New Article: Human Uniqueness: Genesis and Evolution in Dialogue

Today’s new piece is from our very own @Jay313!

What does it mean to be human? For centuries, philosophers have sought an answer. The answer may be found in the synthesis of both Scripture and science, and what they have to say to each other.



Nice job, @Jay313.

Shows we need more English teachers writing about science and faith, because they are pretty good at the writing part. :slight_smile:


Thanks! People actually used to pay me money to write things. Can you imagine? What was it P.T. Barnum said? haha.

Everyone feel free to poke holes or ask questions. Don’t let me off the hook just because you know me (in an internet sort of way).

Better yet, if you’re anywhere near Rochester Oct. 25-26, come see me at the theology symposium God’s Wisdom and the Wonder of Creation: Exploring the Intersection of Scripture, Theology, and the Sciences. I’ll be expanding on the thoughts in this article and applying the results to “the fall” and original sin. Abstracts for all the papers are available at the link above. Mine is, “Language, Empathy, and Morality: Adam’s Evolutionary Journey to Maturity and Guilt.”


Thanks for this thought-provoking offering, Jay!

You wrote:

…we must agree that the information we share is truthful.

While this seems like a necessary and easy postulate (especially within Christian and scientific thought) it does prompt me to wonder how true this really has to be. Deceit and manipulation are pejorative terms today, but they both could be shadow sides of a more positive things: such as (for example) “protection” or “positive exhortation” respectively. E.g. perhaps a high level community leader reassures the public that “everything is okay” when really they are working to contain/prevent some imminent potential harm that might get unleashed on a population. The leader knows that being truthful with the public will do nothing but inspire panic making the entire situation and body count much much worse. So they choose to place a higher value on life than on the integrity of totally candid and forthright communication. Or in the latter sense, we call it “manipulation” or “propaganda” only when we don’t approve of the message. But otherwise it becomes “encouragement” or “exhortation” - such as if I say / do things (such as exaggerating dangers and disproportionately emphasizing negatives) to help you quit smoking or move you or others towards some more positive behavior.

It seems plausible and even probable to me that this kind of “sometimes less than truthful” communication might also have a positive role to play in social relationships.

We know that “declarative” communication is only one form among the other recognized possibilities: “interrogative” , “imperative”, or even “exclamatory”. Granted - those others (especially interrogative) are predicated on the existence of declarative response to be forthcoming. So maybe the whole thing falls apart if a notion of truth is not kept central to the whole communication enterprise. As a Christian I will always keep Truth as a central foundation, of course; but I am prodded to wonder if the dilutions of literal truths in our daily communications must necessarily be considered as unnecessary contaminants to be purified away. What if some of those dilutions proved useful and necessary?

To turn to another thought, and tug on the other end a bit …

But the evolution of language doesn’t seem to fit that pattern, since language relies on cooperation rather than competition.

I think it’s been commonly proposed by now that competition could be raised beyond an individual perspective to a community-wide level. I.e. which community as a whole would be more likely to thrive? The one that has developed a trust and integrity of honest, accurate communication? Or the community that is still mired in individual deceit and manipulation for personal gain at the expense of their own community? Evolutionary thought may well come to agreement with religious thought that the community that has communicative integrity with each other may end up being selected for over communities that do not have that.

I don’t think that necessarily challenges or detracts from your thesis. It’s just an area where I think evolutionary patterns may not have to be so contrary to wider religious and philosophical principles as sometimes thought.

Here lies the crux of the human condition, buried deep within our evolutionary past: Do we move in a Godward direction, or remain rooted in the soil from which we sprang?

I love that! What a fitting conclusion (or question/challenge, rather). You make a compelling case for the centrality of language and its importance to our human identity for the ways in which we have enlisted it. And I think this conclusion is not diminished even if other species are shown to have more rudimentary or partially developed versions of all these same things in their own intra-species communication. Since as you point out, we are all from the dust, and all carry “the breath”. We need not be threatened by our commonalities.

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Jay said we must agree that the information we share is truthful.

According to Grice (a major player in early pragmatics studies), meaningful, comprehensible conversation must follow the “cooperative principle” which entails that the hearer counts on the speaker not saying more or less than what the situation requires, not saying anything he/she believes to be false, not being obscure or ambiguous, and always offering a relevant contribution. Of course there are ways to “flout” these “conversational maxims” (by saying more or less than required or saying something false) to achieve effects like irony or sarcasm, but the hearers have to be aware of what you are doing with reference to the cooperation principle in order to understand. (Though, I think now a lot of people in pragmatics say relevance is really the main thing and all the other maxims can be bundled into relevance.)

So the question is, if people are lying and manipulating with words, is that meaningful, cooperative communication? We know words can be used to do many things besides exchange information. These are called speech acts and there is a whole branch of linguistics called speech act theory.

When you get into rhetoric (public officials distributing encouragement or propaganda), you no longer have a dialogue with people “negotiating meaning” together, you are more in the speech act department where people are using words to perform an action, (promise, threaten, command, entreat, challenge, etc.), so I think that situation is different from what Jay was talking about with the development of language in human society or in children, where language use is always cooperative. Children can’t learn language by listening to one-way communication, or by listening to people who can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

ETA: Here is more on how “cooperation” is used in language/linguistics. It’s a little different maybe than its use in biology.


How true? Try to imagine a situation where you could not trust that anything anyone said was truthful. If everything must be doubted, can communication take place? Even a simple request for directions would have to be verified.

An easy comparison is the trust that exists between pupil and teacher. To learn anything, the student must trust that the teacher is truthful. Imagine a 6-yr-old who doubted everything that the teacher said, such as the fact that the symbol “2” represented this many objects: :jack_o_lantern::jack_o_lantern:. Would it be possible for such a child to learn math, or anything else? Absolutely not.

The same applies to the way we use language. Without a certain level of trust that the speaker is truthful, the entire system breaks down.

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Points taken. Truth is a baseline for all this to be sure. I guess I was thinking of how much we “innocently” mix in things other than truth. When’s the last time you gave an entirely truthful response to the query “how are you”? Our quick response “fine, thank you” is probably more likely to mean … “I don’t have time (and you probably aren’t interested) in all the details of how ‘fine’ and ‘not fine’ I am at the moment, but for the purposes of our quick social passing here and now … let’s just pretend that ‘fine’ will stand in for the actual truth - or as close as needs be for this conversational purpose.” Granted, I think this is written into our understood social contract with each other, and nobody expects to hear your life story in response. But the literal word response as it stands, typically fails to communicate whole truth.

Or try this on for size (you that are married). How would your marriage (or other relationships) hold up if you were totally blunt and candid (no filter whatsoever) when your spouse or friend asks you what you think about them on some personal matter? Can you honestly say that you spoke your whole mind - every thought? Would you want your spouse / boss / close friend, etc. to treat you that way? I’m just suggesting that we do more than merely accommodate or tolerate some taint mixed in with total truth - I think we actually expect and want it to be somewhat diluted. For one thing, I think words and speech may accomplish more than simple information sharing. They also accomplish encouragement / attack; exhortation / propaganda; relationship building / tearing down … perhaps a lot of other good and bad stuff.

But yeah - if there was no truth, any meaningful communication would be impossible, of course. There is the entire real world between those two extremes of pure falsehood and pure truth.

Most linguists would say “how are you” in that context is a speech act and not really a content question with an information gap; it’s a greeting with a conventional returned greeting response. In many of the language communities of Mexico where I work, a standard greeting is something like “where are you going?” or “where are you coming from?” and the conventional response is something non-informative like “nowhere” or “over there.” In a language in Africa where a friend works, the greeting is “Have you eaten well today?” and the response is always “yes.”

That’s where the people who study politeness theory come in. It is part of being cooperative in conversation to protect both the speaker and hearer from “face-threatening acts” in communication. Rules about what threatens face are culturally determined and affected by power differentials in the relationship. This stuff is super fascinating and why everyone should read up on linguistics as a hobby :slight_smile:


Okay - I won’t pretend that I understood very much of what I read there, but you gave me my first occasion to visit “glottopedia” [in my recollection, anyway] and now I definitely feel compelled to work that into casual conversation with somebody this week!

If their examples of FTAs are accurate, (e.g. “Give me that book, please” or “Your report wasn’t concise enough.”) then I’m casually dishing these things out (at home or at school) like a whirling dervish on steroids. I’m almost afraid to see if there is an entry under my name in glottopedia - criminal section. Our forum here is knee deep in FTAs too, probably.

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You’re thinking of the many ways that we use language, but I’m talking about language as a “socially shared symbolic system,” which is how one theorist defines it.

Here’s how Wittgenstein put it: “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?”—It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.

In our “form of life,” a person who gave a completely truthful answer to the standard greeting “How are you?” would be thought insane. They don’t understand or can’t follow the rules of social behavior, of which language is a part.

Absolutely. Human beings communicate not just with words, but through facial expression, body language, tone, posture, gesture, gait, clothing, hair style, jewelry, etc. Everything within our sway comes to “say” something about us, to project our inner self outward to others, so that language becomes a form of “embodied sharing,” as Charles Taylor put it in his book The Language Animal.

Oh, yes. It’s impossible to do much without FTA’s. That’s why we (or at least most of us) learn how to do them politely. Some people around here don’t feel very compelled to mitigate their FTAs and you can see how well people respond to that. :slight_smile:

What a polite way to put it!

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Thank you for a thoroughly well written and thought provoking article. I particularly enjoyed your discussion of ‘intersubjectivity’ - a term I’d not come across before.

Also, on a total aside, if your headshot is anything to go by, I salute your impecable taste in music! :sunglasses:

Lol. Hillary asked for a headshot, which I don’t have. My wife came and took some pics and I never got out of my chair. I had a big wall and no budget, so the old album collection was ransacked for the sake of art. All it does is show my age!

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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