1.6 Aspects of humanism to preserve moving forward (Sarah Robinson)
Building on Arthur Whitman's post, the work of Alfred North Whitehead is really helpful in the question of which aspects we wish to preserve moving forward. Whitehead understood humans as implicitly embedded in the continuum of life, a term that envelops nature and culture distinctions. He was not interested in dwelling on the differences between humans and the rest of life, but very matter of factly insisted: “It is a false dichotomy to think of Nature and Man. Mankind is a factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature.” And in fact many argue that what distinguishes humans is the way that we have used culture to radically extend and amplify our capacities. It is helpful to remember that culture is rooted in the word, "to care" and was originally used to refer to the conditions of plants--as in agriculture. In this early sense animals and even plants are cultured. Culture shapes biology and vice versa in a moebius strip of influence that cannot be teased apart. The particular symbiosis that took place in the human story of becoming formed a hybrid cognitive repertoire--books, computers, internet--an off-loaded memory system. We now know that the human brain is unexceptional in its basic design, what makes it distinctive is the cultural scaffolding which led to even greater plasticity. Merlin Donald and Michael Tomasello both argue that what started out as initially very gradual, with the invention of the first symbols, accelerated exponentially with the introduction of written artefacts, and in a ratchet-effect has altered not only how we use our biologically-inherited cognitive resources, but has altered our very biology. There is simply no turning back, nor should there be. Thinking along with Whitehead also helps with the discussion of form. Form is a verb. The container/contained model of static form filled with dead matter is deadening and obsolete, and seriously hampers any kind of richer understanding of life. The interactive shaping and symbiotic coupling with technology, that intensified our plasticity are dynamics that cannot be understood in terms of the old hylomorphic model, which is of course why we are all here to imagine another way.