Tingalpa c. 1968

How is it that we end up with the families that we are born into? As children we accept our pod, our family with its differences and similarities and accept this is how the world is. As we head into teenage years and hormones begin stirring our biological instincts begin initiating a break from the familiar.

But is it all just about biology? Are we just programmed with chemical sensors that are triggered at certain stages that causes us to react differently to our environment? Like rocket ships expelling parts of us as we continue life’s journey?

What makes us more than our biology?

For a very long time, there have been two main camps on animal behavior and animal cognition: exclusivists, who focus on the differences between animals and humans, and inclusivists, who concentrate on similarities between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. This long-running debate goes back millennia, with philosophers like Aristotle and Descartes arguing that humans are the only animals capable of higher-order cognition such as rational thought and language, and equally distinguished thinkers such as Voltaire, Charles Darwin, and David Hume arguing that it is self-evident “that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as man.”

Straddling the bridge between evolutionary biology and cognitive science, University of Vienna cognitive biologist W. Tecumseh Fitch demonstrated that studying our more distant animal relatives is vital to understanding human cognition.

“The core message I want to get across to you today is that in a sense, both of these sides are correct,” Fitch emphasized during his keynote speech at the 2017 International Convention of Psychological Science in Vienna. “And from a modern biological point of view, we really need to turn these ideas on their head and recognize a very simple biological fact: It’s a truism, but people are animals, too.”

The basis of humans’ biology contains an immense amount of shared fundamentals: Every living thing from bacteria to daffodils shares our basic genetic code, and our nervous system structure is shared with lower-order animals such as flies and worms as well as closer relatives such as bonobos. But of course every species is unique.

In Fitch’s field of cognitive biology, researchers attempt to make connections between basic evolutionary biology (e.g., Darwin) and the cognitive sciences (e.g., Noam Chomsky and B. F. Skinner). But cognitive biology is not the same field as evolutionary psychology, Fitch clarifies. While evolutionary psychology focuses on the human mind over the relatively short evolutionary period of the last 6 million years, cognitive biology adopts a more expansive approach that goes back much earlier in human evolution.

Humans share many traits with our nearest relatives, the great apes. We share large brains, large body size, long lives, and prolonged childhoods because our common ancestor, which was not a chimp or a gorilla or a human, also had those characteristics. This evolutionary process is called homology: Different species share a set of common traits because they were inherited from a common ancestor. The beauty of homology, Fitch said, is that we can use it to rebuild the past by looking at living species.

If you think deep about where you you will understand that on a biological level we are all nature. It is our cognitions and ability to apply intelligence to problems that has led us in our evolutionary process as humans on this planet. And look at what a fine mess we find ourselves in!

As the Bible says at 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. … Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

All the genius in the world won’t save us without love.