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July 26, 2012

An Anthropologist’s View,  Ian Tattersall

from Masters of the Planet: The Search for our Human Origins, by Ian Tattersall 2012, pp 62-63.

In the very broadest of meanings, every organism has a sense of itself versus the other. From the simplest unicellular creature on, all living things have mechanisms that allow them to detect and react to entities and events that are beyond their own boundaries. As a result, every animal may be said to be self-aware at some level, however rudimentary its responsiveness to stimuli from outside might appear. On the other hand, human self-awareness is a highly particular possession of our own species. We human beings experience ourselves in a very specific kind of way – a way that is, as far as we know, unique in the living world. We are each, as it were, able to conceptualize and characterize ourselves as objects distinct from the rest of Nature – and from the rest of our species. We consciously know that we – and others of our kind – have interior lives. The intellectual resource that allows us to posses such knowledge is our symbolic cognitive style. This is a shorthand term for our ability to mentally dissect the world around us into a huge vocabulary of intangible symbols. These we can recombine in our minds, according to rules that allow an unlimited number of visions to be formulated from a finite set of elements. Using this vocabulary and these rules we are able to generate alternative versions or explanations of the world – and of ourselves. It is this unique symbolic ability that underwrites the internalized self-representation expressed in the peculiarly human sense of self.

April 18, 2012

Ian Tattersall, PhD, is a curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he co-curated the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins.

From → Being Human

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