November 30, 2020

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 6

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 7

We continue the series on the book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience .

Today, Part 7:

  • Chapter 9: What Makes Us Human? The Development of Evolutionary Psychology
  • Chapter 10: Are Humans Different? What About Morality in Animals
  • Chapter 11: What is the Difference Between Altruism, Altruistic Love, and Agape?
  • Chapter 12: Does Language Uniquely Define Us as Humans?

We are going to skip over Chapter 8: Don’t Parapyschology and Near-Death Experiences Prove the Existence of the Soul?  I understand Jeeves got the question from some of his students and wanted to cover it for completeness sake, but I think most of us at Imonk would agree the answer is no.  Jeeves answer is no as well.  I’m lumping chapters 9-12 together because, in them, Jeeves is exploring the question; what makes us unique from other animals?  I think that is a worthwhile question to discuss.

Jeeves begins by noting that the question has a long history of being raised.  He quotes from a review of Frans de Waal’s book Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (and notes he is a leader in the field):

From the beginning philosophers have agonized over the question of what makes us humans.  Is the difference in kind or merely a difference in degree between ourselves and other animals?”

I think that puts the question in its basic essence: difference in kind or merely in degree?  Blaise Pascal wrote in 1659:

It is dangerous to show a man too clearly how much he resembles the beast, without at the same time showing him his greatness.  It is also dangerous to allow him too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness.  It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both.

The discussion among Imonk commenters last time pretty well concluded that the difference between humans and other animals isn’t the presence of some immaterial soul magically implanted by God.  In fact the demonstration from the Bible itself (as exegeted by professor of Old Testament at Asbury seminary, Lawson Stone) shows we are “souls” that is “living beings” as are at least the higher, more sentient animals.

The main issue in this chapter, for Malcolm’s student, is the evolutionary basis of evolutionary psychology.  If you believe that God’s mechanism of bringing humans into existence was a special, instantaneous, creation event, then you are going to view evolutionary psychology as presuppositional atheistic materialism.  If you believe that evolution was God’s mechanism for creation then “out of the dust of the ground” becomes the metaphor for God forming us through a process of development from non-living matter to living simple organisms to living complex organisms to living complex organisms that recognize and relate to him.

So what characteristics of the mind are uniquely human?  Jeeves cites research on “mind reading” or the ability of an animal to understand the mind of another animal.  Jeeves cites the work of Michael Tomasello who published a study in 2010 where he gave a comprehensive battery of cognitive tests to three groups: a large number of chimpanzees, a group of orangutans and a large group of two and half year old children.  The test battery apparently consisted of a whole lot of different nonverbal tasks designed to assess cognitive skills, involving physical and social problems.  Tomasello and his colleagues found that, as reported in the past, the children and the apes show similar skills when dealing with the physical world, but already by age 2 1/2 the children had more sophisticated cognitive skills than either of the ape species studied when it came to dealing with the social world.  “Distinct species-unique skills” of what the researchers called social cognition had emerged in the children by age two and a half.

The next chapter deals with the question of morality in animals.  Jeeves first discusses recent research that show the existence of “cultures” in animals.  He notes a study by Frans de Waal that showed tool use in a subset of chimpanzees that seemed to be passed on by culture and tradition, and another study from McMaster University in 2010 that showed similar social learning in mongooses, animals not normally regarded as close to us from an evolutionary point of view.

Jeeves then quotes Francisco Ayala, leading American evolutionary biologist, who believes the clue to understanding how humans differ from non-human primates is to be found in the difference between what Ayala and fellow evolutionary biologists can adaptations and exaptations.  Ayala (“The Difference of Being Human: Morality”, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 107, May 11, 2010: 9015-22) says:

Evolutionary biologists define exaptations as features of organisms that evolved because they served some function but are later co-opted to serve an additional or different function, which was not originally the target of natural selection.  The new function may replace the older function or co-exist together with it.  Feathers seem to have evolved first for conserving temperature, but were later co-opted in birds for flying… The issue at hand is whether moral behavior was directly promoted by natural selection or rather it is simply a consequence of our exalted intelligence, which was the target of natural selection (because it made possible the construction of better tools).  Art, literature, religion, and many human cultural activities might also be seen as exaptations that came about as consequences of the evolution of high intelligence…

The capacity for ethics is an outcome of gradual evolution, but it is an attribute that only exists when the underlying attributes (i.e. the intellectual capacities) reach an advance degree.  The necessary conditions for ethical behavior only come about after the crossing of an evolutionary threshold.  The approach is gradual, but the conditions only appear when the degree of intelligence is reached such that the formation of abstract concepts and the anticipation of the future are possible, even though we may not be able to determine when the threshold was crossed.

What Ayala is saying is what I was trying to get across with my analogy of water flow going from subcritical to supercritical.  Not everything in nature is a gradual continuum or spectrum.  Sometimes there are “nick points” when a certain threshold is reached and a jump is made to a wholly different level from what existed before.  After all, whoever went to Africa to study a group of nonhuman primates and found they had hospitals, libraries, technology parks, art galleries, churches, symphony orchestras and so on and so on?  It seems to me that it has become too easy to gloss over these enormous and fundamental differences, but the question is why, with such similar brains, are we so comprehensively different?

In Chapter 11, Jeeves discusses altruistic behavior in humans and animals.  Evolutionary theory attempts to answer the question of self-sacrificial behavior by arguing that genes favoring altruism can spread in future generations if their costs to the altruist’s personal reproductive success is outweighed by the benefits in reproductive success of altruists’ relative carrying copies of the same genes – what is called “kin selection”.  Second, it proposes that genes favoring altruism could spread if the altruism is sufficiently reciprocated, what is called “reciprocal altruism”.

Honey-pot worker ants

One of the most graphic examples of the first is honey-pot worker ants, who do nothing but hang from the ceiling of their ant colony, acting as receptacles or storage jars for honey, which some workers fill them with and which the colony draws on when needed.  At an individual level, that is self-sacrifice.  Examples of reciprocal altruism appear to be much rarer.  The classic example is vampire bats, who are in real danger of starving if they do not get their blood meal on a particular evening.  If this happens they are fed back in their colony by an unrelated nest mate, to whom they are likely to repay the favor on another night.

These two examples necessitate a warning: we must not assume that because two behaviors are similar, the mechanisms underlying them are necessary similar or identical.  Jeeves notes that leading evolutionary psychologist Frans de Waal has written helpfully about how to understand altruistic behaviors, as well as other kinds of behaviors, that traditionally have been regarded as showing evidence of some sort of moral sense in an individual or group.  In his book, Good Natured , de Waal warns against unthinking reductionism.  He cautions:

Even if animals other than ourselves act in ways tantamount to moral behavior, their behavior does not necessarily rest on deliberations of the kind we engage in.  It is hard to believe that animals weigh their own interests against the rights of others, that they develop a vision of the greater good of society, or that they feel lifelong guilt about something they should not have done.”  And he goes on, “To communicate intentions and feelings is one thing; to clarify what is right, and why, and what is wrong, and why, is quite something else.  Animals are no moral philosophers.”  Of the moral sense he later writes, “The fact that the human moral sense goes so far back in evolutionary history that other species show signs of it plants morality firmly near the center of our much-maligned nature.”

De Waal gives a good summary of the issue, I think, and it points again to the “nick point” nature of the evolutionary transition from non-human to human.

The waggle dance – the direction the bee moves in relation to the hive indicates direction; if it moves vertically the direction to the source is directly towards the Sun. The duration of the waggle part of the dance signifies the distance.

In the next Chapter 12: Does Language Uniquely Define Us As Humans, Jeeves take a similar tact in the discussion.  He notes the abundant research that shows all types of rudimentary language use in animals from the bee waggle dance to the learning of sign language in the great apes. But then he quotes from a 2006 report of a working group of the Academy of Medical Sciences in Britain, “The Use of Nonhuman Primates in research.”

The outstanding intelligence of humans appears to result from a combination and enhancement of properties found in non-human primates, such as theory of the mind, imitation, and language, rather than from unique properties.

So what about love, and in particular, agape love?  Jeeves notes:  Altruism is what we might call having regard for the actions or motivations of others.  Altruistic love normally adds an additional feature, a deep affirmative affect, to altruism.  And agape is altruistic love extended to all humanity.  But in addition to that, it has a very special use in the hands of the New Testament writers.  There agape is the Greek word used to describe a form of unlimited altruistic love seen supremely in the self-giving love of Christ on the cross (and in rough equivalents in Judaism, Buddhism and other great religious traditions).  Jeeves concludes:

My own view is that from a Christian perspective there are no grounds for believing that we are all created identical in terms of things like personality.  Indeed, the apostle Paul makes it clear that we are in fact all very different and we have many different gifts.  I was reminded recently when reading some of the things that the apostle Paul had to say to Christians at Corinth about the way that some of them were boasting about themselves and their behavior.  Paul said that by the standards of the world, the Corinthians may have had something of which to boast, but that Christians do not accept the standards of the world.  Christians acknowledge that in themselves they are nothing.  They owe everything to the grace of God and there is no place for boasting about one’s achievements.  As Christians we acknowledge that we are all different, and it is the grace of God that enable us, in the context of the individual differences, to show agape love as much as we are able.


  1. Robert F says

    I think I’ve run out of things to say in this discussion and its various branches. It seems to me that we are in a position that makes it impossible to come to any definitive conclusions. We are not observing the forest from the outside, but are in the midst of the trees, part of its fauna, and this means that our observations and determinations always are made as we necessarily face in one direction, while behind us a shadow, a blind spot, always exists. That is the human condition, and that marks our epistemological limitation; even science cannot swivel to observe what is left of observation in the shadow, because the shadow moves as the scientist, along with the rest of us, moves. Observation itself creates the shadow. The existentialists said as much over half a century ago, and they were right. I personally start from the premise that humans are unique, and that something rightly called humanity even exists, on the basis of faith. I’m ok with that.

    • Robert F says

      One last and then I’ll leave it alone: Doesn’t quantum physics recognize that the act of observation always has an indeterminate effect on the outcome of that which is being observed? That is, observation is part of the causation that effects the observed event, so that if the observation was not being made, the event would play out differently?

    • Robert I’m not sure the situation is quite so dire. I can’t see the back of my own head but I can see the back of your head and you can see the back of mine and we can extrapolate from that. Science is in large part a way to mitigate our subjectivity. We cannot see in the infrared or ultraviolet parts of the spectrum yet we can develop tools that allow us to do just that.

  2. Lexiann the animal mystic says

    Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview M Tomasello at Planck (albeit via email) for articles I was doing for veterinary college-based dog magazines. The subjects involved dogs’ concept of time, and dogs sensing and responding to our physical & emotional health ata given time. The work in cognitive science regarding animals has reversed earlier thinking: animals understand and relate to abstract concepts & symbolism, and do experience and express a range of emotion. Souls? They never left the garden. Morality? Ingrained instinct for survival of the species and self….and now add to that for those who provide resources including what appears to be the resource of bonding, well-being and yep, even happiness.

  3. Well it seems clear that there is not the radical discontinuity here that was imagined in the past. No one would mistake an ant hill for a high rise apartment building but there is clearly a fundamental relationship.

    What interests me most is the question of the hominins, the relationship between modern humans and extinct human species and our immediate human ancestors. To put it baldly, never mind chimps; did Neanderthals and Denisovans have “souls”? Modern humans interbred with them. Current evidence indicates that there were as many as twelve species of early hominins between 6 and 1.5 million years ago. Yet they are extinct. Seems to me there are profound and perhaps disturbing spiritual implications here.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Too bad about Chapter 8.
    As a long-time aficionado of the weird, I would have liked to see what he made of it.

    Back when NDE Heaven Trips were just getting into the news (Proof of Life After Death, similar to 19th Century Spiritualism), there was a two-pronged Christian panic reaction, and Christian knockoffs of “Beyond and Back” hit not only the Jesus Junk stores but mainstream bookstores. Two major panic reactions at the same time:
    * Denouncing ALL NDE accounts as Satanic Deception.
    * Jumping on the bandwagon going “Me, Too!” with accounts of NDE Hell Trips, Christian NDE Heaven Trips, and claiming NDE PROOF of SCRIPTURE.
    It was a Wild and Crazy time.

  5. kerokline says

    Not sure how on topic this is, but it was what came to mind. I may have talked about this before.

    My art professor in college used to talk about a pet theory of his. He thought it was interesting that cave paintings bears striking resemblances to art drawn by Nadia Chomyn, an autistic girl with severe learning disabilities (you can search for a story on her from The Guardian).

    The gist is that cave art starts (c. 30,000 BC) with arrestingly good depictions of proportion, motion, etc. Kind of like there was a tradition of artwork that was trained. But by around 6000 BC, something changes, and cave art becomes less “skillful”. More “comic”, or less “realistic”. Then, as we hit official “civilization” periods, art comes back and slowly becomes more skill-driven. There is a more or less direct linear path between ancient china / greece and various art movements, culture developments.

    So what was lost? How did we go from Chauvet Cave to Levantine art?

    Nadia couldn’t speak, but she could draw. and when she was 3, she drew astonishingly accurate pictures of horses. However, as she was given language interventions and developed some communication abilities, she lost the ability to draw, and her drawings became more childlike and rudimentary. For a time, the two “styles” would occur in the same drawings. The comparison in style is actually really close (closer than I feel comfortable with, honestly). Nadia’s early art looks like 30,000 BC caves, and her later art looks like 6000 BC art.

    The theory is that from 30,000 BC to sometime around 10,000 BC, humans didn’t have modern language / culture. Their brains were modern, but their communication was not. My professor would say they saw the world without a filter, without a theory of mind, but that is because he was a theory of mind philosopher :). And so they drew because they felt compelled to communicate, and what they drew had no middle man – they just drew exactly what they saw. Once language is developed, now they are “thinking” like we are, and they can’t just draw what their eyes see – they have to draw what they “think” their eyes see. It takes basically until the invention of the camera obscura to train us how to draw “realistically” again.

    Anyway, I know that was long. I just think there’s something to it that feels true – without culture, we are… what? Feral children hit the uncanny valley of things that seem close to human but not.

    I agree with Jeeves. If we’re looking for the Imago Dei, I suggest we look at the (still seemingly human-only) ability to read minds. Sympathy is something many animals show, but Empathy is still ours alone.

  6. I think part of maintaining and advancing the higher moral ground is joining the two ends in one. We are spiritual beings and animal beings simultaneously. Not that you are suggesting this but letting go of instinct, intuition and feeling, all wordless and animalistic, to reside solely in the realm of intellectual and conceptual function is by and large crippling. The mystery of Christ is hidden in the union of the opposites. We are everything all the time. The God-Man. Sometimes we lose the blend and stumble too far into one or the other. Either extreme is a compromise of the whole human.

  7. If I had run across this book in a bookstore or on a library shelf, I would have opened it to the table of contents, turned to chapter 8, read the first two paragraphs and skimmed to the last two, and assuming Mike’s assessment of Jeeve’s assessment is correct, put the book back on the shelf. It has been a long time since my strong interest in Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM, and before that Biblical prophecy starring Hal Lindsey, but here I am and these were some main entry points. To ignore or dismiss an interest in the supernatural is like trying to describe the world looking thru a keyhole, not that there aren’t numerous rabbit holes to be found to derail the search for truth. Maybe I need to come up with a better metaphor than “keyhole” considering that there are probably numerous younger people who have never seen one you could look thru. This also must take into account that if I won the Powerball, I would be contacting Mike the G and Klasie hoping they would accept the invitation to visit me,ideally at the same time, and walk this piece of land and surrounding area with me and tell me what they could of its story. I would show them the highest point in lower Michigan which is about ten miles from me and which supposedly has a thousand feet of topsoil underneath left by the glacier along with the big rocks in my back woods.

  8. So what about love, and in particular, agape love? Jeeves notes: Altruism is what we might call having regard for the actions or motivations of others. Altruistic love normally adds an additional feature, a deep affirmative affect, to altruism. And agape is altruistic love extended to all humanity. But in addition to that, it has a very special use in the hands of the New Testament writers. There agape is the Greek word used to describe a form of unlimited altruistic love seen supremely in the self-giving love of Christ on the cross (and in rough equivalents in Judaism, Buddhism and other great religious traditions).

    D.A. Carson (Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Edition) would take issue with this assertion that the NT authors used agapa?/agap? to denote some special kind of love.

    First, they argue that translators of the Septuagint and New Testament writers have invested agapa?, to love, and agap?, love, with special meaning to provide an adequate expression by which to talk about the love of God; and only this accounts for the word’s rapid rise to prominence in our literature. But this argument has been overturned by the diachronic study of Robert Joly, who presents convincing evidence that agapa? was coming into prominence throughout Greek literature from the fourth century B.C. on, and was not restricted to biblical literature. This development was fostered by a number of changes in the language (linguists call them structural changes) in which agapa? was becoming one of the standard verbs for “to love” because phile? had acquired the meaning to kiss as part of its semantic range. … Briefly, Joly demonstrates that phile? acquired this new and additional meaning because an older verb for “to kiss,” kyne?, was dropping out; and the reason for this latter disappearance was the homonymic clash with yet another verb, kyn?, which means “to impregnate,” particularly in the aorist, where both kyne?, to kiss, and kyn?, to impregnate, have the same form ekysa. This would encourage various salacious puns and gradually force kyne? into obsolescence. (Robert Joly, Le vocabulaire chrétien de l’amour est-il original? Philein et agapan dans le grec antique (Brussels: Presses Universitaires, 1968). – Carson, D. A. (1996). Exegetical fallacies (2nd ed.). Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books.

    • The “?” that appears in place of some letters is either an e with a macron (eta) or an o with a macron (omega). (WordPress flaw)

  9. Heather Angus says

    While we ponder the human capacity for empathy, agape, and self-sacrifice, let’s also remember our capacity for war, torture, and mass slaughter. The latter three are, like the first three, pretty far beyond the capacity of any animal, even chimps. Yes, ants make war on other ants, and chimps sometimes make a limited kind of killing foray into rivals’ territories. And critters kill other critters for food, as we do. But show me an animal equivalent of WWI or WWII. Or of Ted Bundy or the BTK killer. Or of the Holocaust.

    I believe we evolved, yes, but I can’t help but wonder if somewhere along the line, something went wrong. The old Hebrew writers called it The Fall, modern scientists call it “civilization,” but whatever you call it, our separation and moral/spiritual distinction from the other animals seems a very mixed “blessing.”

    • Robert F says

      No other known animal species can rival us in capacity for or feats of violence and sadism. I suppose that our expertise at and penchant for destruction is itself a marker of our uniqueness, our own red badge of distinction.