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Uniquely Unique | Morality, Language, Culture

Part Three in the Uniquely unique mini-series. We look to morality, language, and culture, and start to see that our species is quite an outlier.

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Part Three in the Uniquely unique mini-series. We look to morality, language, and culture, and start to see that our species is quite an outlier.

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A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.

Humans and animals have a lot in common, especially when you look only to biology. When you start looking at things like morality, language, and culture, you start to see that our species is quite an outlier. But to what extent do we see the building blocks of morality in other animals? And what is different about the way we communicate from the way so many other creatures communicate? And what is so special about the culture we have developed? Those are the questions we explore with our guests. 

In this new Language of God mini series—Uniquely Unique—Jim is joined by our producer Colin for a deep dive into these questions and more. The quest? To try to come to a better understanding of what it means to be human, to bear the image of God. Along the way, you’ll hear from a variety of experts from a wide range of disciplines, drawing on biology, history, anthropology, philosophy, theology and more to try to make sense of our human identity.

 


Transcript

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump, and I’m back again with Colin Hoogerwerf as we continue our quest to answer the question, What does it mean to be human?

Hoogerwerf: 

In the last episode we looked at the biology of humans. And we found that there are serious limitations to any of the ways we might want to draw biological lines between what is human and what is not. The human body, human cells, human DNA, even the human brain seem to show more continuity with the rest of life than separation. 

Stump: 

But each of the scientists we talked to also seemed to agree that there is something about humans that makes us uniquely unique. So in this episode we’re going to step a little further out and look beyond the biology at some of the behaviors of humans that seem to separate us from other forms of life.

Hoogerwerf: 

We talked about the fossil record last time and the kinds of physical characteristics we look for when we need to determine whether some hominid skeleton is homo sapiens or some other species. 

Wall-Scheffler: 

So paleontological record, what makes us human, we have a chin, we have a bowl shaped pelvis. And we have a large frontal lobe. That’s the skeletal evidence of anatomically modern humans.

Hoogerwerf: 

But the paleontological record is only a part of the evidence that we use to determine species. You have to look at more than just the skeleton. The archeological record also gives us a lot of clues to how our ancestors and the other hominin species lived their lives. 

Wall-Scheffler: 

From an archaeological perspective, humans have creativity, they have imagination. When you see the Homo sapien record, you see sculptures of organisms that they have never seen in real life. And this, I think, is really what’s different from other, you know, other bipeds.

Stump: 

Even if the differences between our biology are only incremental differences of degree from other creatures, I don’t think we can say the same about the world we have created. We don’t see chimps building art museums or dolphins creating podcasts about the meaning of life. Is this human world of artifacts and institutions where our uniqueness really becomes an outlier? 

Hoogerwerf: 

Let’s figure out what we’re even talking about here. When we move beyond biological characteristics to define what we are, we start to look at the things that we actually do, the ways we behave. 

Lahti: 

Well, I would say the best place to start is just looking at morality, looking at our conception of, of the good.

Stump: 

That’s David Lahti again. We met him back in the first episode of this series. The development of morality has been one of his areas of study, and as he says, it makes a good candidate for where we might look for something uniquely unique about humans. 

Hoogerwerf: 

But to talk about morality you have to be able to talk in the first place. 

Schloss: 

There’s no other species on the planet that has come close to what humans have done with language. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And that’s Jeff Schloss again. 

Stump: 

Ok so language is another contender here. I’m really interested in language as a remarkable feature of human existence but do we have anything else?

Lahti: 

We have essentially taken this tool of culture, and we’ve applied it to everything imaginable.

Hoogerwerf: 

Culture. So morality, language, and culture  

Stump: 

Now we need to say at the outset that the delineation between these ideas is not perfect. Language is a part of culture and culture influences what we take to be virtuous, and all of them are wrapped up together in complex ways. 

Hoogerwerf: 

We’re not leaving science behind here either. When we’re talking about these things we can still use a scientific discipline to understand them. We’ll have to look to archeology to understand how culture developed in our ancestors. And biology will help us to study groups of animals and to understand how they communicate and live in contrast to us.

Stump: 

Alright. Let’s get to it.

Part One

Hoogerwerf: 

When you ask someone for the first time what makes us human or what makes us different from the rest of the animal world, many times you will hear answers that have to do with love, empathy, fairness, justice, guilt. It’s hard to imagine our lives without those things, and they seem to have a big part in our ability to thrive. But are they uniquely human traits?

Stump: 

Some of you might be thinking about elephants, which have shown signs that they grieve when one of their community dies, or you might be thinking of dolphins who seem to have shown care for humans who are in trouble, or maybe you’re thinking of your dog, who seems to show shame when he knows he’s done something wrong, or even loyalty in protecting you, perhaps even at some personal risk to himself. These seem like virtues, right?

Hoogerwerf: 

If they really are virtuous, I think we’d have to say they have morality. Or at least we’d have to say they have a degree of morality? 

Schloss: 

There’s been an interesting debate about the extent to which non human animals have the rudiments of morality. You know, anybody who has a dog and walks in when their dog has done something that they’re not supposed to do and the dog lowers their head, might think that that’s a precursor of guilt or shame. It may be. It may be just a submissive display. And the question is, if you never walked in, would the dog feel bad about breaking the rules?

Stump: 

There’s an important question here about whether the behavior itself determines if it is a moral action, or if a larger context has to be taken into account.

Hoogerwerf: 

Hold on, what do you mean?

Stump: 

I’ve told the story before about when the neighbor’s dog bit my son on the leg. We say that’s a bad dog, but it’s not clear to me that we mean “morally bad.” But if the same action—biting my son—had been performed by my neighbor instead of his dog, I’d do more than say “bad neighbor.” We’d think he had done something morally wrong. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Maybe it’s easy to see in the negative examples like that, but I suppose we could ask the same question about the more positive examples of your dog’s loyalty or care by dolphins. If a human had done those things, we’d definitely call them virtuous. But maybe that assumes a broader human context and we shouldn’t anthropomorphize those actions.

Stump: 

But even if we don’t go all the way to saying that some of these animals have full-blown morality, I think it’s totally legitimate to see the building blocks or precursors of morality in them. Just as the bodies we’ve inherited through the evolutionary process were built up over time, so too it’s not unreasonable to think that our behaviors may have also been acquired in steps, and that some animals today might still show some of those steps that our ancestors went through.

Hoogerwerf: 

One of those important steps toward morality is cooperation. And we humans don’t have a monopoly on the behavior of cooperating. Here’s Helen De Cruz who we heard from a couple episodes back in the intro to this series. 

De Cruz: 

So cooperating within the group is really common, also in a variety of non-human animals, like lions. So if you have a lion group, like if one lion gets attacked, and all the other lionesses come and, you know, try to help out, or if you know, two lions are trying to take over, they help. So that’s really very common. 

Stump: 

Bringing this closer to home, in our cousins the Neanderthals, the kind of cooperation we see extends to taking care of the injured—which goes against the grain of what many people imagine evolution and survival of the fittest to be. 

De Cruz:

They were hurt so much, and they must have been out of action for so long. And you have to rely on all the people while you are healing. So they would have regular periods in which they were just out of action. Other people would take care of them, because you know, you need some extra care. You need people to care for you when you have a broken limb. Imagine that you live in the circumstances that they did, you know, with no access to modern medicine and so on, and yet they healed. So we know they took care of each other.

Hoogerwerf: 

Helping a member of your own group is one thing, since it will be a help to you as well. I will take care of the injured hunter because when I become injured I can rely on the fact that others will share food with me. But that kind of care and cooperation beyond one’s own community is something different. We see no evidence in Neanderthals or in any other species for a kind of cooperation that goes beyond a small group or family clan. But Homo sapiens took cooperation to a new level. Here’s Jeff again. 

Schloss: 

So the first thing is, we cooperate with non-genetically related individuals. We cooperate with individuals we don’t even know and may not even have ever met before. And it’s all too rare. But that’s the scale of cooperation. The depth of cooperation is that many humans make profound sacrifices on behalf of others. And sometimes they’d have no reproductive or fitness benefits from the selves, which biologists call altruism.

Stump: 

And here is an area where we start to see how our human capacities interact with each other to bring about something greater than the sum of their parts: our capacity for language makes a different kind of cooperation possible.

Schloss: 

So one of them is the notion of indirect reciprocity, that I may help Jim, even if he’s not in a position to help me back, if Colin sees me do it, and then he helps me. The interesting thing about indirect reciprocity is we’ve recently found evidence of this in other species, but it involves direct observation that Colin has to see me helping Jim and then he’ll cooperate with me. The interesting thing about human beings is that we have linguistically mediated indirect reciprocity. It’s not just primary. It’s not just Colin seeing me. Colin can see me. And then he can say to Deb Haarsma, “hey, that Jeff is a pretty good guy, you’ve got to cut him some slack.” And Deb could tell Francis Collins. We have tertiary and quaternary indirect reciprocity, which is linguistically mediated. No other species does that.

Hoogerwerf: 

Besides cooperation, can we point to anything else in other animals that might qualify as a precursor or building block for the full-fledged morality that we humans have?

Schloss:

And I think we have found some rudiments. It’s not clear whether other organisms experience guilt. There is some empirical data to suggest they have a sense of fairness.

Brosnan: 

How much background do you want, how long do I have?

Stump: 

[laughs] You can tell us as much about it as you’d like. Colin, do you have a different set of instructions you want to give her?

Hoogerwerf: 

Nope, just let us know who you are. 

Brosnan: 

Yes, I am Sarah Brosnan and I am distinguished University Professor of Psychology, Philosophy and Neuroscience at Georgia State University. 

Stump: 

Ok, let’s hear about your monkeys. 

Brosnan: 

Excellent, ok. So when I was a new grad student, I was taking my advisor’s advice, which was to sit outside and watch my animals. And one afternoon, I was out back feeding them. And one of the challenges to feeding group-house monkeys is that the dominants try to get all the really good treats. So I was busy trying to tempt our alpha male, whose name is Ozzie, away from the rest of the group, by holding a peanut off to the side, and then feeding the other monkeys peanuts with my other hand, and Ozzie who was pretty savvy to this trick, instead of trying to grab the peanuts started bringing me things to trade. And the interesting thing was, he went up from a piece of shell to an orange peel, to eventually bringing me a piece of orange and trying to trade it for a peanut. And I was pretty confident that if I had given him just a one-off choice between an orange and a peanut, he’d have chosen the orange piece. So what occurred to me was that it was possible that he was interested in this peanut not because he was so desperate for peanuts, but because the other monkeys in his group were getting one.

Stump: 

So here’s a bit more anecdotal evidence for some sort of understanding of moral behavior, in this case a sense of fairness. But Sarah took this observation into the lab and ended up doing her doctoral thesis on this. And you can see the YouTube video of this experiment, which is really funny and has been viewed over a million times.

Hoogerwerf: 

That’s not the norm for doctoral dissertations.

Stump: 

I think mine has been accessed 10 times… and 5 of those might have been me.

Hoogerwerf: 

Maybe you should have done something with monkeys?

Stump: 

Seriously.

Brosnan: 

I set up a study where two monkeys from the same social group, so they knew each other well, were sitting side by side. They had to do a trade. I gave them a—it was a small granite rock and they returned it to me. And if they did so, they got a reward. So very straightforward. And in the control condition, they both got a food that they like perfectly well, but not a favorite. So this was a piece of cucumber, which they always happily ate. And then in the experimental tasks, the important one, one monkey would get a grape for doing this, and the other one would get a cucumber. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Sarah and her colleagues knew that all the monkeys preferred grapes to cucumbers. What was important though was how the monkeys responded when they saw their partner get a grape when they only got a cucumber. 

Brosnan:

And what we found was that the small group of monkeys we tested showed very strong responses to getting a cucumber when their partner got a grape, including things like throwing cucumbers out of their enclosure. 

Stump: 

This is so fascinating, and similar experiments have been conducted on a wide range of animals and many different species of primates.

Brosnan: 

Since that time we’ve studied, I think, nine different species now, nine different primate species. And other people have done work with wolves and dogs and rats and several species of birds and so forth. And what seems to be the case is, in some contexts, some species, but not all, will refuse an outcome that they normally like if another individual is getting a better one. And it seems to be fairly closely tied to cooperation. So species that are working together, cooperating more, are more likely to be the ones that show this sense of inequity, this refusal to accept a previously acceptable reward when somebody else is getting something better. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So these behaviors if done by humans would surely count as having a sense of fairness. But again, can we say that that is what these animals feel?

Brosnan: 

What we don’t see a lot of is the flip of this, which is the monkey who’s getting the grape responding when their partner gets a cucumber as compared to say another grape. And so with humans, what we would consider a true sense of fairness takes both halves. You have to care when you get less, but you also have to care when you get more. 

Stump: 

Hmmm… so maybe it’s not exactly the same.

Brosnan:

And of course, there’s growing evidence for empathy and other species. And actually, a lot of that best evidence comes out of rodents, not out of primates, which suggests that this may go a whole lot further back than we’re actually thinking right now.

Hoogerwerf:

So let’s hear just briefly about what we know about rodents. 

Brosnan:

So there is some fantastic research by Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Peggy Mason and their colleagues that looked at how rats responded when one of their social group was trapped. So they had built a little box that they could trap another rat in, and the rats very quickly went over and freed the social group member. And just most intriguingly, when they had a choice between freeing the social group member or eating chocolate, they would go free the social group member first, and then they would go eat the chocolate together. Which I mean, that rat might be nicer than I am. [laughter]

Hoogerwerf:

So what are we to make  of this behavior?

Stump:

Yeah, it sure looks like some sort of understanding of good and bad, fairness, justice, empathy. Here’s David Lahti again.

Lahti: 

We should find the behaviors that look a lot like our conceptions of expecting fairness, in monkeys and apes, quite interesting from a biological point of view, because of the way that they seem to have some of the building blocks of what in humans has become full-fledged morality. But I would stop short of calling them “moral” terms like justice or like morality. And the hallmark, for me, is the pursuit of an ideal.

Stump: 

Let’s hear him explain that a bit further.

Lahti: 

So virtue or moral goodness is the pursuit of an ideal. It’s not mere cooperation. It’s not expectation of certain behavior among your fellows, or much less of human handlers and researchers. What some people label virtue or justice in non-human animals is, in fact, a desire. It’s intelligent But it’s unarticulated. That happens to correspond in some ways to what we articulate as virtue and justice in humans. And of course, in those same organisms, we can find behaviors that indicate desires that we would associate with evil and viciousness. But we should avoid using those morally-laden terms for animals because they’re not in pursuit of, or in violation of an ideal. They have evolved to act in those ways for their own benefit. And there is no metaphysical significance to it, whether in their own societies, or in their objective, role and purposes organisms.

Hoogerwerf: 

And back to Sarah and her monkeys.

Brosnan: 

Even I wouldn’t say that we see a full sense of fairness in these guys. Because even in the chimpanzees, who do respond when they get more than a partner, because from my perspective, a full sense of fairness requires the ability to think about an ideal of fairness and to change your behavior around it. And we have no evidence that the chimps are doing that.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation. 

Part Two

Hoogerwerf: 

So it’s starting to feel like maybe we are pointing toward something uniquely unique when we look at morality. Maybe we’re still on a spectrum with only degrees of difference. But if we were looking at the trajectory, it seems like it is going toward a difference in kind.

Stump: 

So I think it’s kind of interesting, and perhaps telling that we keep coming back to this difference in degree vs. difference in kind distinction. That kind of careful linguistic distinction is something I don’t think we can comprehend other species doing. And again, it doesn’t seem like it is simply a unique thing that humans do, the way other species also do unique things. Our use of language is so radically different that it puts us into a different world than everything else. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Okay, let’s look a little more deeply at language and our use of it. Starting with what we know about the development of language in our ancestors. For that we’re going to go back to Helen De Cruz, who is both a philosopher and an archeologist.

De Cruz:

So there are several lines of evidence to suggest that language is around for a long time. And I think that between 500,000 and 800,000 is generally, at least accepted by some people, as a fair estimate. 

Hoogerwerf: 

It turns out that there are many well preserved skeletons which give us some clues into how language was being used. 

De Cruz: 

We have a hominins, for instance, from Sima de los Huesos, the pit of bones in Spain, about 300,000 or 400,000, which have very well preserved like ear bones, and the bones in the ears indicate that, you know, they would have been sensitive to very small differences. So this is something that you don’t see in chimpanzees, but you do see it in humans, this kind of morphology of the middle ear, and the morphology in the throats, that indicates that we are adapted both for hearing small differences in phonology, and for producing those small differences. So there is that. 

Stump: 

There is also a gene called FoxP2 which correlates with the ability to use language

De Cruz: 

So that indicates if you take, you know, anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals and denisovans, and you go back to their most common recent ancestor, then you have somebody who lived quite a long time ago between 500,000 and 800,000 years ago. And so I think it’s plausible, unless you want to say that that gene independently mutated in each of those groups, that there was a common ancestor. And combined with anatomical evidence, I think we have fairly confident grounds to say that language really is old, maybe as much as a million years, probably not much more than that, but that’s about what I would put it between a million and 500,000.

Hoogerwerf: 

What about our language compared to the language of animals. What kinds of linguistic abilities do they have, if any? 

Stump: 

For a long time it was thought that humans were the only creatures to use sounds or gestures to refer to objects in the world. But several studies have cast doubt on this. 

De Cruz: 

It’s very clear that people’s earlier ideas about what was unique about human language turned out to be wrong in many respects. So for example, the idea that only humans had sounds or gestures that refer semantically to parts categories of objects, was basically debunked by Seyfarth and Cheney, in I think the 1970s or 80s, where they had vervet monkeys, like they played vervet monkey calls. And the calls are basically three different kinds of calls. One is for “beware there’s a big predator bird flying overhead,” or “there’s a jaguar coming towards you climbing” or “there’s a snake on the ground,” and so their behavior differs. And it’s interesting when you play recordings of the sounds, then the monkeys behave in ways appropriate to how to best escape a flying predator or how to best escape a snake, like you go and run inside a tree if there’s a snake, but you wouldn’t do that if there was a jaguar call, because the jaguar would just will just follow you. 

Hoogerwerf: 

There are similar examples with prairie dogs, which I find just fascinating. They seem to have vocal calls that not only respond to a certain kind of threat (human, dog, hawk) but can even describe aspects of that threat like the color of shirt a human walking through their habitat is wearing or whether they are tall or short. 

Stump: 

Yes, but there’s a tricky part of interpreting these examples, which is whether these are really examples of symbolic communication. Here’s Jeff Schloss again.

Schloss: 

So, all organisms communicate and—trees communicate. And the question is what is unique about language? And by the way, not only do trees communicate but higher organisms, animals, communicate with signals. There are alarm calls in birds, there are signals which communicate specific content. The distinctive of language is it doesn’t merely employ signals, it employs symbols. That there are words, and in some human cultures, there are extra-semantic encoding of those words in writing. But there are symbols that specify a conceptual grid that we devise to represent the outside world. And it’s not clear that other animals have that capacity for symbolic communication. 

Hoogerwerf: 

I’m not sure I’m seeing the difference between these warning calls and symbols? Aren’t they functioning just like our words do?

Stump: 

Yeah, that’s going to push us a little deeper into the philosophy of language for a bit.

Hoogerwerf: 

I think we can handle it.

Stump: 

Okay, Charles Peirce was a philosopher at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. He’s probably most well known for being part of the American pragmatisist movement with John Dewey and William James, but he also wrote in the field of semiotics, which is the theory of signs—when one thing, call it “the sign,” refers to another thing, call it “the object.”

Hoogerwerf: 

Semiotics. OK, I think I’m with you so far.

Stump:

So Peirce made a three-way distinction between icons, indices, and symbols. A sign is an icon for an object, if the sign looks like the object.

Hoogerwerf:

Ok, so the plaques on a restroom that have male and female figures are icons?

Stump: 

Right. Or a landscape painting is an icon of the real world scene it depicts.

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok and the next one is indices?

Stump: 

A sign is an index for an object if it is somehow causally linked to the object.

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok, causally linked?

Stump: 

For example, the reading on a thermometer. Whether it is a digital display, or if I’m just looking at how high on the scale the mercury goes up, that reading or output of the thermometer refers to something else, namely the temperature of whatever it’s measuring. But that readout doesn’t look like its object the way icons do. Instead, there is a causal connection between the two. When the actual temperature goes up, it causes this device to do something different. And the big question for animal communication is whether that’s all that’s going on in instances like the alarm calls of vervet monkeys or prairie dogs: there’s a causal relationship that has developed (and there’s certainly an evolutionary adaptive advantage here) between the appearance of certain types of predators, and certain escape strategies.

Hoogerwerf: 

So to help decide about this, I guess we need to hear about Peirce’s 3rd category.

Stump: 

Yeah, so that’s symbols. So a sign is a symbol for an object if it only refers to that other thing because of a social convention or a code. Like a wedding ring, for example. It symbolizes something — a marriage. And it doesn’t look like its object, as in icons, and it’s not causally connected to the object, as in indices: it’s not actually putting on a wedding ring that makes you married, at least in our culture. But a community has agreed that when you’re wearing that kind of ring, it means that you’re married.

Hoogerwerf:

So I think one of the tricky things about this is that it seems like a sign could be more than one of these categories: the plaque on the men’s room might be an icon for a man, but isn’t it also a symbol for something our culture has agreed upon, namely that in this room there are facilities for men to relieve themselves?

Stump: 

Yes, and that’s part of the complexity for truly symbolic communication, there are multiple meanings and these cut across and organize our experience in different ways. It’s not just the simple system of having names for things.

De Cruz: 

Animals are good at, you know, attaching labels to things. But combining this in grammar, and referring to things that aren’t immediately there, that is really uniquely us. And that’s why I’m inclined to say yes, language is indeed uniquely human. And I think that this is the majority opinion among, you know, among scientists of varieties who are interested in that question.

Stump: 

There’s a philosopher back in the middle of the 20th century I really like named Ernst Cassirer. He wrote a massive set of books called The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in which he explores how symbols are woven into our experience in art and religion and culture more generally. In one of his shorter works, An Essay on Man, there’s a paragraph that sums up what we’re trying to get at here. He writes, “No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe… No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves, man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium” (25).

Hoogerwerf: 

That makes me think about sitting in front of a computer. We click on icons and move text around, but all that is just symbols for the reality of ones and zeros being processed at incredible speeds by the actual machinery of the computer.

Stump:

Right. We’re enveloped in the symbols and interacting with them. That’s what language does, particularly as it becomes more entrenched in culture.

Hoogerwerf: 

Ok, Culture is the third thing we’re considering in this episode, and it is one of the specialties of David Lahti—particularly cultural evolution and whether there are other species that have what we’d call culture.

Lahti: 

Any organism that engages in social learning has a parallel system of gaining information to inheritance, and individual impact of the environment, the non social environment, or trial and error learning, there’s this parallel thing going on, where one individual can give information to another individual, not by genes, but by social social learning by social transmission. 

Stump: 

We asked him to go a little slower and give us some examples.

Lahti: 

So there are two basic kinds of cultural evolution, or culture in non-human animals. And these are just in birds and mammals. There’s no culture that we know of in any other kind of organism.

Hoogerwerf: 

Let’s just stop and process that for a minute. Culture, according to David, is only seen in birds and mammals. That is already a pretty small subset of life on earth. 

Stump: 

And I’m guessing the comparison of even these rare examples of culture in other species is going to be like our example of the rose bush and redwood again from previous episodes.

Hoogerwerf: 

So what are these two kinds of culture?

Lahti: 

So the first kind is the kind where you have a copying process, an imitation process, and some error slips into that, or some innovation. So we’re not saying that the organism makes a mistake, necessarily. It could be a mistake in copying, or it could be a sort of more of a deliberate invention. And so what happens is you build up differences across the generation. But there’s not necessarily any across the generations, but there’s not any clear functional improvement. That would be like bird song. That would be like whale song. And in humans, it would be like our own languages.

Hoogerwerf: 

So just like there are slight differences in language dialects that develop over time in different human communities—if someone says “y’all” you can bet they’re from the south. So too, in different populations of birds and whales you could tell where they’re from because of the slight differences in their vocalizations. That’s a kind of culture.

Lahti: 

So I didn’t just give that as an example. That’s the only example of that sort of cultural evolution in nature that we have found so far.  So the only way that that fashion culturally evolves in or anything like that, in non-human animals is in communication, vocal communication, how they talk.

Stump: 

What about the second kind of culture?

Lahti:  

So the other kind of culture in non-human animals is that a previous way of doing something functional is improved upon in some way, and the improvement gets copied. So that’s technology. So technology is the other kind of culture in nature. Mostly it’s intelligent primates that are doing this. So like chimps cracking nuts, or fishing for termites, macaque monkeys washing their potatoes or rice. And this second kind of culture, this technological culture, is quite rare in animals and it’s very rudimentary. Very few technological steps have been taken.

Hoogerwerf: 

But that’s not the case with humans 

Lahti: 

Cultural transmission in humans has flowered and exploded to an extent that is unprecedented and is extremely important and extremely advanced in a way that we have not seen in any other species.

Hoogerwerf:

In our next episode we’re going to talk more about technology as a form of culture that has radically affected human experience, so let’s just conclude here by summing up what we’ve found so far.

Stump: 

Morality, language, and culture all interact in interesting ways, and although we see glimpses of each of these in other animal species, lots of researchers think the degree to which humans have them justify claiming that we really are unique in this regard.

Hoogerwerf: 

And you don’t mean, just unique or distinctive the way every other species is unique and distinctive, right? 

Stump: 

No. It’s been remarkable to me in my own reading on these topics to see just how many researchers who approach this question from the purely scientific side of things conclude that humans are what we’ve been calling “uniquely unique.”

Hoogerwerf: 

Unique in a way that is different from how other species are unique.

Stump: 

Right. Of course not everyone agrees on that, as it depends on some pretty nuanced definitions of words.

Hoogerwerf: 

You do like it when it comes back to language, don’t you?

Stump: 

I do! In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In our Christian tradition, there seems to be something primary and even elemental about words. The Trinity has existed from eternity past in relationship, even in conversation as some theologians have understood it. That resonates with me really strongly in how language has so thoroughly permeated our world and radically shaped the kind of creatures we are. Can I give one more example?

Hoogerwerf: 

Let’s hear it.

Stump: 

Helen Keller’s story is fascinating about the difference language made to her life. She had a teacher who had been fingerspelling into Helen’s hand, and there was a kind of Pavlovian response to those, like the index that causally connects that sign to something like food or water or sleep. But at some point Helen came to realize that those signs had meaning. They were symbols that stood for things, and those things have names, and she herself had a name. That opened up her mind to the world we take for granted.  She talked about this in her autobiography saying, “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. . . My inner life, then, was a blank without a past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith” (The World I Live In, p. 113-114).

Hoogerwerf: 

Helen Keller had a kind of window to the world that most of us will never have, to see what a world looks like without having symbols or language. And as we’ve learned more about what these capabilities allow us to do, it does start to feel like we humans really do live in a world that is very different than what other creatures live in. In the next episode we’ll add even another layer, building off of culture and language to the technology we have put in place. 

Stump: 

I’m looking forward to it!

Hoogerwerf: 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guests

wall scheffler cara

Cara Wall-Scheffler

Cara Wall-Scheffler is Professor and Co-Chair of Biology at Seattle Pacific. Here research focuses on the evolution of human sexual dimorphism, particularly in the context of balancing the pressures of thermoregulation and long-distance locomotion. Her work shows very clearly that different selection pressures have acted on men and women, and that women in particular have a rare (among mammals) ability to work both efficiently and economically when carrying loads.

David Lahti

David Lahti

David C. Lahti is an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens College, City University of New York, where he runs a Behavior & Evolution laboratory focusing mainly on learned behavior in birds and humans. Prof. Lahti received a BS in biology and history from Gordon College. He received a PhD in moral philosophy and the philosophy of biology at the Whitefield Institute, Oxford, for a study of the contributions science can and cannot make to an understanding of the foundations of morality. He then received a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan for a study of rapid evolution in an introduced bird. He has been a Darwin Fellow at the University of Massachusetts and a Kirschstein NRSA Research Fellow with the National Institutes of Health, where he studied the development and evolution of bird song. His current research projects include rapid trait evolution following species introduction, cultural evolution in humans and animals, and the evolution of our capacity for morality and religion
Jeff Schloss

Jeffrey Schloss

As Senior Scholar of BioLogos, Dr. Jeff Schloss provides writing, speaking, and scholarly research on topics that are central to the values and mission of BioLogos and represent BioLogos in dialogues with other Christian organizations. He holds a joint appointment at BioLogos and at Westmont College. Schloss holds the T. B. Walker Chair of Natural and Behavioral Sciences at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and directs Westmont’s Center for Faith, Ethics, and the Life Sciences. Schloss, whose Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology is from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, often speaks to public, church-related, and secular academic audiences on the intersection of evolutionary science and theology. Among his many academic publications are The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion (Oxford University Press), which he edited with philosopher Michael Murray. Schloss has also participated in a number of invitational collaborations on topics in evolutionary biology, emphasizing various aspects of what it means to be human, hosted by several universities, including Cambridge, Edinburgh, Emory, Harvard, Heidelberg, Oxford, and Stanford. He has held fellowships at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion, St. Anne’s College Oxford, and Princeton’s Center for Theological Inquiry, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Religion, Brain, and BehaviorScience & Christian Belief; and Theology and Science.
helen de cruz

Helen De Cruz

Helen De Cruz holds the Danforth Chair in the Humanities at Saint Louis University. Her has a PhD in philosophy from University of Groningen and a PhD in archeology and art studies from the Free University Brussels. Her work is concerned with the question why and how humans form beliefs in domains that are quite remote from everyday life, such as in mathematics, theology and science. She is also a player of the Renaissance lute.

Sarah Brosnan

Sarah Brosnan

Dr. Sarah Brosnan is a Distinguished University Professor in the departments of psychology and philosophy and the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University, Co-Director of the Language Research Center, and Director of the 2CI in Primate Social Cognition, Evolution and Behavior Fellows program. She directs the Comparative Economics and Behavioral Sciences Laboratory (CEBUS Lab) and conducts behavioral and cognitive research with nonhuman primates at both the Language Research Center of Georgia State University and the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research of the UT/MD Anderson Cancer Center. She also collaborates with colleagues at Zoo Atlanta, The Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria, the Economic Science Institute, Florida Tech, and numerous other universities around the world.


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