyond the frontier of each successive encounter. A capacious category, between what was acknowledged as human and what was known to be beastly, was always available, to which to relegate embodiments of alterity. The elder Pliny's famous list, which influenced ethnographers and cartographers in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, shows how broad in his day was the category of the subhuman or parahuman or, as Pliny himself called them, "simulacra" of humankind. "Where people who live far beyond the sea are concerned," he argued reasonably,

I have no doubt that some facts will appear monstrous and, indeed, incredible to many. For who could ever believe in the existence of black people, before he actually saw them? Indeed is there anything that does not seem marvellous, when first we hear about it? How many things are judged impossible, until they are judged to be facts?

A long list of monsters followed these wise remarks, including the Arimaspi, each with one eye in his or her forehead; the Nasamones, all of whom were hermaphrodites; the creatures Megasthenes described, whose eight-toed feet were turned backward; the dog-headed Cynocephali; the single-footed Sciapods; the Troglodytes with "no necks and with eyes in their shoulders"; the hairy, barking Choromandae; the mouthless Astomi who took nourishment by inhaling; tailed men; and men who could enfold themselves in their enormous ears. Pliny also endorsed belief in various races of giants and anthropophagi. "Nature," Pliny concluded, "in her ingenuity, has created all these marvels in the human race, with others of a similar nature, as so many amusements to herself, though they appear miraculous to us."

Tradition hallowed distortion. Medieval travel books were hardly complete without what readers, writers, and publishers called mirabilia — prodigies, monsters, enchantments, fabulous people and places, freaks of climate and topography. The similitudines hominis clung to the rungs of the ladder of creation in medieval Europe. Hairy wodehouses were among artists' favorite subjects. In the printed version of Columbus's first report, the writer expressed surprise that he had found no monsters in his islands. Cannibal cynocephali illustrated early editions of the voyages of Vespucci. "Anthropophagi and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders" confronted Othello.

More than titillation was at stake. Monsters bore the deforming weight of ideological controversy. Some authors, influenced in the West by Christian universalism and in the East by Confucianism and Buddhism, doubted whether the chain of being really had any links in it between beasts and men. St. Augustine denied the existence of monstrosities: it is only, he argued, our warped perceptions of beauty that make us deny the perfection of beings unlike ourselves. Yet despite the skepticism of this revered authority, monsters clawed their way back into medieval geographies, ethnographies, and bestiaries. Their numbers actually grew fromthe twelfth century onward, partly as a result of the rediscovery of classical texts in which monsters were enumerated. You can still see them, streaming toward the embrace of Christ, in the tympanum of the monastery church of Vézelay. More than their existence, their meaning was at issue. According to a principle of late medieval psychology, laid down in the thirteenth century by Albertus Magnus, perfect reason could only dwell in a perfect body. So monstrosity was a sign of subhumanity.

Each new encounter provoked predictable questions. Were the Mongols, the Canary Islanders, black people, Native Americans, "Hottentots," pygmies, and Australian aboriginals beasts or humans? These questions were all ultimately settled in favor of inclusive conclusions — sometimes by papal fiat but usually by the relentless accumulation of evidence. Gradually, the similitudines hominis vanished, as explorers searched for them in vain. Little by little, therefore, monsters have disappeared from categories of scientific classification.

Nowadays, there are few communities left who persist in classifying themselves apart from other humans. Cases of people who withhold recognition from some of their neighbors — such as the Lembu of the Ituri region, who according to press reports justified their cannibalization of pygmies during recent troubles in Congo by explaining that pygmies were not humans — are mercifully rare.

It has been harder, however, to eliminate claims that people deemed meet for exploitation, servitude, or extermination are human, but not "fully" so. Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Untermenschen multiplied as monsters disappeared: subspecies incapable of evolutionary success, inferior "races," quasi-children, instances of phylogenetic arrest. These were common ways of characterizing black people, for example, in the nineteenth-century West. A veritable anthropological industry was dedicated to classifying "negroes" as closer to gorillas than to true humans. Even Darwin, though resolutely opposed to slavery, thought it a matter of indifference whether "races" were best regarded as "subspecies" or potential species. The racists who dominated the Anthropological Society of London in Darwin's day rejected the theory of evolution because they wanted to confine blacks to a separate and inferior creation. Louis Agassiz devoted much time and effort to an attempt to prove that black and white people were of different species on the alleged grounds that miscegenation led to sterility. A trend in criminology, meanwhile, claimed that crime was the result of "degeneracy" into a subcategory of diminished humanhood.

In the long run, however, none of these beliefs withstood scientific scrutiny. Gradually, by describing a unified human species, science has compelled defenders of categories of imperfect humanhood to discard them, despite painful and sometimes bloody rearguard actions. At the same time, equality has become a universal shibboleth: no differences between people — according to the current consensus — are big enough to justify moral discrimination. That there are no degrees of humanness is, in the present state of knowledge, admissible as a fact: every human is equally human. Therefore, no scale of humankind, arrayed in presumed order of value or of approach to perfection, can justify the extermination or exploitation of some people by others. If, for the moment, we leave aside theoretical questions concerning whether extinct hominid species should be classed as human or nonhuman, or whether some of them are better assigned to an intermediate category — a sort of revival of the notion of the similitudo hominis or perhaps of the Untermensch — only two exceptions remain: there is no consensus on the status of the unborn and the vegetatively moribund. Such individuals can hardly be classified outside humankind — for to what other species could they possibly belong? — but some parties insist on classifying them as not fully human in the sense of lacking "personhood" or some other supposed qualification for admission to the human moral community.

Meanwhile, taxonomy has reflected the progress of the concept of humankind. We have a name — Homo sapiens — for the species to which humans, and only humans, belong. Lively philosophical and biological debate in recent years has left few thinkers who remain confident that the boundaries we draw between species correspond to "essential" differences, and loose language confuses the issue by sometimes extending the term "human" to other species that are classifiable in (or that are candidates for inclusion in) the same genus. But we do now at least have a means of measuring whether a creature belongs to the species or not: we can define humans as falling within a certain range of DNA. This is not necessarily a good criterion for defining a moral community — any more than some other physical characteristic, such as pigmentation, or the length of one's nose, would be. At least, however, it serves to resolve any quibbles — such as those of which, say, Bushmen or pygmies were formerly victims — from ever arising again.

So, with some limitations, the story of what we might call the human frontier, where cultures interact, has been one of the progressive extension of people's power of mutual recognition. On the other hand, the story of what we might call the animal frontier, where humans confront other creatures, has been the opposite: a tale of progressive pruning of the moral community, from which nonhuman animals have, until now, been ever more aggressively excluded. I take it as beyond question that most societies, in the past, admitted nonhuman creatures on terms similar to those extended to humans. There are three main pieces of evidence: first, the ubiquity of totemism; second, the wide occurrence of zoomorphic deities; and third, the archaeological evidence of burial practices in which animals are honored. I think in particular of Europe's biggest Mesolithic graveyard, at Skateholm, where the hunters' dogs lie in graves of their own alongside those of their human companions, often with signs of honor equal to or greater than those of the humans. This was a society that rewarded hunters in proportion to their prowess, not with preference for one species over another. Vestiges of the moral equivalence of different species were still discernible in Europe in the Middle Ages and early modern times. The cults of dogs as saints showed this, as did the practice of putting animals, including rats and locusts, on trial for their imputed misdemeanors.

Yet, matching the emergence of an inclusive concept of humankind, an exclusive attitude to nonhuman creatures was formulated by sages of the first millennium bce. Broadly speaking, in China, India, and southwest Asia, learned opinion coincided roughly with the notion familiar in the West from Aristotle's formulation. Humans are classifiable apart from other animals because of unique moral or mental qualities, which qualify them for privilege or responsibility — "lordship" in some formulations, "stewardship" in others — over the rest of the animal kingdom. But this consensus was never firmly established. It begged too many questions about the precise nature of supposed human uniqueness, the consistency of the evidence for it, and the justifiability of the moral conclusions that ensued. When, for example, a Daoist master of the third century CE enthused about heaven's partiality for humankind on the grounds that grain, fish, and flesh were available for people to eat, a disarmingly candid child remarked that one might as well say that heaven had favored wolves and tigers by providing them with men to eat. The suspicion that "man is not the only intelligent creature in the universe" and that "the human mind is the same as that of plants and trees, birds and beasts," kept recurring to Chinese thinkers. Convictions that humans are special arise easily enough in human minds; they rarely prove robust in the face of searching comparisons between us and other animals.

The most instructive cases are those of the nonhuman creatures who most obviously resemble humans: the apes we call "great," and some other primates reminiscent of humans in body or behavior. In cultures where they are familiar, these creatures have always been treated as kin: sometimes as humans in a state of arrested development, or as moral exemplars of the virtues of "natural" humanity, or as superior beings separated from humans only by their closeness to divinity. In what we now think of as the West, however, knowledge of nonhuman primates was exiguous until the seventeenth century. The "great" apes were virtually unknown — tentatively regarded, on the whole, as degenerate humans. When encounters began, apes were the subjects of the same question as — say — blacks and Native Americans: Were they human? In a typical equivocation, in the early years of the seventeenth century, Andrew Battel, author of the first eye-witness accounts of an encounter with chimpanzees in English, thought them "in all proportion like a man" but "with no more understanding than a beast." Richard Jobson, a keen-eyed merchant in the Gambia a few years later, had no doubt that baboons were humans, whose ancestors had opted rationally for a "natural" way of life and who had lost all the refinements and vices of civilization. In 1641 the famous physician, Nicolaes Tulp, whose anatomy lesson Rembrandt painted, likened what he called an "orang-outang" — an ape he observed in the menagerie of the Stadhouder in The Hague — to the satyrs of classical myth and the hairy homines silvestri or wodehouses of medieval legend. He was clearly aware that orangutan (to use the spelling now generally favored) meant "man of the woods" in Malay.


Excerpted from Rethinking Human Nature Copyright © 2011 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contributors vii

Introduction Malcolm Jeeves 1


How to Be Human: A Historical Approach Felipe Fernández-Armesto 11

Human Persons and Human Brains: A Historical Perspective within the Christian Tradition Fernando Vidal 30

Philosophical Analyses

Science and the Search for a New Anthropology Jürgen Mittelstrass 61

The Scientific Images and the Global Knowledge of the Human Being Evandro Agazzi 70

The Peculiarly Human Feature of the Aesthetic Experience: The Teaching of Kant and the Challenge of Neuroscience Franco Chiereghin 82

Human Distinctiveness - Clues from Science

The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Genetic Story Graeme Finlay 107

Evolution of Homo sapiens R J. Berry 149

The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Story from Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology Malcolm Jeeves 176

The Social Animal David G. Myers 206

Archaeology and Paleoanthropology

What Is a Human? Archaeological Perspectives on the Origins of Humanness Alison S. Brooks 227

Theological Accounts of Human Distinctiveness: The Imago Dei

Humanity-Created, Restored, Transformed, Embodied Joel Green 271

Imago Dei and Sexual Difference: Toward an Eschatological Anthropology Janet Martin Soskice 295


On How Complementary Perspectives Produce Enriched Portraits Malcolm Jeeves 309

Index 328

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