What makes us human: Sin, status and symbols

Susan Greenfield argues that our ability to use symbols and metaphors as a way of signalling our status is what makes us uniquely human. And no better symbols than the seven deadly sins.

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“Human nature” is often invoked but rarely defined. In itself the term is a paradox: “human” immediately disenfranchises the rest of the animal kingdom, while “nature” suggests a quality completely divorced from “nurture”, from the environment. So what is it that every single human being does, irrespective of historical era or geographical location, that no other animal on the planet does at all?

Clearly we need to rule out the behaviours common to all animals: feeding, reproduction, movement. Human nature is something more cognitively subtle and sophisticated but still exclusively human and not seen in our nearest evolutionary relatives, the chimps.

Some time ago, the archaeologist Steven Mithen suggested that a clue could come from a clear discrepancy between us and them. Chimps are highly sociable animals, living in complex hierarchies with sophisticated interrelationships. They are also highly dextrous creatures and have the ability to use sticks to “fish” for termites. So, Mithen asked, why is it that you never see a chimp wearing a crude necklace, say, or any other symbol of tribal status? Not just Homo sapiens but even our Neanderthal ancestors –apparently –used such artefactual trappings in their lives, from cave art to flowers at burials.

Mithen thought the crucial difference is that humans, unlike chimps, can think metaphorically. Although chimps can solve problems, use objects around them, communicate with each other in sophisticated ways and, above all, learn, they still lack our ability to see a thing in terms of something else. So, could it be this particular ability, seemingly exclusive to our species, that is the clue to the essence of human nature?

Certainly we have the best possible neuronal machinery to make connections. The wonderful thing about being human is that although we are born with pretty much a full complement of brain cells, it is the growth of connections between those cells that accounts for the growth of the brain after birth.

We human beings don’t run particularly fast, nor see particularly well, and we’re not especially strong compared to others in the animal kingdom – but we have the superlative talent of adapting to whatever environment we are placed in. Hence, although different species can “learn” to varying extents, human beings occupy more ecological niches than any other species on the planet.

How can this quantitative difference in our brains translate into the qualitative difference that we call human nature? We often invoke the term as an excuse for bad behaviour: eating too much, say, or showing off. Interestingly enough, such behaviour is summarised well in the seven deadly sins, which have endured over the centuries – and are instantly recognisable, whatever the respective religion – in all human cultures, history and literature.

Why are these sins so universal and considered so bad?

I would like to suggest that it’s because they are exaggerations of normal animal behaviours, but taken out of a normal, biological context and put in an exclusively human tradition so that they come to stand for something else.

The sin of greed, for example, comes from the most essential biological activity of feeding – but taken to an excess as a sign of conspicuous wealth or, perhaps, as compensation for perceived personal inadequacies. The size you are will say something about you, although it will send out different messages in different cultures.

The sin of sloth is excessive sleep but exaggerated out of biological context to symbolise a high status that can afford substantial leisure; or the opposite, an underclass that is feckless and lazy. Meanwhile, the desire for excessive copulation – the sin of lust – could reflect your status in the quantity and quality of lovers you are seen to attract and therefore how wonderful you are.

The sin of anger, which is never seen in other animals, is an exaggeration of the biological behaviour of aggression that could be interpreted as indicative of status being threatened, when someone disagrees with you or doesn’t pay the appropriate deference to you and your views, your importance.

The sin of envy goes beyond the biological territorial imperative and could be seen as the awareness of an obvious disparity in possessions, health, youth or beauty and hence in status. By contrast, the sin of vanity could be an exaggeration of biological grooming behaviours where possessions, health, youth or beauty signify that you have a higher status than others.

Finally, the sin of avarice is the ultimate in metaphorical thinking, in that it is based on money, itself a symbol for symbolising greater power.

What makes us human is not so much a need for status, but the expression of that status through symbols dependent on a cultural context, which is in turn dependent on a personalised, individual brain.

Susan Greenfield is a scientist specialising in the brain. This is the ninth article in our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show

One way of distinguishing yourself... Photograph: Trunk Archive

This article appears in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts