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George Ellis
Judith A. Toronchuk
Human Becoming: Phylogeny and Ontogeny of Affective Social Behaviour


Human consciousness and its attendant emotions are end products of an extensive phylogenetic history shared with other hominids combined with a lengthy, but uniquely human, ontogenetic development. Basic neural programs provide valenced affective states which prepare and guide vertebrate responses to appropriate environmental stimuli. Fine-tuning of these basic systems in each individual is accomplished by early environmental (including social) stimulation. We believe these primary emotional systems provide the foundation for later development in the individual of both the more behaviourally flexible secondary emotions, as well as human intellectual capacities. We suggest here that the basic emotional systems of nurturance, attachment, play and dominance perform key roles in setting the stage for fully human social behaviour by providing valenced states necessary to motivate infant learning. Furthermore, the development of an embodied spirituality is a human distinctive that can only emerge in nurturant interaction with other persons, human and divine.

Development of the human brain required an extended childhood, which in turn necessitated evolution of neural circuitry for adults to provide nurturance and instruction, and parallel circuitry in children to seek out and respond to care. In humans, shared mother-infant attention is necessary for the development of a theory of mind; and mother-infant communication may have provided the emotional motivation for evolution of language. In many mammals, development of adult behaviours and social roles is dependent on juvenile play. There is evidence that play should also be considered a basic emotional program with origins in our ancestral lineage and therefore necessary for normal cognitive development. The emotional play circuitry of higher primates aids development of a notion of reciprocity and fairness, factors necessary for morality in humans. In addition we propose that a genetically determined emotional system concerned with territoriality, dominance and subordination influences human moral behaviour. Specific situations in the lives of individuals may result in conflicting tendencies for nurturance and dominance competing for ascendency. In order that social groups function without being dominated by conflict, hominins must have developed complex behaviours and cultural rituals to maintain ties, settle disputes and reconcile with others. Expansion of prefrontal and cingulate cortices likely enabled progressive development of these features, and hence of human morality. Social interaction, a process that necessarily engages primary affective systems, calls forth personhood in infants and allows development of human distinctives such as language and spirituality. This is an example of top-down action from society to its constituent individuals.


George F. R. Ellis is emeritus professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town.

After completing his PhD at Cambridge University with Dennis Sciama as supervisor, he lectured at Cambridge and has been a visiting Professor at Texas University, the University of Chicago, Hamburg University, Boston University, the University of Alberta, and Queen Mary College (London University).

He has written many papers on relativity theory and cosmology, among them The Large Scale Structure of Space Time co-authored with Stephen Hawking (Cambridge University Press, 1973); Before the Beginning: Cosmology Explained (Merion Boyars, 1993); Is the Universe Open or Closed?  The Density of Matter in the Universe with Peter Coles (Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Dynamical Systems in Cosmology with John Wainwright.  He has also written on science policy and developmental issues, science education, and science and religion issues.  He is co-author with Nancey Murphy of On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Fortress Press, 1996) and editor of The Far-flung Universe: Eschatology from a Cosmic Perspective (Templeton Foundation Press, 2002).

He is past president of the International Society of General Relativity and Gravitation and of the Royal Society of South Africa and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications.  Among the prizes and honorary degrees he has received are the Claude Harris Leon Foundation Achievement Award, the Gold Medal of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Star of South Africa Medal, which was presented to him in 1999 by President Nelson Mandela.  He received the 2004 Templeton Prize.

Judith A. Toronchuk, BA (Rutgers), MSc, PhD (McGill), is associate professor of psychology and biology at Trinity Western University in British Columbia where she teaches neuroscience and chairs the research ethics board.  At the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich from 1976 -1981, she investigated neural responses to vocalizations in the squirrel monkey.  Further research on neural mechanisms of auditory localization was carried out at the University of Munich and the University of British Columbia.  She has been a visiting fellow at Regent College, a school of theology associated with the University of British Columbia.  Recent research interests include the neural mechanisms and evolution of emotions.  She is on the executive committee of the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation and is also chair of the Vancouver Science & Religion Forum.


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