Thursday, November 18, 2010

Linnaeus was a Flatterer

We owe the biological classification of humans to the same man who named just about all other species too, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), a Swedish botanist. We’re classified as Homo sapiens, “wise man.” Linnaeus’ assignment of wisdom as the defining characteristic of the human was, I would note, not his first instinct. His first name for Man was Homo diurnus, “man of the day” or “the man of today.” That works, minimally. Obviously it didn't please Linneaus. It failed to identify any particularly unique characteristic of the human beyond asserting that, to know us, we need but look around. Today. Therefore he went on to make us wise. Now it strikes me that Linnaeus was a flatterer. Clever, yes, but more than just a quip. It goes beyond that. It strikes me that Linnaeus made a mistake; he wasn't precise enough. I'll try to show why.

Almost the first thing that sapience teaches (once it has been, to some degree, achieved) is that humanity, viewed from a distance, anyway, appears to be be mad, asleep, confused, at war, cruel, negligent, unjust, egotistical, short-sighted, careless, and blind. On average and in general, it seems that such traits, which we don't share with any animal species, are muted or mitigated only by the experience of hardship. Hardship produces some useful habits here and there.

A story in today’s paper of an event in China: A drunk young man ran down another young man and a girl. The girl later died of her injuries. When the drunk driver was apprehended, he warned the security guards who’d grabbed him, saying: “My father is Li Gang.” His father was the deputy police chief in a district of his city. This sort of story is the point here. That's what humanity seem to be like when it is left to develop any-which-way.

An illuminating insight into this matter comes to mind. It is Mortimer Adler’s view of human nature. Adler is the famed editor of The Great Books of the Western World. His view appear in various places, including Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Elsewhere, in an interview, Adler argued that:

The denial of human nature rests ultimately on the striking contrast between the dominant behavioral similitude that prevails among the other animal species and the dominant behavioral differentiation that prevails among the subgroups of the human species. Looked at one way, the denial of human nature is correct. The members of the human species do not have a specific or common nature in the same sense that the members of other animal species do. This, by the way, is one of the most remarkable differences between man and other animals, one that tends to corroborate the conclusion that man differs from other animals in kind, not in degree.
The unique core of humanity, Adler asserted, was potentiality. Man appears with a great many potentialities which its members may (and I would emphasize also may not) actually develop. I agree. In my mind the central fact of being human is that we are incomplete and undeveloped—unfinished, potentially something and, failing that, much worse than animals. Linnaeus erred because he designated humanity with a characteristic that, God willing and the crick don’t rise, we might actually develop. But we are, in truth, Homo potentialis at best.

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