sabato 19 maggio 2012

Rethinking Human Nature and the Place of (Wo)Man in the world: Anthropology between Philosophy and Science. A Manifesto

by Giacomo Pezzano (

0. Who is (Wo)Man?

0.1. We are knowing more and more about (Wo)Man, but the determination of her/his nature is still problematic: asking «What is (Wo)Man?» is paradoxically possible only in the space left open by (wo)man’s erasure. Whatever human nature is, (wo)man wants to know her/himself, because if (s)he does not know who (s)he is, (s)he can not know where to go: moving from hominitas to humanitas requires a definition of (wo)man’s nature, of her/his «place» in the world, in view of describing ex-istence as a modulation of the «World Openness» and an attempt to find a way of articulate the possibilities, as intrinsically «medial» and «modal» since it is founded on «referral» and «relationship with the outside».

0.2. The guiding principle for distinguishing (wo)man and animal in a non-discriminatory way is the positional relationship with the world, the modality of link with the surroundings: ethology is the study of ways of life and existential conduct, of the way in which a form-of-life selects what is meaningful and specifies its environment – it is a practical science of ways of being. The animal lives en-closed in the Genommenheit of its specific Umwelt, the (wo)man ex-sists since (s)he is dis-closed to the Welt: (s)he lives in the open and engages with the world, (s)he must actively cut out a «niche-sphere» able to guarantee stability without compromising the possibility of the (re)opening to the world.

0.3. We need to define human nature by binding natural and human sciences: this requires two different axes, a philosophical one (A) and a scientific one (B), in order to avoid the opposition between «two cultures» and give birth to a «technical culture». Philosophy without science is empty, science without philosophy is blind: there is no possibility to face socio-political and techno-economical challenges without an unitary and systematic philosophical anthropology.

0.4. Science goes towards the knowledge of human nature, which is being understood as biologically cultural: the stake is to question the point of rupture and transition between nature and over-nature, that is, to show that the possibilities of human freedom are not dissociable from the constraints imposed by human nature. Independence of the Inside (autonomy) and dependence from the Outside (heteronomy) are paradoxically directly proportional. So, my main thesis are: 1. (wo)man is defined by the relation with the outside; 2. her/his nature is intrinsically potential (that is, there is no (wo)man without relation and training, without experience: we learn together how to become human).

1. No others? No (wo)men!

1.A. To understand human nature in a non-anthropocentric way we should understand the paradoxical way in which nature expresses itself through (wo)man, that is, de-naturalizing and s-naturalizing itself in the form of a «subtractive concealing»: its «pres-absence» makes (wo)man the naturally-artificial animal, eccentrically open to the world, exposed to alterity and handed to action – designed for respond to the appeal of the world, projected for relatio/(re)actio. Technicity and exposition are all in one in the existence, they are manifestations of the movement of extimité, through which alterity is the vacuum within the identity that makes it possible. According to this, I claim that (wo)man is an ethical and timing animal, because he is «ecstatic», open from/to the otherness, relationship with the outside and referring to.

1.B. Biologically, hominization is the result of two intertwined movements, a phylogenetic one and an ontogenetic one: the retardation of the evolutionary process (fetalization/heterochrony/paedomorphosis), that makes (wo)man almost a «primate fetus» and a «destructured ape», is linked to the formation of proto-socio-cultural niches, and it is connected to an acceleration of the parthenogenesis (progenesis) that makes (wo)man a «physiological premature birth» and a «secondary home-nester» – that is, a «naked» animal biochemically and physiologically immature and unprotected, in need of care, help, defence and contact to survive. (Wo)Man is an utterly helplessness animal: (s)he needs the given assistance of others, and without it would die shortly after birth. «Uterine gestation» is accompanied by «extra-uterine gestation»: (wo)man experiences to specify his own generic openness to the world, (s)he is the «ultraneotenous animal» that transcends biology by opening her/himself to the culture and history. To exist in a «immediately mediate» way means to have to realize oneself through «relations» and «meaning connections»: «depending on» and being «related to». Ineptitude at birth is a serious and protracted obstacle to the immediate survival and independence, but is it also an unique opportunity to differentiate from the way of being of the other animal species: (wo)man is a paradoxical «in spite of» becoming an «in cause of».

2. Potentially human

2.B. Animal’s closure in its specific Umwelt is governed by the genetic endowment (animal selects the stimuli basing on operations genetically determined), (wo)man’s Weltoffenheit is the «countermelody» of a regressive movement of genetic behaviours, which is paradoxically parallel to a «complexification» and «hyperformalization» of the biological datum that opens up to its own transcending. Talking about instinct, «modules», or complexity of human nature, is talking about something that opens to the relation with the outside and the external scaffolding, viz. an innate potential factor that needs to be specified/determined through interaction with the «outside». (Wo)Man is so complex that no genome can control and direct every single step of her/his development: the action of genes does a lot, but it cannot regulate everything. The plasticity of the synaptic connections (specially in the cerebral cortex), and the naked and exposed skin of the body specialize in the non-specificity. Synthesizing the results of the research of the neurosciences and biology, I suggest that (wo)man has a plastic brain set up to experiencing (B.1) and a generic naked body open to motor learning (B.2): (s)he is programmed for learning, designed for opening. The dualism nurture/culture disappears: history and biology are the two side of a same coin, which is the human nature. Therefore, I argue that a philosophical interpretation of the scientific datum may support the assertion that (wo)man is/has «generic nature», neither degender nor genetic.

2.B.1. The brain is not genetically ruled, there is a neurogenesis which has the form of a «selective pruning»: to learn means to reduce the number of starting possibilities, but keeping always open the potentiality, the «able to»: the generic human nature declines itself but it remains open to any further possible determination. Genome contains the instructions required to drive only a part of the construction of the synaptic connections, but not as many as are necessary to specify all of them: therefore, synapses are continually determined by experience and by chance. Mind is not cut in marble, it’s not something solid and unalterable, but it’s living and changing: genome is a text that requires a comment, (wo)man is not how (s)he is because of the genes stored in the couples of basis, but because of the way in which these dialogue with the environment. The brain has not developed according to a strict design that specifies its destiny, the plastic neurons are planned for adapt themselves to the experiences, the mind is «malleable»: DNA «creates» (wo)man without determining her/him; indeed, the genome encodes its own transcending. This leads to overcome the idea that neuronal links and synaptic circuits are invariant and completely un-modifiable: (wo)man is undoubtedly born with all the neurons, but the synaptic connections are not already fixed, and most of the axons are «naked», without «myelin sheats». Cerebral structures are dynamic (dynamei on: potential) and not static: synapses do not follow pre-fixed rules, they act plastically, they could succeed or succumb, through a «Darwinian fight» – an «epigenetic» process in which new synapses take shape, and some of the old ones are erased or reshaped. To learn, to be open to the world, means to modify the neural architecture, to «sculpt» a mind only generically determined, and there could be no sculpture without relation with the world and the others.

2.B.2. The body has some manifest properties, but is not pre-determined in specific movements (it must even learn how to walk), and it is free-willingly articulated: the articulation of the human body can not be comprehended through any determinate concept, it has to point not to some determinate sphere of movement, but rather to all conceivable movements ad libitum. That is, it has not any determinacy but only an infinite determinability, it’s not formed in any particular way but is only formable: all animals are born complete and finished, human beings are only «intimated», and thus, while every animal «is what it is», human beings must «become what they are to be». Then, formability is the character of human body: the body is the plastic (ec)center of action and articulation of the movements, the mimetic theatre of the signifying inscription of habits and exercises, of the dialectic between difference and repetition. Thus, our body is paradoxical: it is our point of view upon the world, as one of the objects of that world, because (wo)man has not only a setting (Umwelt), but also a world (Welt). The spatiality of the body is not a spaziality of position, but a spatiality of situation: the body shows us that we are in-the-world, that we habit the world. It show us that we move in the world, and movements is not limited to submitting passively to space and time, it actively assumes them, it takes them up in their basic significance: any activity is a certain way of determining the articulated body. We never know in advance what a body can do, because a body is a space of experimentation, of conflict between having and being: it has a variegate and original acquired mobility, it is able to learn the most complicated coordination of movements in an almost infinite variety of modes. The inexhaustibility of the possible combination of movements and the limitless fine motor sensitivity are a biological necessity for (wo)man. The most important and peculiar faculties of human beings can not be located only in the mind: there is also the «great reason» of the «generalist body», capable of several adaptions, of making its own inadequacy productive – starting from the hand, non-specific but polyvalent and open to pluri-specialization. Thus, there is not only an important cerebral and neuronal plasticity, but there is also an equally important bodily and motoric plasticity.

2.A. According to the philosophical category of Gattungswesen, human nature is potential openness to the world that determines itself by temporal modalization – that is, by historical specifications and relational declinations. This «singular-plural» concept binds the unity of human nature to the plurality of its unforeseeable (clinamic) ways of realization: human nature can be described as «intrinsically potential», because (wo)man does not know in advance in which way (s)he has to determine (her)himself. Then, I suggest that existence takes place in an «experimental plane of immanence», because (wo)man does not know ahead of time «what (s)he is capable-of»: this plane is not a mental design, a well defined project, or a fully specified program, that is, it is not an organization that comes from above and refers to a (divine: God; or natural: Gene) transcendence, that drives teleologically the development. The plane of immanence is not «structural», on the contrary, is a «process of composition» that must be apprehended for itself, through that which it gives, in that which it gives: its direction – the direction of existence – is teleoclinal, free and open. Therefore, against the pervasive idea of genetic determinism – that we are our genes –, we should remember that in our lives several scenarios might come true, for we can and do change our genes: under normal circumstances, all of our basic anatomy and physiology, eye colour, height, intelligence and basic personal traits, are ingrained in our DNA sequences, but this is not to say that out genomes dictate our lives. In fact, our talents have many opportunities to nurture themselves and develop in novel ways: these are paradoxical gifts of our genomic endowment, because more than a static information store, our genomes are dynamic, tightly-regulated collections of genes, which switch on and off in many combinations. No behaviour would be possible were it not for our biological constitution, but our capacity to change with circumstance demonstrates that biology is not the complete story: from the start of our lives, we are moving beyond nature, and our transcendence of natural determination is our most striking trait. We do not know what our nature permits us to be: it does not answer the question of what it means to be a human being, or dictate what it is that we should become, but it is our nature that dictate us that we should become. It does not tell us how to be(come), but it tells us something very important: that we have to be(come) what we are, human.

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