The Meaning of Embodiment

Metaviews 082. 2000.09.17. Approximately 4042 words.

The essay below by William Hurlbut was presented at the FutureVisions consultation at the State of the World Forum in a panel onReimagining Human Nature: Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, andSpiritual Anthropology. William B. Hurlbut is a physician andlecturer in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University,where he teaches courses in biomedical ethics. After receiving hisundergraduate and medical training at Stanford, he completed postdoctoral studies in theology and medical ethics. His main areas ofinterest involve the ethical issues associated with advancingbiotechnology and neuroscience, and the integration of philosophy ofbiology with Christian theology. He has co-taught courses with LucaCavalli-Sforza, Director of the Human Genome Diversity Project, andBaruch Blumberg, who received the Nobel Prize for discovery of theHepatitis B. Virus. Most recently he has been working with the Centerfor International Security and Cooperation on a project formulatingpolicy on Chemical and Biological Warfare and with NASA on projectsin astrobiology.

Hurlbut begins with an evolutionary reflection on human culturaldiversity and genetic similarity. He argues that our embodiedlinguistic and cognitive abilities gives rise to empathy and moralregard. He concludes by reflecting that this capacity for empathiclove may say something ontological about the nature of the universe.Hurlbut writes:

We are cosmic matter come to community and moral consciousness...Just as our body and mind have been formed and fashioned by thecosmos from which we have emerged, could it be that the manifestationof love further complements and completes that which is, revealingand reflecting both the fundamental nature of the universe and thefull significance of human life.

-- Editor

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From: William HurlbutSubject: Re-imagining Human Nature: The Meaning of Embodiment

In August 1938, an expedition from the American Museum of NaturalHistory, searching for undiscovered birds and mammals in the interiorof New Guinea, made the first outside contact with an isolatedpopulation living with Stone Age technology. It is difficult to sayhow long this community had lived in the island interior, cut offfrom the rest of the world by the dense jungle that separated theirvalley from the coast a mere 115 miles to the north or south. Theyhad no concept of the ocean and had never seen a white man. Theywere terrified that they were seeing the ghosts of their ancestorsand were comforted only after realizing that these men, too,defecated as do all natural creatures. The two encountering cultureswere about as different in color, custom and cosmology as could beimagined. There, in that moment of human drama, stood two groups ofmen whose eyes looked outward from minds as dissimilar as any thathave ever existed on the earth. Nonetheless, as dramatic as thedifferences were, what was equally evident were the similarities offacial expressions, gestures, general sensibilities and theircapacity to communicate across the vast gulf of thousands of years ofphysical and cultural separation.

How long these two groups of human beings had been separatedgenetically and culturally is difficult to know. Recent studies ofmitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA seem to confirm the evidence inthe fossil record that suggests a common ancestor for all of humanityabout 50,000 years ago. From a small East African ancestralpopulation of about 2,000 they burst forth to occupy the far reachesof the globe, displacing other hominid species in the process.Genetic evidence suggests they first migrated eastward populating thecoast of Southeast Asia, then spread northward and further east,reaching New Guinea by about 40,000 years ago. By 10,000 years agohuman beings had occupied virtually every inhabitable coast andcanyon, valley and island in the world.

During the many millennia of this great human diaspora our evidentexternal differences in color and form evolved, probably mainly inresponse to environmental conditions. In geographical separation,cultural differences between groups developed as well. Now,however, as we experience the beginnings of a great globalre-convergence we are confronted with the challenge of communicatingacross our differences to establish global cooperation.

On the one hand, these differences constitute a valuable humanresource, reflecting the freedom inherent in our capacity forsymbolic representation and creative imagination. They encode therepository of human experience, wisdom and spiritual understanding.Over the sweeping panorama of our evolutionary origin they can beseen as the culmination of a generalized freedom that is inherent inthe entire evolutionary process, as ever more novel and complex formsarise with greater and greater flexibility to respond to theirenvironment. During the past century, however, anthropologicalstudies have (over-)emphasized the variability between peoples,resulting in a pessimism as to the possibility of achieving anyglobal consensus.

Recently, though, closer consideration of cultural differences andevidence from cognitive neuroscience are giving us an awareness ofthe great extent to which all humans share a common neurophysiologythat leads to basic similarities in our modes of consciousness andsociality. In perceptual interpretation, conceptual categorizationand cognitive strategies there are remarkable similarities inindividuals across cultures. Our capacity for freedom (and thecultural diversity that results) arose in the larger context of ourshared biological origins. Our scientific understandings thereforeprovide a basis for reimagining humanity in a way that preserves thestrengths both of our diversity and our unity, and on that basisoffers hope for the possibility of genuine interculturalcommunication, understanding and moral consensus.

If we reconsider from the perspective of modern scientific knowledgeour place in the cosmos and the evolutionary process that formed uswe can better understand the natural groundings of both our freedomand our common humanity out of which our freedom arises. From thestudy of biology it is clear that we have been formed and fashionedby the forces of the earth and intricately interwoven with the wholephysical and biological world. And this is the meaning of the word'human' - in its Latin root it comes from the word 'humus', meaningearth or soil: we are the creature of the earth.

Throughout evolution we see the development of increasingly complexexternal morphology with the concomitant refinement of internalmental capacities. Differentiation of the head region, with itsorgans of sensory perception and communication, was paralleledinternally by cerebral structures capable of processing more compleximpressions of the surrounding environment and of regulating thefeelings and functions of the organism. With upright posture camecoordinated revisions of body form, increased range of motion, andradical cerebral reorganization that made possible new relations withthe world.

Our transformation to upright form is reflected in nearly everydetail of our deep structure, both somatic and psychic. The freeingof the upper limbs and the refinement of the tool of tools, asAristotle called the hands, allowed the emergence of greaterfine-motor control and the cerebral capabilities that couldcoordinate and sustain more complex actions on the world. During thetransition to bipedalism, earlier primates underwent the retractionof the snout and the development of bilateral stereoscopic vision.Whereas smell required direct chemical contact, and sound gaveformless information, as sight became the prominent sense it gave aknowing and accurate encounter with the form and unity of wholes, andallowed rapid perception of objects and actions at great distances.

Our reliance on visual stimuli, and the interpersonal relationshipsit helps make possible, allows the openness in awareness,appreciation and receptivity that is best exemplified in our direct,face to face encounter with other human beings. Along with visualsensory predominance, thinning of primate facial fur allowed the faceto emerge as a canvas of self-presentation. Upwards through mammalianevolution there was a progressive refinement of the structures of theface, and improved neurological control of the facial muscles, thatfacilitated active and increasingly subtle communication. Studies onmonkeys have shown that special ensembles of cells in the brainrespond only to faces. With more than thirty finely tuned muscles offacial expression and vocal control, human beings are capable of awide array of communicative expressions of emotions and intentions.

The detached beholding of sight also allowed a deeper and moreaccurate apprehension of the reality of things; sight allowedinsight. The cerebral processing and storage of visual images led tothe detachability of object from image, symbolic representation, andthe emergence of imagination and its creative powers. We have thecapacity to imagine possibilities and try them out (in a kind ofdress rehearsal) without the expense of time and risk of resources inthe process.

If we look at the fossil record, around 1.5 million years ago thesimple chipped tools found in layers representing a million years ofhominid history are suddenly transcended by an artifact that bespeaksa significant cognitive leap, the production of the hand axe. Thesesymmetrical implements, shaped from large stone cores, were the firstto conform to a 'mental template' that existed in the toolmakersmind. The significance of such an innovation of mind isextraordinary and far reaching. The capacity to form a mental image,to hold it in the mind and work to achieve its realization bespeaksintention, planning, and implementation of ideals. What began as thevisualization of an axe within a stone would become, in anothermillion and a half years, the capacity to generate the images andideals of a complex technological and moral culture.

The capacity to imagine and bring to completion an ideal gives anextraordinary freedom to human beings. Whereas most creatures livein an unbroken immediacy of life, humans have the freedom to pull thepast into the present from learning stored as memory and the freedomto pull the future into the present through the creative imagination.Together with the ceaseless drive to organize the unexplained, whathas been called the 'cognitive imperative', the capacities tocalculate, extrapolate, and recombine are used to reconfigure thatwhich is into that which could be. Whereas most creatures are pushedby circumstances, we are pulled into the future by our dreams andimages of fullest flourishing. For human beings it is not thedeterminism of physics that is the cause, but something previouslyunseen in the story of nature, the freedom of coherent aspiration, ofa moral ideal. Leon Kass writes, Desire, not DNA is the deepestprinciple of life. In our early environment of evolutionaryadaptation our ability to actualize our desires was constrained bythe limitations of nature on our awareness and capacities for action.Now the future will be controlled increasingly by the character ofour desires.

Across the scope of evolution one can see an ascent toward full humanfreedom in the emerging complexity of the vital powers of awareness,actions and drives in response to the challenges and opportunities ofthe environment. We evolved not for pure instinctive response ornarrow adaptation but for adaptability itself; not for a particularniche but for unpredicted possibility, for comprehension and control,for flexibility and freedom in thought and action. Without some formof guidance channeling and controlling our desires and will, however,freedom could itself become a danger to our survival, as we carriedout actions that proved harmful or destructive of our individual andcommunal life. Therefore we evolved the complex constraints ofmorality to provide a balance between innovation and stability,change and continuity, to preserve and promote both the freedom andflourishing of life.

Research into the neuroscience of the human brain is giving us anincreasingly complex understanding of the universal bio-socialcontext of human life in which our freedom is grounded.Neuroscientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson summarize a large bodyof research findings to conclude, The mind is not merely embodied,but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largelyupon the commonalties of our bodies and the environment we live in.Time, for example, is understood by its representation through theexperience of movement in space. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio,drawing on cases of neural injury, shows how the body, as representedin the brain, provides the indispensable frame of reference for asense of self, consciousness, personal identity and awareness of theworld. He states, our very organism rather than some absoluteexternal reality is used as the ground reference for theconstructions we make of the world around us. He goes on to saythat our minds would not be the way they are if it were not for theinterplay of body and brain during evolution.

The evolved embodiment that provides a common ground forself-consciousness and conceptual categories also provides a basisfor the desires and intentions that shape our shared system ofvalues. With increasing organismal complexity, the central values ofevolutionary success, survival and reproduction, are served bypleasurable intermediate activities that become valued ends inthemselves. The most obvious of these is the pleasure associatedwith sexuality. Notwithstanding the great variety of cultures anddiversity of personalities, there is a solid central core of basicbiological need that forms the shared desires and dreams of humancommunity.

Our particular evolved human form of embodiment, with the physicaland mental capacities we share, provides a common 'language' ofmental categories, emotional responses, and shared needs. Thesecommon characteristics are the basis for intelligible communication,mediated by the crucial process of empathy, that enables genuinesocial community. In such community, an individual develops a senseof self, as well as an awareness of the inner personal nature ofothers.

Simply defined, empathy is the ability to identify with andunderstand the situations, motives, and feelings of another. In thissense it has a meaning that is much more general than the notion ofmere 'sympathy'. It is a form of inter-subjectivity in which theobserver actually participates in the feelings of the other.Neurologically, the process of empathy seems to work as follows.Because the human organism is a psycho-physiological unity, anemotional state of anger, for example, generates in an individualvisible expressive manifestations such as facial expression.Observing such facial expression subtly activates in the observer thesame muscular movements and nervous system responses which togetherconstitute the physical grounding of an inwardly felt subjectivestate that would be represented by such a facial expression. Weexperience this, for example, when we see someone yawn or grimace inpain. Such physical response in the observer translates into thecorresponding emotional state in the observer, thus establishing anempathically shared psycho-physiological state between the observerand the one being observed. Such a shared state becomes empathiccommunication as the observer reflectively distinguishes the other asdistinct from self.

This empathetic inter-subjectivity seems to provide the patterningfor personal identity and the platform for cultural awareness. Fromearliest infancy there is an interactive engagement between motherand child that sustains a shared conversation of reciprocating rhythmand unifying emotional resonance. The long period of childhooddependency assures that social stimulation plays a formative role inthe maturation of the mind. By age three and a half months the babycan control his gaze and initiate face to face encounters, gaining asense of himself as an agent or actor that can alter the dynamics ofinterpretation. In a process that psychiatrist Daniel Sterns hascalled 'attunement,' there is a reciprocity of small repeatedexchanges, a kind of facial 'duet' in which the mother responds, notwith an imitation but with a reply that lets the baby know that shehas understood his feelings. Mutual gaze provides the cruciallessons of pure social interaction, the ties of attachment and thenonverbal foundations upon which language will later be built.Indeed there is evidence that our very concept of person, of adistinct subjective locus of life, replete with intentions, hopes,fears, is formed in a uniquely human extension of the neurologicalsubstrate that processes facial and vocal expression.

This primary grounding of communication and trust, based on sharedbiology, bridged by empathy, and built by personal interaction,provides the foundations for language, moral awareness and communityof culture. The basic congruency of feeling established betweenmother and infant is slowly extended into a broader conversation thatreaches out in exploration and evaluation of new and unfamiliarexperiences. In a process of 'social referencing' that builds acommon set of values, the infant will point or gaze at an object toestablish joint attention and then observe the mother's reaction.The mother's spoken responses begin to carry specific semanticcontent. A web of meaning is formed within this linguistic system,empathetically grounded in symbolic gestures, the coded concepts onwhich all human cultures are constructed.

With language we move beyond the imperatives of the present to thecreative constructions of cultural meanings and values. We weave aninterpretive story, rich with ideals and aspirations, a narrative bywhich we navigate the world. In a kind of 're-envoicement,' thechild begins to structure his understanding of the world, the verypattern of his thoughts, by the echo of the words of others. In thisframe the social significance of the self is placed within a patternof moral meanings and transcendent truths. Slowly the child isentrained to the society in which he is born, raised to a realm ofbeliefs and hopes inaccessible to an isolated individual.

In an orderly developmental progression, a child begins tocrystallize a sense of self and other, to recognize thedifferentiation of animate and inanimate beings and to discover theinner mental world of private beliefs and intentions. With consciouspersonal identity comes awareness of the distinct identity of others.Indiscriminate emotional contagion, with its blurred boundaries ofself, gives way to cognitive empathy, a willed and knowing steppinginto the role of the other. In one study, a twenty-one month childresponded to his mother's simulated sadness by: 1) attending to hismother; 2) peering into her face to determine what is wrong(accompanied by verbal inquiries); 3) trying to distract her with apuppet; 4) looking concerned; and 5) giving his mother a hug whilemaking consoling sounds and sympathetic statements. This series ofactions demonstrates the complex understanding of emotion andempathetic interaction already developed at a relatively young age.

Within this profound resonance of mutual understanding, between thesecond and third year of life children develop an appreciation of thesymbolic categories of good and bad and learn to apply these to theirown actions, thoughts, and feelings. With a growing understanding ofthe relationship between present actions and future outcomes a childbegins to develop a conflict between acting on present desires andrecognizing when to do so would have negative consequences on selfand others. Before the age of five, children have difficultygoverning their actions, but by around six the sense of self-control,and therefore accountability, allows shame and guilt but also thehappy sense of virtue, of consonant goodness of self. Free moralchoice becomes, increasingly, the central moral axis and, guided bythe emotional pull of empathetic communion, leads to the poignant andpowerful drama of the individual self in the quest for a sense ofethical worthiness. Jerome Kagan writes, I am tempted to suggestthat the continuous seeking of evidence to prove one's virtue is,like Darwin's notion of natural selection, the most potent conditionsculpting each person's traits over their lifetime. As a childmatures, with greater cognitive empathy comes greater sensitivity tothe needs of others, and the associated moral imperatives.

Moral thinking is inherent in the development of human consciousness,for as the self becomes aware of other selves, the ethical issueinescapably arises as to how one person should treat another. Themind is irreducibly transactional, defined in a 'conversation' thatis grounded in empathy and experienced in community. The categoriesof thought based on our shared biology are placed in a web of meaningas our consciousness is constructed through the inter-communion ofour minds. Our ideas of self, society, and the significance of life,are all formed within the language of a shared cultural narrative.As the philosopher Charles Taylor writes, the genesis of the humanmind is ... not 'monological,' not something each accomplishes onhis or her own, but dialogical

Albert Einstein once said, the most incomprehensible thing about theworld is that it is comprehensible. The reciprocal significance ofthis statement is the astonishing fact that the cosmos has produced acreature capable of comprehending its order. That the human mind canpenetrate to the foundational principles of the material world isevidenced in our mathematical physics. But dare we extend thisconfidence to the realm of the moral, to attempt to discern a moralorder in the world? Does not the moral, as Hans Jonas poses thedilemma, originate in ourselves and merely come back to us from theputative scheme of things as our reflected voice? As Pope John PaulII has said, when we look into the eyes of another person we know wehave encountered a limit to our self-will. Such awareness, togetherwith our inwardly felt sense of significance, becomes the sense of amoral meaning within the cosmos that transcends the particularitiesof local culture.

When morality is recognized as serving both the flourishing of lifeand the freedom that is our crucial strength, as twin essentials ofour individual and communal human nature that is part of nature, itis possible to step beyond relativism and locate moral grounds onwhich individuals and even cultures may be judged. Communitiesthemselves exist to serve the individuals within their groups and forthat reason morals must seek to keep social order and individualautonomy in a dynamic balance. Humbly acknowledging such perspectivesmay help foster genuine intercultural communication and understanding.

It is an irony of history that the word 'humility' also shares withthe word 'human' the Latin root 'humus', meaning earth or soil. If wedraw back from our self-created urban civilization and try to seewith clear eyes from where we have come, we are stirred by themajesty of its meaning. These 'creatures of the earth' ---HomoSapiens Sapiens (doubly wise)---formed and fashioned from thematerial and by the very powers and processes of the natural world,have emerged from it like bright colored wings from achrysalis---unexpected, unexplained, and radiant with possibility. Wehave not yet, however, learned the humility to appreciate the portentand promise, the singular significance of the human form and its openand unexplored extensions. We seem unable to recognize ourextraordinary place within the order of nature as cosmic matter cometo consciousness, freedom, and moral awareness--- nor the awesomedignity and responsibility these imply.

Preservation of true freedom, and the open possibilities for humanflourishing, may depend on our finding a new and more profoundunderstanding of our human nature. We have argued here for aconception of our nature that encompasses the fullness of humanpossibilities. Perhaps we will preserve our freedom only if we dareto acknowledge that our moral sense is not relative, but relational,and based on the fundamental character of nature itself, which humannature reflects and reveals.

Pascal noted that human existence is located between infinities,between the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the vastrealms of cosmic space and the tiniest particles of matter. Broughtinto life by the fundamental forces of the cosmos, we are just theright size in form and function for genuine empathy, for sensitiveawareness of other persons. We are cosmic matter come to communityand moral consciousness. Indeed, the whole of the material world maybe seen as an intelligible 'language' of being and the foundation forthe extraordinary extensions of personal and social existence thatallow the expression of genuine altruistic love. Just as our bodyand mind have been formed and fashioned by the cosmos from which wehave emerged, could it be that the manifestation of love furthercomplements and completes that which is, revealing and reflectingboth the fundamental nature of the universe and the full significanceof human life.

William Hurlbut, M.D.Program in Human BiologyStanford UniversityBldg 80, Room 110, Mail Code 2160Palo Alto, CA 94305-1684

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Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute. Metaviews 082. 2000.09.17. Approximately 4042 words.The essay below by William Hurlbut was presented at the FutureVisions consultation at the State of the World Forum in a panel onReimagining Human Nature: Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, andSpiritual Anthropology. William B. Hurlbut is a physician andlecturer in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University,where he teaches courses in biomedical ethics. After receiving hisundergraduate and medical training at Stanford, he completed postdoctoral studies in theology and medical ethics. His main areas ofinterest involve the ethical issues associated with advancingbiotechnology and neuroscience, and the integration of philosophy ofbiology with Christian theology. He has co-taught courses with LucaCavalli-Sforza, Director of the Human Genome Diversity Project, andBaruch Blumberg, who received the Nobel Prize for discovery of theHepatitis B. Virus. Most recently he has been working with the Centerfor International Security and Cooperation on a project formulatingpolicy on Chemical and Biological Warfare and with NASA on projectsin astrobiology.Hurlbut begins with an evolutionary reflection on human culturaldiversity and genetic similarity. He argues that our embodiedlinguistic and cognitive abilities gives rise to empathy and moralregard. He concludes by reflecting that this capacity for empathiclove may say something ontological about the nature of the universe.Hurlbut writes:We are cosmic matter come to community and moral consciousness...Just as our body and mind have been formed and fashioned by thecosmos from which we have emerged, could it be that the manifestationof love further complements and completes that which is, revealingand reflecting both the fundamental nature of the universe and thefull significance of human life.-- Editor=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=From: William HurlbutSubject: Re-imagining Human Nature: The Meaning of EmbodimentIn August 1938, an expedition from the American Museum of NaturalHistory, searching for undiscovered birds and mammals in the interiorof New Guinea, made the first outside contact with an isolatedpopulation living with Stone Age technology. It is difficult to sayhow long this community had lived in the island interior, cut offfrom the rest of the world by the dense jungle that separated theirvalley from the coast a mere 115 miles to the north or south. Theyhad no concept of the ocean and had never seen a white man. Theywere terrified that they were seeing the ghosts of their ancestorsand were comforted only after realizing that these men, too,defecated as do all natural creatures. The two encountering cultureswere about as different in color, custom and cosmology as could beimagined. There, in that moment of human drama, stood two groups ofmen whose eyes looked outward from minds as dissimilar as any thathave ever existed on the earth. Nonetheless, as dramatic as thedifferences were, what was equally evident were the similarities offacial expressions, gestures, general sensibilities and theircapacity to communicate across the vast gulf of thousands of years ofphysical and cultural separation.How long these two groups of human beings had been separatedgenetically and culturally is difficult to know. Recent studies ofmitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA seem to confirm the evidence inthe fossil record that suggests a common ancestor for all of humanityabout 50,000 years ago. From a small East African ancestralpopulation of about 2,000 they burst forth to occupy the far reachesof the globe, displacing other hominid species in the process.Genetic evidence suggests they first migrated eastward populating thecoast of Southeast Asia, then spread northward and further east,reaching New Guinea by about 40,000 years ago. By 10,000 years agohuman beings had occupied virtually every inhabitable coast andcanyon, valley and island in the world.During the many millennia of this great human diaspora our evidentexternal differences in color and form evolved, probably mainly inresponse to environmental conditions. In geographical separation,cultural differences between groups developed as well. Now,however, as we experience the beginnings of a great globalre-convergence we are confronted with the challenge of communicatingacross our differences to establish global cooperation.On the one hand, these differences constitute a valuable humanresource, reflecting the freedom inherent in our capacity forsymbolic representation and creative imagination. They encode therepository of human experience, wisdom and spiritual understanding.Over the sweeping panorama of our evolutionary origin they can beseen as the culmination of a generalized freedom that is inherent inthe entire evolutionary process, as ever more novel and complex formsarise with greater and greater flexibility to respond to theirenvironment. During the past century, however, anthropologicalstudies have (over-)emphasized the variability between peoples,resulting in a pessimism as to the possibility of achieving anyglobal consensus.Recently, though, closer consideration of cultural differences andevidence from cognitive neuroscience are giving us an awareness ofthe great extent to which all humans share a common neurophysiologythat leads to basic similarities in our modes of consciousness andsociality. In perceptual interpretation, conceptual categorizationand cognitive strategies there are remarkable similarities inindividuals across cultures. Our capacity for freedom (and thecultural diversity that results) arose in the larger context of ourshared biological origins. Our scientific understandings thereforeprovide a basis for reimagining humanity in a way that preserves thestrengths both of our diversity and our unity, and on that basisoffers hope for the possibility of genuine interculturalcommunication, understanding and moral consensus.If we reconsider from the perspective of modern scientific knowledgeour place in the cosmos and the evolutionary process that formed uswe can better understand the natural groundings of both our freedomand our common humanity out of which our freedom arises. From thestudy of biology it is clear that we have been formed and fashionedby the forces of the earth and intricately interwoven with the wholephysical and biological world. And this is the meaning of the word'human' - in its Latin root it comes from the word 'humus', meaningearth or soil: we are the creature of the earth.Throughout evolution we see the development of increasingly complexexternal morphology with the concomitant refinement of internalmental capacities. Differentiation of the head region, with itsorgans of sensory perception and communication, was paralleledinternally by cerebral structures capable of processing more compleximpressions of the surrounding environment and of regulating thefeelings and functions of the organism. With upright posture camecoordinated revisions of body form, increased range of motion, andradical cerebral reorganization that made possible new relations withthe world.Our transformation to upright form is reflected in nearly everydetail of our deep structure, both somatic and psychic. The freeingof the upper limbs and the refinement of the tool of tools, asAristotle called the hands, allowed the emergence of greaterfine-motor control and the cerebral capabilities that couldcoordinate and sustain more complex actions on the world. During thetransition to bipedalism, earlier primates underwent the retractionof the snout and the development of bilateral stereoscopic vision.Whereas smell required direct chemical contact, and sound gaveformless information, as sight became the prominent sense it gave aknowing and accurate encounter with the form and unity of wholes, andallowed rapid perception of objects and actions at great distances.Our reliance on visual stimuli, and the interpersonal relationshipsit helps make possible, allows the openness in awareness,appreciation and receptivity that is best exemplified in our direct,face to face encounter with other human beings. Along with visualsensory predominance, thinning of primate facial fur allowed the faceto emerge as a canvas of self-presentation. Upwards through mammalianevolution there was a progressive refinement of the structures of theface, and improved neurological control of the facial muscles, thatfacilitated active and increasingly subtle communication. Studies onmonkeys have shown that special ensembles of cells in the brainrespond only to faces. With more than thirty finely tuned muscles offacial expression and vocal control, human beings are capable of awide array of communicative expressions of emotions and intentions.The detached beholding of sight also allowed a deeper and moreaccurate apprehension of the reality of things; sight allowedinsight. The cerebral processing and storage of visual images led tothe detachability of object from image, symbolic representation, andthe emergence of imagination and its creative powers. We have thecapacity to imagine possibilities and try them out (in a kind ofdress rehearsal) without the expense of time and risk of resources inthe process.If we look at the fossil record, around 1.5 million years ago thesimple chipped tools found in layers representing a million years ofhominid history are suddenly transcended by an artifact that bespeaksa significant cognitive leap, the production of the hand axe. Thesesymmetrical implements, shaped from large stone cores, were the firstto conform to a 'mental template' that existed in the toolmakersmind. The significance of such an innovation of mind isextraordinary and far reaching. The capacity to form a mental image,to hold it in the mind and work to achieve its realization bespeaksintention, planning, and implementation of ideals. What began as thevisualization of an axe within a stone would become, in anothermillion and a half years, the capacity to generate the images andideals of a complex technological and moral culture.The capacity to imagine and bring to completion an ideal gives anextraordinary freedom to human beings. Whereas most creatures livein an unbroken immediacy of life, humans have the freedom to pull thepast into the present from learning stored as memory and the freedomto pull the future into the present through the creative imagination.Together with the ceaseless drive to organize the unexplained, whathas been called the 'cognitive imperative', the capacities tocalculate, extrapolate, and recombine are used to reconfigure thatwhich is into that which could be. Whereas most creatures are pushedby circumstances, we are pulled into the future by our dreams andimages of fullest flourishing. For human beings it is not thedeterminism of physics that is the cause, but something previouslyunseen in the story of nature, the freedom of coherent aspiration, ofa moral ideal. Leon Kass writes, Desire, not DNA is the deepestprinciple of life. In our early environment of evolutionaryadaptation our ability to actualize our desires was constrained bythe limitations of nature on our awareness and capacities for action.Now the future will be controlled increasingly by the character ofour desires.Across the scope of evolution one can see an ascent toward full humanfreedom in the emerging complexity of the vital powers of awareness,actions and drives in response to the challenges and opportunities ofthe environment. We evolved not for pure instinctive response ornarrow adaptation but for adaptability itself; not for a particularniche but for unpredicted possibility, for comprehension and control,for flexibility and freedom in thought and action. Without some formof guidance channeling and controlling our desires and will, however,freedom could itself become a danger to our survival, as we carriedout actions that proved harmful or destructive of our individual andcommunal life. Therefore we evolved the complex constraints ofmorality to provide a balance between innovation and stability,change and continuity, to preserve and promote both the freedom andflourishing of life.Research into the neuroscience of the human brain is giving us anincreasingly complex understanding of the universal bio-socialcontext of human life in which our freedom is grounded.Neuroscientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson summarize a large bodyof research findings to conclude, The mind is not merely embodied,but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largelyupon the commonalties of our bodies and the environment we live in.Time, for example, is understood by its representation through theexperience of movement in space. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio,drawing on cases of neural injury, shows how the body, as representedin the brain, provides the indispensable frame of reference for asense of self, consciousness, personal identity and awareness of theworld. He states, our very organism rather than some absoluteexternal reality is used as the ground reference for theconstructions we make of the world around us. He goes on to saythat our minds would not be the way they are if it were not for theinterplay of body and brain during evolution.The evolved embodiment that provides a common ground forself-consciousness and conceptual categories also provides a basisfor the desires and intentions that shape our shared system ofvalues. With increasing organismal complexity, the central values ofevolutionary success, survival and reproduction, are served bypleasurable intermediate activities that become valued ends inthemselves. The most obvious of these is the pleasure associatedwith sexuality. Notwithstanding the great variety of cultures anddiversity of personalities, there is a solid central core of basicbiological need that forms the shared desires and dreams of humancommunity.Our particular evolved human form of embodiment, with the physicaland mental capacities we share, provides a common 'language' ofmental categories, emotional responses, and shared needs. Thesecommon characteristics are the basis for intelligible communication,mediated by the crucial process of empathy, that enables genuinesocial community. In such community, an individual develops a senseof self, as well as an awareness of the inner personal nature ofothers.Simply defined, empathy is the ability to identify with andunderstand the situations, motives, and feelings of another. In thissense it has a meaning that is much more general than the notion ofmere 'sympathy'. It is a form of inter-subjectivity in which theobserver actually participates in the feelings of the other.Neurologically, the process of empathy seems to work as follows.Because the human organism is a psycho-physiological unity, anemotional state of anger, for example, generates in an individualvisible expressive manifestations such as facial expression.Observing such facial expression subtly activates in the observer thesame muscular movements and nervous system responses which togetherconstitute the physical grounding of an inwardly felt subjectivestate that would be represented by such a facial expression. Weexperience this, for example, when we see someone yawn or grimace inpain. Such physical response in the observer translates into thecorresponding emotional state in the observer, thus establishing anempathically shared psycho-physiological state between the observerand the one being observed. Such a shared state becomes empathiccommunication as the observer reflectively distinguishes the other asdistinct from self.This empathetic inter-subjectivity seems to provide the patterningfor personal identity and the platform for cultural awareness. Fromearliest infancy there is an interactive engagement between motherand child that sustains a shared conversation of reciprocating rhythmand unifying emotional resonance. The long period of childhooddependency assures that social stimulation plays a formative role inthe maturation of the mind. By age three and a half months the babycan control his gaze and initiate face to face encounters, gaining asense of himself as an agent or actor that can alter the dynamics ofinterpretation. In a process that psychiatrist Daniel Sterns hascalled 'attunement,' there is a reciprocity of small repeatedexchanges, a kind of facial 'duet' in which the mother responds, notwith an imitation but with a reply that lets the baby know that shehas understood his feelings. Mutual gaze provides the cruciallessons of pure social interaction, the ties of attachment and thenonverbal foundations upon which language will later be built.Indeed there is evidence that our very concept of person, of adistinct subjective locus of life, replete with intentions, hopes,fears, is formed in a uniquely human extension of the neurologicalsubstrate that processes facial and vocal expression.This primary grounding of communication and trust, based on sharedbiology, bridged by empathy, and built by personal interaction,provides the foundations for language, moral awareness and communityof culture. The basic congruency of feeling established betweenmother and infant is slowly extended into a broader conversation thatreaches out in exploration and evaluation of new and unfamiliarexperiences. In a process of 'social referencing' that builds acommon set of values, the infant will point or gaze at an object toestablish joint attention and then observe the mother's reaction.The mother's spoken responses begin to carry specific semanticcontent. A web of meaning is formed within this linguistic system,empathetically grounded in symbolic gestures, the coded concepts onwhich all human cultures are constructed. With language we move beyond the imperatives of the present to thecreative constructions of cultural meanings and values. We weave aninterpretive story, rich with ideals and aspirations, a narrative bywhich we navigate the world. In a kind of 're-envoicement,' thechild begins to structure his understanding of the world, the verypattern of his thoughts, by the echo of the words of others. In thisframe the social significance of the self is placed within a patternof moral meanings and transcendent truths. Slowly the child isentrained to the society in which he is born, raised to a realm ofbeliefs and hopes inaccessible to an isolated individual. In an orderly developmental progression, a child begins tocrystallize a sense of self and other, to recognize thedifferentiation of animate and inanimate beings and to discover theinner mental world of private beliefs and intentions. With consciouspersonal identity comes awareness of the distinct identity of others.Indiscriminate emotional contagion, with its blurred boundaries ofself, gives way to cognitive empathy, a willed and knowing steppinginto the role of the other. In one study, a twenty-one month childresponded to his mother's simulated sadness by: 1) attending to hismother; 2) peering into her face to determine what is wrong(accompanied by verbal inquiries); 3) trying to distract her with apuppet; 4) looking concerned; and 5) giving his mother a hug whilemaking consoling sounds and sympathetic statements. This series ofactions demonstrates the complex understanding of emotion andempathetic interaction already developed at a relatively young age. Within this profound resonance of mutual understanding, between thesecond and third year of life children develop an appreciation of thesymbolic categories of good and bad and learn to apply these to theirown actions, thoughts, and feelings. With a growing understanding ofthe relationship between present actions and future outcomes a childbegins to develop a conflict between acting on present desires andrecognizing when to do so would have negative consequences on selfand others. Before the age of five, children have difficultygoverning their actions, but by around six the sense of self-control,and therefore accountability, allows shame and guilt but also thehappy sense of virtue, of consonant goodness of self. Free moralchoice becomes, increasingly, the central moral axis and, guided bythe emotional pull of empathetic communion, leads to the poignant andpowerful drama of the individual self in the quest for a sense ofethical worthiness. Jerome Kagan writes, I am tempted to suggestthat the continuous seeking of evidence to prove one's virtue is,like Darwin's notion of natural selection, the most potent conditionsculpting each person's traits over their lifetime. As a childmatures, with greater cognitive empathy comes greater sensitivity tothe needs of others, and the associated moral imperatives.Moral thinking is inherent in the development of human consciousness,for as the self becomes aware of other selves, the ethical issueinescapably arises as to how one person should treat another. Themind is irreducibly transactional, defined in a 'conversation' thatis grounded in empathy and experienced in community. The categoriesof thought based on our shared biology are placed in a web of meaningas our consciousness is constructed through the inter-communion ofour minds. Our ideas of self, society, and the significance of life,are all formed within the language of a shared cultural narrative.As the philosopher Charles Taylor writes, the genesis of the humanmind is ... not 'monological,' not something each accomplishes onhis or her own, but dialogicalAlbert Einstein once said, the most incomprehensible thing about theworld is that it is comprehensible. The reciprocal significance ofthis statement is the astonishing fact that the cosmos has produced acreature capable of comprehending its order. That the human mind canpenetrate to the foundational principles of the material world isevidenced in our mathematical physics. But dare we extend thisconfidence to the realm of the moral, to attempt to discern a moralorder in the world? Does not the moral, as Hans Jonas poses thedilemma, originate in ourselves and merely come back to us from theputative scheme of things as our reflected voice? As Pope John PaulII has said, when we look into the eyes of another person we know wehave encountered a limit to our self-will. Such awareness, togetherwith our inwardly felt sense of significance, becomes the sense of amoral meaning within the cosmos that transcends the particularitiesof local culture.When morality is recognized as serving both the flourishing of lifeand the freedom that is our crucial strength, as twin essentials ofour individual and communal human nature that is part of nature, itis possible to step beyond relativism and locate moral grounds onwhich individuals and even cultures may be judged. Communitiesthemselves exist to serve the individuals within their groups and forthat reason morals must seek to keep social order and individualautonomy in a dynamic balance. Humbly acknowledging such perspectivesmay help foster genuine intercultural communication and understanding.It is an irony of history that the word 'humility' also shares withthe word 'human' the Latin root 'humus', meaning earth or soil. If wedraw back from our self-created urban civilization and try to seewith clear eyes from where we have come, we are stirred by themajesty of its meaning. These 'creatures of the earth' ---HomoSapiens Sapiens (doubly wise)---formed and fashioned from thematerial and by the very powers and processes of the natural world,have emerged from it like bright colored wings from achrysalis---unexpected, unexplained, and radiant with possibility. Wehave not yet, however, learned the humility to appreciate the portentand promise, the singular significance of the human form and its openand unexplored extensions. We seem unable to recognize ourextraordinary place within the order of nature as cosmic matter cometo consciousness, freedom, and moral awareness--- nor the awesomedignity and responsibility these imply.Preservation of true freedom, and the open possibilities for humanflourishing, may depend on our finding a new and more profoundunderstanding of our human nature. We have argued here for aconception of our nature that encompasses the fullness of humanpossibilities. Perhaps we will preserve our freedom only if we dareto acknowledge that our moral sense is not relative, but relational,and based on the fundamental character of nature itself, which humannature reflects and reveals.Pascal noted that human existence is located between infinities,between the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the vastrealms of cosmic space and the tiniest particles of matter. Broughtinto life by the fundamental forces of the cosmos, we are just theright size in form and function for genuine empathy, for sensitiveawareness of other persons. We are cosmic matter come to communityand moral consciousness. Indeed, the whole of the material world maybe seen as an intelligible 'language' of being and the foundation forthe extraordinary extensions of personal and social existence thatallow the expression of genuine altruistic love. Just as our bodyand mind have been formed and fashioned by the cosmos from which wehave emerged, could it be that the manifestation of love furthercomplements and completes that which is, revealing and reflectingboth the fundamental nature of the universe and the full significanceof human life.William Hurlbut, M.D.Program in Human BiologyStanford UniversityBldg 80, Room 110, Mail Code 2160Palo Alto, CA 94305-1684=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online http://www.metanexus.net. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions to. Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums (Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTML enriched composite digests from each of the lists. Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. 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