Section IV. Re-envisioning Nature; Re-envisioning Science 

Track 6: Unprecedented Evolution:
Human Continuities and Discontinuities with Animal Life

Spyridon Koutroufinis and René Pikarski, chairs

Life takes many forms and it is possible to view human beings as just one of these among others.  So although it is certainly true that we are one biological species among many others, it is also the case that we are different from all the others in quite remarkable ways. Humans have produced works of exquisite beauty, sophistication, and enduring value. And yet at the same time we have begun to irreparably damage the health of the total biosphere; threatening the extinction of ourselves as well as untold numbers of other species. To make sense of this anthropogenic paradox we first need to understand how we emerged from but diverged from the rest of our animal cousins in the course of our evolution.

This track examines the core dimensions of this conditio humana in the light of process thought. Where possible, emphasis will be put on the role of those dimensions in the relation of the human to biosphere. The following questions will frame the presentations and discussions in this track:

  • How have human activities influenced the selective forces on human evolution?
  • How did the usage of symbolic thought shape the evolution of human brain and mind?
  • How do our symbolically constructed spiritual and metaphysical belief systems influence human rationality and morality?
  • How has our distinctive mentality influenced our experience of environment, space, and time?
  • How do our unique forms of power distinguish humans from other species?
  • How should we respond to the trends toward transhumanism and bio-technocracy?

Schedule

FRIDAY, JUNE 5

2:00 – 3:30 pm

July Hui

(University of California, Berkeley)

“Relaxed selection in human evolution”

Comments by Spyridon Koutroufinis

4:00 pm – 5:30 pm

Spyridon A. Koutroufinis

(Berlin Institute of Technology)

“Animal and Human Umwelt/Environment––Continuities and Discontinuities”

Comments by Linda Groff

 

 

SATURDAY, JUNE 6

11:00 am – 12:30 pm

Terrence W. Deacon

(University of California, Berkeley)

“The human as a symbolic species”

Comments by Julie Hui

2:00 – 3:30 pm

Matthew D. Segall

(California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco)

“Religion in human and cosmic evolution––Whitehead and Bellah”

Comments by René Pikarski

4:00 – 5:30 pm        

René Pikarski

(Berlin Institute of Technology)

“Are we human or are we dancer? The human, all too human process of becoming a subject”

Comments by Sean McCracken

 

SUNDAY, JUNE 7

11:00 am – 12:30 pm

Linda Groff

(Global Options and Evolutionary Futures Consulting

California State University, Dominguez Hills)

“Future Human Evolution, Twelve Views of the Possible Future Human, and the Challenge of Building a Global Eco-Civilization”

Comments by Terrence W. Deacon

2:00 – 3:30 pm

Sean MacCracken:

(California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco

University of Virginia)

Transhumanisms: Between new spirituality and scientistic technocracy”

Comments by Andrew Beath

4:00 – 5:30 pm

Andrew Beath:

(EarthWays Foundation)

“The New Creation Story: Integrating Matter, Biology and Consciousness”

Comments by Spyridon Koutroufinis

 

Abstracts

Julie Hui

“Relaxed selection in human evolution”

Humans, as with all natural beings, have been evolving for as long as all life on earth. While viewing the natural world through the view of evolution by natural selection is well-established, the additional effects of the relaxation of selective pressures is still in the beginning stages of exploration. An overview of this approach and its use in understanding the development of complex interactions and synergies will be explored. Evolution is difficult to follow as it necessarily erases its many of its steps as it goes. We will explore some of the ways in which we can track signals of relaxation and by using an example in birdsong, we can find some analogies to the evolution of language. This approach will also give us a glimpse into the beginnings of prosociality, a cornerstone of the beginnings of multicellular life and an important feature of human interactions throughout time.

 

Spyridon A. Koutroufinis

“Animal and Human Umwelt/Environment––Continuities and Discontinuities”

Uexküll introduced the concept of Umwelt (environment) as meaning the features of an animal’s surroundings, which are meaningful to it. He created a biology of subjects. With respect to human subjectivity Cassirer expanded Uexküll’s Umwelt by the component of symbolic forms and defined the human as an animal symbolicum. According Cassirer, whereas animals use signs humans communicate with symbols, which are signs with objective meaning. This distinction characterizes the specific difference between human and animal intelligence. Humans not only experience in a radically different way spatiotemporal aspects of Umwelt than animals––they live in a multi-dimensional symbolic Umwelt. However, abstract symbolic systems of contemporary physics, life sciences, technology, and economy enable us to act on other living beings and on the whole planet with an emotional distance, which can be destructive. I claim that ecologic disaster forces us to reinterpret the term ‘Umwelt’ in order to enhance it with an ethical dimension. This requires a view of nature based on Whitehead’s understanding of natural beings as embodiments of intrinsic values.

Terrence W. Deacon

“The human as a symbolic species”

Humans are the recipients of nearly 2 million years of evolution facilitating the ability to acquire, use, and think with symbols. The unusual cognitive demands imposed by symbolic reference (and its most pervasive form—language) have created a cognitive niche that has placed quite atypical adaptive demands on human brain function. This is the result of the semiotic hierarchic complexity of symbolic reference. However, the tendency of philosophical and cognitive theories to collapse the concept of symbols to that of generic signs and to treat them as simply arbitrary correspondence relations has masked this complexity and made it difficult to discern both the neurological adaptations and special cognitive and emotional biases that make humans unique. These include a change in mnemonic organization that facilitates narrative memory, aesthetic and ethical sensibilities, and a tendency to understand the world in dualistic terms. The grammar and syntax of language also reflects the constraints of this semiotic infrastructure, though analysis of language has also suffered from the oversimplification of symbolic functions. Symbols aren’t simple.

 

Matthew D. Segall

“Religion in human evolution––Whitehead and Bellah”

This talk contrasts Bellah’s and Whitehead’s pluralistic, cosmologically oriented accounts with Dennett’s reductionistic, adaptationist account of the emergence of religion in human evolution. Following Bellah and Whitehead, I root the emergence of religion in the ritual play of our hominid ancestors. Foregrounding the importance of play behavior (instinctive in all mammals) presents a direct challenge to adaptationist explanations of religion in terms of its sociobiological utility. Materialistic approaches seeking to “explain away” emergent phenomena end up claiming that human consciousness and its attendant religious experiences are an improbable accident. I argue this is the exact opposite of a scientific explanation of human religious evolution. Bellah and Whitehead in their own ways re-imagine the materialist’s bifurcated image of nature, making it possible to “naturalize religion” non-reductionistically. The guiding research question is then no longer “how can the history of human religious experience be explained away as a product of mechanical forces?”, but instead becomes “what must the universe be like, such that human religious experiences are possible?”

 

René Pikarski

“Are we human or are we dancer? The human, all too human process of becoming a subject”

The phenomenon of socialization is a crucial point in the inquiry of life processes. Varieties of social forms, structures, hierarchies, actions and dynamics are connected with the problem of power. In this way, the question of continuities and discontinuities in human and animal life becomes a question of power relations in animal or human groups. Do they show significant differences in the modes of regulation under the scheme or analysis grid of power? Is there something ‘typically human’? To attempt an answer, one could reactivate a thought by Michel Foucault, discovered in an ancient epoch: it is about the human, all too human process of becoming a subject. What is needed is a revision of the concept of practical freedom as heterogonous capabilities of distance to subsume human tendencies to an intelligent openness, flexibility, and universality. The human being is the experiencing animal, he has the ability to reflect his interdependencies. His states of being interwoven with them have enormous influence on his way of being in the world. But being capable of reflecting them, he can become a source of creative feedback.

 

Linda Groff

“Future Human Evolution, Twelve Views of the Possible Future Human, and the Challenge of Building a Global Eco-Civilization”

This presentation focuses on future human evolution, including twelve views of the possible future human. First a broader context within which to discuss this topic is presented, based on accelerating change today and humans as products of evolution in four areas: physical, biological, cultural/technological, and consciousness, making us complex, multi-leveled beings. Then twelve views of the future human are presented under four broad areas: transhuman/ technological, ecological, civilizational, and consciousness-based views, along with mixed views and question whether humanity will evolve in different directions in future. Finally how all this change builds on Whitehead’s dynamic, interdependent worldviews, necessary for creating a global eco-civilization and for solving many problems confronting the world today and in future.

 

Sean MacCracken:

Transhumanisms: Between new spirituality and scientistic technocracy”

Transhumanism as a social movement stands in need of being better engaged from integral and transdisciplinary standpoints, as its influence deepens economically and broadens culturally. A serious academic assessment of the loosely allied social agendas under the Transhumanist banner has begun only in recent years. The present work intends a survey and constructive critique of the worldviews that the dominant Transhumanist ideologies presuppose. Its basis for critique is publicly available survey data, which offers a representative picture of active participants in Transhumanist discourse. From such data, a picture emerges of the most urgently needed contributors to a more robust integral or transdiscinplinary approach to Transhumanist projects. Of such potential contributors, this study emphasizes process philosophies, which anticipate or constructively address some of the questions of being, becoming, and identity comprising Transhumanist self-understanding. Although sometimes trenchant critiques are put forth, this is intended respectfully, and in the spirit of sparking transdisciplinary cooperation. It is intended, then, to promote increased dialogue rather than to foreclose upon any specific ideas or agendas.

 

Andrew Beath:

“The New Creation Story: Integrating Matter, Biology and Consciousness”

This presentation is about the crisis and opportunity of the current human epoch. It examines our capacity to honor beauty and love, compared to the reasons why we have inadvertently embraced violence and destruction. Who are we, how did we get here, and what is our purpose for being here on Earth? Human culture and history are flowing processes that reveal the changing stages of human consciousness. This story shows why and how we are capable of creating a sustainable, meaningful, and joyful world. Our hope for the future resides in the unexpected, in the irrational, in the intuitive. Mostly, our hope comes from faith in the human capacity to find a way through, to be brilliant when circumstances require brilliance, because we are standing on a precipice that will destroy us unless we act brilliantly—now. This presentation will include Andrew Beath’s experiences while traveling to more than 60 different countries, including time at sacred sites and ceremonies with numerous shamans and gurus. Andrew has founded several NGO organizations to protect endangered ecological sites, and to assist threatened indigenous communities–employing a mindset he calls “conscious activism”.