[Fragment III] - "Man, the Abstracted Animal" | L'esprit de Thésée dans la Révolution Canadienne


[The following fragment was translated from what remains of a manuscript titled L'esprit de Thésée dans la Révolution Canadienne. They were penned by a journalist and essayist named Charles René who allegedly cataloged the collapse of Canadian society in the 1970s and 1980s. See the introduction to learn more about this text.]

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About 2 million years ago, a toolmaking animal named Homo habilis appears in the fossil record. His discoverers Louis and Mary Leakey classified him as the eldest member in the human genus because he shared family resemblances to the other known humans, such as walking upright and having a larger braincase than his knuckle-dragging cousins. At the time, this was enough for him to be regarded as a distinct animal from the australopithecines in his day.

Just a decade ago, an Australopithecus named Lucy was discovered and she shared with habilis some of the human characteristics that designated him his spot in the Homo category. She could also walk on two legs, freeing up her front limbs for some handy work. Several more fossils were since discovered – some were classified as Homo, others as Australopithecus – and the criteria for sorting them has gotten fuzzier each time. A lot of those assigned as australopithecines were also toolmakers like habilis. This raises a methodological concern within the fields of anthropology and paleontology; that is, was calling habilis a Homo a hasty generalization?

As a Homo myself, I use the following criterion to tell whether an animal is in the same genus as me: if I was running around in the wild at the time and I came across this organism, might I try to mate with it? At first glance, I am not interested in members of the habilis species. Not my type. So, I would reclassify it as a member of Australopithecus. What about Neanderthals? If the mood was right, yes. Definitely a Homo. Using this method, I reach the same conclusion as the minimalist anthropologists who argue there are only three distinct species of humans: sapiens, erectus, and neanderthalensis. The others, with special names like ergaster, are only variations of one of these themes.

[…]

[…] we will refer to these as the canonical humans. Going forward in talking about what gives humans their humanity, we will refer to these three forms for the canonical examples of the traits we are talking about.

If this classification system doesn’t suit you, I have another way to tell if someone is human.

If you look at the stone cutting tools that lay around alongside the alleged handyman habilis, there is a period in this stratum of about 1 million years in which there is no innovation – no change at all to the nature of his tools. This hints to us that those tools were the product of a biologically driven instinct. Habilis put as much cognitive effort into building his cutting tools as bees put into their hives and birds into their nests. So long as the genes determining toolmaking, hive building, and nesting behaviors don’t change, neither will the tools, hives, and nests change all that much either.

It isn’t until Homo erectus that we begin to see new variations like hand axes. Not only that, but we see beside erectus evidence of him using fire to cook food and scratching geometric markings into seashells. With erectus, we begin to see the beginning of behaviors that show intentionality, craftsmanship, and artistry. All three of the canonical humans show evidence of these behaviors.

Human toolmaking is driven by something that goes beyond biological instinct. Sapiens, erectus, and neanderthalensis used their intellect to varying degrees to guide their hands in careful and calculating motions. In just 70,000 years, sapiens took their stone tools and, at an exponential rate of innovation, eventually crafted GPS satellites and particle accelerators. It isn’t their genes responsible for this degree of innovation. GPS satellites and particle accelerators evolved via the replication and mutation of units of cultural information called memes. I borrow this term from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, published just a few years ago in 1976. Take as an example, intangible things like a verbal noise referring to lions or an idea for a new technique to chip stones. The information behind these things can change within a single lifetime – even overnight by executive fiat.

Memes convey information that need not be strictly factual, let alone obviously useful to their hosts. Take as an example a tribal elder telling a pair of adolescent boys, “Our tribe is descended from lions while the neighboring tribe is descended from hyenas.” The brighter of the two boys thinks this is just a silly myth. He observes, as a matter of fact, that lions never give birth to anything resembling a person, and concludes he has no good reason to believe it. He is too pedantic to see the message through the words.

The dimmer of the two boys also took the elder’s statement literally, and he believed it. He thinks he now knows something about his nature. He starts walking around with the swagger of a lion, confident and assured of his strength, and when his mother calls out to him to do his chores he does them without complaining because lions don’t complain about their responsibilities.

When they grow up, each of them goes to battle against a group of men from the hyena lineage. The smarter of the two kills their rivals indiscriminately until he is caught off guard. One arrow to the temple and he is gone right along with the knowledge of the fact that men are not descended from lions or hyenas.

The one who believes that he is descended from lions and his opponents from hyenas fights accordingly. He knows he and his opponents are equally matched rivals. Yet, his strength comes from the nobility of his character and theirs from their nastiness and ruthlessness. When he fights, he respects the strength of his rivals but does not expect them to show him the same respect. They might be dirty fighters and cheats, but he knows that is something he cannot control so he doesn’t let it catch him off guard. He subdues his rivals and even manages to bring a few back with him as a ransom for his tribe. All the local beauties throw themselves at him. For his survival and victory, he doesn’t only pass on his physical genes, but also the truth that some men are descended from lions and others from hyenas.

Abstract communication like this is quite different from how the other apes communicate. They can only tell each other things in relation to what the facts are.  When the tree-dwelling ape sees a lion stalking his friends, he makes a verbal noise which they know to mean “lion” and they race up into the trees. He could, however, lie with the same call. At the moment before his brother picks up a nice piece of fruit, he calls out “lion!” When his brother flees, he jumps down from the tree and takes the fruit for himself. Whether he chooses to lie or tell the truth, his communication his constrained to a relation to what the facts are. It is a misunderstanding to call the statement “Our tribe is descended from lions while the neighboring tribe is descended from hyenas” a lie, a hasty generalization, or a silly superstition.

Man creates and lives in abstractions. As will be illustrated in the following chapter […]

[…] with its scarcity and governance by laws outside his control – and create around him a new fictional world; one governed by moral laws, and superstitions like you need to be formally credentialed by a magical agency to have respected expertise in a field.

[...]

. . . 

Index of Fragments

[Fragment I] - "Homo nomos" [...] (Likely from the first chapter)

[Fragment II] - "The Struggle for Existence" [...] (Likely from the first chapter)

[Fragment III] - "The Abstracted Animal" [...] (Likely from the first or second chapter)

[Fragment IV] -

[Fragment V] - 

. . .

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Sense, Nonsense, and Antisense
Sense, Nonsense, and Antisense

Sense, Nonsense, and Antisense coming soon focuses on the problem of how do we know what we think we know. It explores this problem with respect to what is/isn't human nature, biological vs sociological accounts of human behavior, and whether there is an ideal political arrangement for human beings.

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