Human Experiencing

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I recently read an anecdote about Frances Yates, the great English historian of dreams. Oswyn Murray describes how he met her in Duke Humfrey’s library, the oldest part of the Bodlean library in Oxford, when she was already very old: “She smiled at me, looked around at the leather-bound books and the ancient desks, and simply said, ‘heaven will be like this.’”[1]

I felt deep affinity with Frances Yates, and I thought: this is what it means to be human.  All scholars can understand and identify with this uniquely human scene in the library. But of course, this is just one, very special facet of our possibilities to experience things. I want to add an autobiographical note related to my childhood obsession with the question of what it means to be human. I am a Polish Jew, the offspring of holocaust survivors. I heard their and their friends’ stories, and saw the effects of what they went through. And I learned about the worst and the best of human nature: about unimaginable human cruelty, and about unimaginable human charity. Many of the survivors that I have met, including my mother, survived because at some point, someone helped them, risking their lives and the lives of their family in doing so. I kept asking myself what turns someone into a Gestapo human monster or into a human saint, and although at first I framed this question in psychological, moral, historical, and sociological terms, it later also became for me a question about human evolution. I can say only a few words here about the evolutionary facet of the human emotions that makes the magnificent and terrifying human experiences possible.

In our book, Evolution in Four Dimensions, Marion Lamb and I followed in the footsteps of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer and argued that humans occupy a special and unique sphere of existence, the symbolic dimension. For Cassirer, what sets us apart from other animals are our symbolic systems of representation and communication. Focusing mainly on the symbolic human linguistic system, we argued that it is the foundation of our rationality, creating long-term goals and abstract ideas, such as the ideas of the good and the bad, of the sacred and the profane. This view is widely accepted, since most people agree that human language is a crucial facet of human nature. We also argued that cultural-symbolic evolution has been the engine of human evolution—that genes followed culturally constructed adaptations.  For example, we suggested that cultural linguistic evolution drove and guided cognitive-genetic linguistic changes related to the ability to understand and use language, and to exercise our uniquely human powers of imagination. To put it in the terms suggested by Emile Durkheim, we argue that in both human evolution and child development, the social a-posteriori has become the individual-cognitive a-priori.

Recently, my colleagues and I started using these terms to describe not only the construction of cognitive-intellectual representations, but also the evolutionary and ontogenetic construction of emotions. We focus on the emotional preconditions that allow the evolution of language, and on how language, once it evolved into its first recognizable elementary form as a social technology of instructing the imagination (as Daniel Dor would characterize it), altered the emotional profile of humans. The hugely expanded range of practices, ideas, and feelings, including those expressed by Frances Yates and by the holocaust survivors’ tormentors and saviors, are manifestations of this newly inhabited sphere of being.

Very briefly, we suggest that the emotional preconditions that evolved in our ancestors led to a greater inhibition of drives and executive control, and increased sensibility to the social gaze, which is expressed as blushing, the uniquely human expression of emotions. In the appropriate conditions, this sensibility gives rise to the social emotions of embarrassment, guilt, shame and pride. This unique emotional profile evolved in the context of group-related activities, especially cooperative foraging, complex tool-making, apprentice-learning, and alloparenting (the care of young by individuals other than the mother), which collectively set us apart from other great apes. Such practices encouraged the evolution of cooperation and the understanding of other minds, and enabled the construction of effective social norms. This socially-driven evolutionary process can be thought of as a process of self-domestication, making people more tolerant and patient, increasingly dependent and empathetically interested in their group members.

Ashamed person covering face with hands But this is only the beginning of the story. Once in place, elementary language altered our emotions and contributed to the evolution of episodic and semantic recall, imagination, and new types and ranges of emotions. It imposed new constraints and affordances on human cognition and evolution. On the one hand, language has led to further inhibitory control of emotions, for what is told—a story about a leopard, for example—has to be differentiated and reacted to in a different way from the actual encounter with the leopard. Language also made it necessary to distinguish between the recollection of the actual experiences one went through, and those one was told about. This inhibitory control is, we believe, the basis of the distinction humans make between thought and feeling. However, in addition to inhibitory control and the evolutionary elaboration of new memory systems, the use of language led to the expansion of the humans’ world, for through language a person could share the experiences and emotions of others. The range of social emotions began to include emotions related to truth (which is a property of propositions, not of the world), to humor, and to individual and social-identity and agency. Language was also used to excite and dampen emotions through the use of metaphors based on the bodily expression of emotions.  

We are, thus, very different emotionally from other animals. We are not fantastically clever apes with the emotional profile of crocodiles. In humans, cooperation and aggression are, at least partially, symbol-bound and symbol-controlled. Our symbol-controlled emotions are part of our nature. They provide the options of cruelty and charity, and are the reason why we can identify with the old scholar in the library.

[1] Oswyn Murray, 2007.

Image Credit

“Shame” by Frankieleon. (CC BY 2.0)

  • Eva Jablonka

    Eva Jablonka is a professor in the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv. Her main interest is the understanding of evolution, especially evolution that is driven by non-genetic hereditary variations, and in the evolutionary transition to phenomenal consciousness.

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