Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Animals and Us

The Deficient Animal

Only the human species is capable of grasping, analyzing, and interpreting signs as symbols.

James Davison Hunter

Cave painting of stag from Axial Gallery of Lascaux caves, France, computer/artwork graphic by James Thorn; Charles Walker Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

The scientific understanding of humans as physical creatures has progressed in leaps and bounds during the last four centuries. Its successes in comprehending musculature, circulation, the nervous system and the brain, digestion, cellular chemistry, genes, and the like, as well as the sources and progression of diseases that beset human existence, is astounding. Yet the “science of man,” as David Hume put it—understanding human beings as human beings, both individually and collectively—has been something of an embarrassment.

And it is one that persists. Hume’s own effort “to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects”11xThe subtitle of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, published 1737–40, is Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. to give but one example, has been revitalized in recent decades by the new moral science, really a congeries of sciences that includes sociobiology, positive psychology, and various neurosciences. But the new efforts to find a strictly physicalist explanation of humankind’s moral dispositions and decisions—to reduce them, for example, to functions of neurochemistry—fall as far short as Hume’s did. No one would deny that moral thinking involves some grounding in our physical being as adaptive organisms developing, surviving, and reproducing in an environment. But is that it? That would be akin to saying that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a function of King’s lungs pushing air through the vocal folds in the larynx (and that its reception among his listeners was a function of an elaborate combination of neurons encoding information into the auditory cortex). All perfectly true, but utterly banal, because it tells us nothing about what makes something binding or compelling, beautiful and inspiring—nothing about those things, in other words, that make King’s speech a singular, and signal, human event.

Charles Darwin and his heirs are largely behind the new reductionist project. Darwin’s bold idea, however flawed in its particulars, remains one of the great achievements of science, and those who have followed in his footsteps have come some distance in correcting and refining the original theory. Yet what Darwin and neo-Darwinians achieved was rooted in a concern with continuities among species, in showing how human beings evolved from animal predecessors. Among later Darwinians in particular, this concern led to the conviction that human beings share the same essential nature with other species. The evolution from anthropoid to human was simply a function of the contingencies of adaptation and survival needs within different environments. This increasingly exclusive focus on biological similarities tended, on the one hand, to fold the human being entirely within the continuum of the animal order and, on the other hand, to minimize, downplay, or ignore altogether the distinguishing characteristics of the human species.

It was against this dominant trend that philosophical anthropology, a school of thought that emerged in the early twentieth century, took up the challenge of understanding the “special position of man.” This school emerged mostly from the work of German and Dutch biologists, zoologists, philosophers, and social theorists, including Paul Alsberg, Louis Bolk, Max Scheler, Adolf Portmann, Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen, Konrad Lorenz, and the British-American biologist Ashley Montagu, and has been appropriated and refined in recent decades by Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Hans Joas, Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, and others.

The consensus among the philosophical anthropologists was that the development of human beings was not simply a result of evolutionary progress, but rather of the inhibition of the evolutionary process. The Dutch anatomist Louis Bolk advanced his “fetalization” theory to argue that humans exhibit certain features such as the curvature of the cranium, the absence of body hair, and the structure of the pelvis, not to mention the absence of claws, wings, and gills, that protohumans exhibited only in the womb or early infancy. The philosophical anthropologists argued, in Arnold Gehlen’s words, that “for a human’s situation to correspond with that of true mammals, pregnancy would have to…last approximately 21 months.”22xArnold Gehlen, Man: His Nature and Place in the World (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988), 36. The persistence of such infantile features was related to other human peculiarities, including the long period of helplessness at the infant stage, the similarly protracted stage of development preceding sexual maturity, and, most important, the curious but undeniable absence of a well-developed structure of instincts.

Bolk and other philosophical anthropologists did not deny human origins in evolution. (After all, humans have the same five-fingered hands, full set of teeth, and pairs of eyes and ears that other primates possess.) Nor did they reject natural selection. But beyond a point, they were simply not that interested in it. Rather, what fascinated the leading figures of philosophical anthropology was what biology left out about the human species and the difference this made in setting the species apart from others. In the late eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried Herder had called the human being “the deficient being”; others, following Herder, described humans as animals “not yet determined,” “unfinished,” “incomplete,” “physiologically premature,” and “organically deficient”—and, therefore, ever malleable. In addition to their unfinished character, humans also have no species-specific natural environment they can call home. Home can be anywhere and everywhere; indeed, humans are capable of adapting to a vast range of environments. They are, as the philosopher Max Scheler put it, “open to the world.”

Without a home, without a well-developed instinctual apparatus, exposed to the raw elements of the natural world, faced with unexpected, unpredictable, potentially life-threatening experiences, and overwhelmed by limitless and undifferentiated impressions, the human species faces unimaginable duress. It is this duress that beckons humans to compensate, not only to stabilize life but to survive.

It is against this backdrop that Scheler came to write that “the human being is the ‘Nay-sayer’…an eternal protester against all mere reality.”33xMax Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos, trans. Manfred S. Frings (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009), 39. First published 1927. From this capacity emerges an infinite range of ways to negate, transform, and reverse the raw natural conditions of human life. In Gehlen’s understanding, all action (a concept as important to the philosophical anthropologists as the concept of labor was to Marx) is an instrumental response to the world as given. Even more, it is an attempt to control that world in order to make it habitable:

He must create weapons for defense and attack to compensate for those that have been denied him; he must obtain food that is not readily available to him.… He must devise his own shelter against the weather, care for and raise his offspring during their abnormally long period of dependence; to accomplish these things, he needs to learn to cooperate and communicate with others.44xGehlen, Man, 29.

In sum, human beings must of necessity make up for their instinctual impoverishment by actively transforming the world to suit their own ends, mastering and re-creating nature rather than merely adapting to it. The means by which human beings do this is by representing the world symbolically, particularly through language, but more broadly through culture itself. Culture is a “second nature.”

Language, though, is central. Indeed, symbolization, which is at the heart of language, is the primordial form of human action. Language reveals itself as “a universe of names and combination of names.” The invention of these names is astonishing on its own terms, but what is implied in this naming, as the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce observed, is even more important to understanding the special position of the human species. The name (or sign) and the object to which the name attaches (the signified) are mediated by an interpretant. In other words, the meaning of a name or sign is manifested in the interpretation it generates in sign users.

It is this system of symbolic representation and recognition that enables human beings to appropriate the world, not only in itself as an infinite number of isolated objects (broadly defined) but, even more, in the interrelationship of all such objects with one other. Language permits systems of classification that allow relationships among objects, needs, and motives in time to be abstracted, suspended in time, manipulated in thought, and acted out mentally in anticipation or in retrospection. The meaning found within our use of language in turn draws from the complex background of inferences and interpretations that constitute a whole form of life. And this occurs within intimate and bonded relationships.

Other species, most famously chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and other primates, are, in limited ways and experimental contexts, able to use signs as designators, combine words into simple sentences, use simple tools, and even create tools. They can do so in signifying, inferential, and ritual ways. They can also interpret the intentions of members of their own species—for example, intentions to mate, to hunt, to attack, or to eat. But they cannot use signs symbolically, as objects of reflection or analysis.

Only the human species is capable of grasping, analyzing, and interpreting signs as symbols. In other words, only humans are capable of using signs at a meta- or self-referential level. In this respect, only humans can grasp and interpret the communicative intentions of others.55xMichael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 101–2. This capacity allows human beings to stand at a distance from their environments—possessing an awareness of a world, an awareness of others, an awareness of self, and an awareness of awareness. As Charles Taylor observed, “This is the crucial difference which sets humans off on the road to language, and hence to the possibility of cultural evolution, which surges forward incomparably faster than organic evolution, since…advances of one generation can be handed on to the succeeding ones.”66xCharles Taylor, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 56.

Even though we know considerably more than Herder did some 200 years ago, his basic insight about the intrinsic linguistic character of the human being holds. In his inimitable style, Tom Wolfe put it this way:

Speech is not one of man’s several unique attributes—speech is the attribute of all attributes! Physically, man is a sad case. His teeth, including his incisors, which he calls eyeteeth, are baby-size and can barely penetrate the skin of a too-green apple. His claws can’t do anything but scratch him where he itches. His stringy-ligament body makes him a weakling compared to all the animals his size. Animals his size? In hand-to-paw, hand-to-claw, or hand-to-incisor combat, any animal his size would have him for lunch. Yet man owns or controls them all, every animal that exists, thanks to his super-power: speech.77xTom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2016), 5.

By nature, the human animal, then, is a language animal, and upon this symbolic frame is built the entire interconnected edifice of culture.

But in what sense? If institutions are patterns of thought, behavior, and relationship, then language is the archetypal institution, the institution that makes all others possible and, by virtue of its sedimentation in consciousness, powerful. In this way, culture makes up for what biology leaves out. The cultural world, particularly as its patterns are taken for granted, works for humans in the same way that a well-developed set of instincts works for other species.88xGehlen, Man, 29, 71. Institutions function like instincts.

The conclusion is unavoidable: The human animal is, like no other, a cultural animal. Culture is definitional. It is our capacity to build a world that sets us apart from other species. Because its expression is infinite, variable, and malleable, the uniquely human capacity to build worlds can either foster the flourishing of the planet or lead it to its destruction. The ethical responsibility in the face of those stark options is also something no other species shares; indeed it is a reality fundamental to understanding humans as human beings. The deficient animal is, thus, a morally encumbered animal—irreducibly so—whose fate is, in the best of circumstances, restive and anxious.