Anyone who speaks of man's special position in the realm of the living, must also stress that this problem has behind it a strange history, one that still affects the discussions of our time even though we are not always fully conscious of it. During the long centuries when an image of the world clearly defined by the Biblical tradition was fixed in the Western mind, the special position of man-being something self-evident—was not in need of discussion. Beginning with the 18th century, however, and to an increasing extent in the 19th, manifold influences have led to a special emphasis on the classification of our existence as a part of animal life and of life in general. Since 1859—since Darwin, and as a result of his theory of the origin of species—overwhelming acceptance has been won for the idea that man is nothing but the last product of a long and gradual evolution of natural forms, and that he is therefore of the same kind as the animals.
Originally, this conviction stemmed from scientific research; but in the daily battles of political parties, as well as in the arguments between theologians and politicians, it very soon came to be used as a weapon in the waging of struggles that have nothing to do with the science of life. These cultural and social battles were especially vehement during the years between 1860 and the turn of the century. They injected an emotional factor into all discussions concerning the position of man in the natural order, and thus made objective inquiry very difficult.
I believe that today our detachment from these controversies has become somewhat greater, so that we can now contemplate the harshest arguments in the light of historical perspective. A new reflection on man's special position, in a calmer atmosphere, should be possible in our time. Let us attempt one together.
During these considerations, all of us must keep in mind that the emphasis on human uniqueness makes sense only if we see the specifically human as part of the totality of living things. We must never lose sight of the fact that in their basic structure man, animal, and plant have much in common. There is, to begin with, the nature of the life substance itself, protoplasm; furthermore, in all higher forms of life an important part of their inheritance—that which is passed from one generation to the next—is concentrated in special structures, the chromosomes, which make up the cell nucleus. In line with these common hereditary processes, the propagation and preservation of the species among humans follow the same rules as those which govern animal life and the preservation of species among plants. Nor must we ever forget the correspondence that links our whole structure, in all its tissues and organs, to the large family circle of the higher vertebrates. Yet let us also remember in passing that it was not Darwin or Darwinism that suddenly disclosed our relationship to the anthropoid apes. No—the existence of these anthropoid apes, whose Gestalt is related to ours, has at all times been a perpetual question and a deep problem for every open-minded man; it is a problem now and it will remain one in the future. No one who looks without preconceptions into the eyes of one of these anthropoid apes can fail to be struck by the mystery of our relation to this form of life.
When we emphasize what all living things have in common, however, we must also see this common element in the variety of its divisions. Anyone who speaks of what is common to the vertebrates must keep his eyes open to, say, the particular ways of fishes, or the special characteristics of birds, or the mystery of the whale's form of life; and all the more, therefore, to the enigmatic reality of what is extraordinary in the specifically human.
I do not, to begin with, wish to emphasize man's upright posture, with which one might, perhaps, introduce a survey of what is extraordinary in the specifically human. Let us rather direct our attention to the most comprehensive and significant peculiarity of man: the way in which we experience the world, the special manner in which we discover the reality about us and within us, and the way we come to terms with it. This special way of experiencing the world is all the more astonishing when one considers that our sense organs correspond so conspicuously to those of the vertebrates that on the basis of them alone no fundamental difference or individuality could be discovered.
Thus, that which is unique to man must inhere in the way in which the sense impressions are processed, the way in which our image of the world gradually arises out of the achievements of our senses. It is not, after all, our eyes that see and our ears that hear, as one so easily assumes—it is always Man who sees and hears. It is the whole organism that processes stimuli and determines what is peculiar to our experience of the world and to our behavior in it.
In order to grasp this peculiar element more concretely, we must compare our own lives to the lives of animals. The experience and conduct of higher animals—and only higher animals are relevant in this connection—are characterized by the fact that the sense impressions which are possible to them, as well as the relationships they are capable of having to the things of the environment, are determined and limited by heredity. Hereditary factors determine what can be observed at all, the things to which the animal responds, and how it relates to its surroundings. The extent and rigidity of such hereditary determination are, to be sure, decidedly different among the various groups of animals. In some cases, the hereditarily determined mechanism that governs an animal's relationships defines a very narrow range of possibilities: the environment of such animals is impoverished and monotonous. For a time, the degree of rigidity and hereditary subjection among the higher vertebrates was greatly exaggerated; one was thus misled into a too absolute contrast between the instinctual subjection and constraint of animals and the freedom of human possibilities. Therefore, it is important to understand that we are today liberating ourselves from this rigid conception of animal life, and that we assess very highly the degree of freedom and openness in the animal's view of the world. Contemporary research into animal behavior is closely concerned with this point.
Let us look into this research for a moment and choose as our example the singing of birds, since we will later have to occupy ourselves with the phenomenon of speech. When we rear birds in complete isolation, removed from all stimuli by others of their species, we discover that their singing develops in two very different ways. In one case—I think of the warbler, for instance—the nerve structures that produce its singing mature even in complete isolation, and after the first few weeks of life, the little bird, in a manner typical of its kind, already sings a song it could never have heard, but which was prepared within it by preformed hereditary processes.
In another course of development—of which the chaffinch can serve as an example—there is also a maturing of hereditary dispositions; without this no attribute of a living creature could develop. But in the process of their development these dispositions of a finch remain—in a manner completely unknown to us—open, which is to say accessible to future impressions from without. During an especially impressionable period of its life, the finch learns its characteristic song by imitating what it hears; but if, during this time, the only model is the song of a different kind of bird, then the finch learns this other melody: the bird remains focused on and limited to an alien song. Then, too, we know that there are so-called mocking birds, which are capable of especially many imitations; there are, furthermore, birds that can imitate the sounds of our human speech. All this proves that among such birds certain systems of acoustical expression remain wide open to the incorporation of new forms of communication.
Even with animals, therefore, we must in many cases reckon with a high degree of learning capacity; what is more, we can assess very highly the role that imitation plays in their social life. Nevertheless, in the case of a bird's song, the incorporation of acquired learning—of what is alien to the species—is a very limited one; even the most linguistically gifted bird cannot attain to a free use of words through the imitation of human sounds. The relative openness of an animal to the world is always circumscribed by a very narrow circle of possibilities, a circle that is never broken. By contrast, the openness of humans in experiencing the world cannot possibly be overestimated. We have only to remember that we are able to direct our attention at will to every detail, no matter how small, of the environment; that we are able at our pleasure to turn any single thing about us into an object of lifelong research. Anyone who has once become conscious of this freedom of concern, this open latitude for our direction of interest, will also understand something about the most basic factor of our human uniqueness. It is the same thing as that which philosophers have sometimes designated as “openness to the world.” Each one of us is capable of standing, as it were, outside himself, of observing himself from an external vantage point, so to speak, and thus gaining detachment from himself and judging himself.
We do not have the slightest evidence that anything of this kind is possible for animals. The fact that men can direct their interests at will proves that their central nervous system is regulated with a view to this “openness.” We know from our own experience, to be sure, that the degree of such openness can vary from man to man, that some men soon narrow their horizons and preclude themselves from wide areas of human possibility, while others preserve the greatest creative openness to a ripe old age. Yet notwithstanding such enormous individual differences, even the man with the most paltry human equipment is marked by the most potent of all special characteristics: openness to the world.
A great number of other specifically human characteristics are a function of this distinguishing trait. Thus, the openness of those organs which permit us to relate to the environment is responsible for the fact that in the course of our development there is no formation of hereditarily secured ways of behavior for regulating our social associations. In the case of bees and ants, as in the case of whales and seals, or fishes and birds, the social association of thousands is clearly regulated by means of inherited forms of behavior. But in human life, only the very paltry rudiments of such a hard and fast hereditary structure are present. With us, the regulation of social life occurs through transactions of a spiritual kind, through decisions whose multiplicity constitutes the motley picture of human history and of the different peoples of the earth. For example, there is no hereditary structure that marks one particular kind of union of human beings as the natural one: there is no family according to nature. Every tie that goes beyond the original relation of mother and child during the first period of development, is a question of free decision and of the preservation of a particular form through custom, habit, and tradition. For our understanding of human responsibility, perhaps few things are more significant to realize than that we must by ourselves find the actual forms of our social life. The compulsion that drives us to social life is inherited, as is our complete dependency on others, but we are free to find and preserve the forms we wish to give ourselves.
The sovereign uniqueness of our “openness” also shows itself in our social means of communication, in speech. The hereditary disposition to speak, too, is an open structure. It stimulates the infant to investigate and produce noises of all kinds and, moreover, toward the end of the first year of life compels him to imitate the tones spoken by human beings within his environment. But the hereditary disposition goes no further. To an extent that is always astonishing, it remains open for the rest of life. The kinds of sounds we finally learn and use in our daily lives are determined by the social environment. In a mighty spiritual exertion, the small child—in a labor of several years—takes unto himself the whole body of the group's culture and completely incorporates himself into the group by attaining to speech. This attainment of the resources of language is certainly one of the greatest accomplishments of a normal human life, if not indeed the most impressive. The group's stock of language is in a constant development which underlies the historical processes of change, and which is therefore a very special tool of the uniquely human historicity on which, in turn, the transformation of human forms of social life depends.
We may designate the totality of all those active structures within us that participate in our experiencing of the world, and in the formation of our image of the world, by the comprehensive name of “directive mechanism” (Zuwendungsapparat). I see the uniqueness of man as residing, above all, in the openness to the world of this directive mechanism.
The significance of this openness reaches so far that even a bodily characteristic like our upright posture is not the mere result of an organic process of growth, of the maturing and ripening of bodily structures; even in a characteristic which appears to be so purely physical, the spiritual uniqueness of the human is directly involved. Whereas the typical bodily bearing of every higher mammal develops in the mother's body and is already realized at birth, our upright posture is not a consequence of growth in the uterus; it occurs in the social world. For its stimulation it already presupposes a certain degree of individual development, and it occurs under the continuous influence of a completely developed social world. The imitation of the proper upright posture of adults, the encouragement of this imitation by the environment, the pride about even the smallest success in standing up—all of these attest to the necessity of social collaboration. Medical research provides us with many examples of how this process of learning to walk can be hindered by disturbances in the over-all process of development, but also of the catastrophic effect that the absence of social contact, the isolation of the infant, can have on the mastery of our upright posture.
Anyone who once follows the whole process culminating in our upright posture in the first year of life, will experience in an unforgettable way the uniqueness of the human, in which the spiritual cannot be separated from either the psychic or the bodily—or, as one is wont to say today, the psychic from the somatic. The great extent to which our whole development is attuned to the special characteristics of the human, can be shown by a single detail from the developmental history of upright posture, a detail which is seemingly irrelevant and to which little attention is paid. Long after we have begun to stand and walk upright, the spine must still complete its slow transformation to its final, feathery shape. But this process is not a belated event, attached as a final phase to an antecedent animal-like development; rather, the very first changes in shape which characterize the typically human bent of the spine in the pelvic region can be clearly observed as early as the second month of pregnancy. And in general, biological work in recent decades has shown most emphatically how large a part of our total course of development is from the first moment directed to the final goal: a creature whose way of life is “open to the world.”
This special goal is served above all by the peculiar circumstance of our coming into the world much too early for a mammal with a brain development equivalent to that of man. Our situation at birth in no way corresponds to that of the other higher mammals, all of whom bring highly developed young ones into the world, the so-called nidifugous (nest-fleeing) animals. Compared to these, the newly born human infant is helpless; yet again he cannot simply be compared to a newborn kitten or rabbit: he is not simply nidicolous (nest-dwelling). The special situation of the newborn infant can be meaningfully explained only if we assume that in our case, basically, the embryonic period of life lasts until the end of the first year after birth. Yet man is taken prematurely out of the uterus proper and—as our language puts it so beautifully—“brought into the world,” because his whole form of being requires richer sources of stimulation than the security of the mother's body can offer. The degree to which our whole manner of development until the end of the first year is embryonic, was emphasized by the German pediatrician von Lange as early as 1903, when he pointed out that until that time our rate and way of growth retain all the characteristics of growth in the mother's body. By careful comparison, it can also be made clear that at the end of the first year of life the human being corresponds to a newborn higher mammal—in his movements, bodily proportions, and brain size. It is only at this time that he reaches the state of development already shown at birth by the young elephant, the foal, the whale, the dolphin, the seal, and the rhesus monkey.
The peculiar first year, which we spend as helpless nest-dwellers, but with open eyes and alert senses in the community of the mother and other human beings, is in all its particulars attuned to the demands posed by the special development of our relationship to the world. The beginning of thought, the learning of language, the attainment of upright posture—all these very special human characteristics are stamped on us in that decisive first year which, if we were merely mammals, we would have to spend in the mother's body. We can thus say that the growing human being is born out of the mother's body into a second uterus in which he traverses the second half of his embryonic life: this is the social uterus. Thereby we also characterize the mighty task of society; we see more clearly how much the success or failure of the individual life depends on its proper performance during this decisive early epoch.
We have found the most important aspect of man's special position in the uniqueness of his way of experiencing the world. Anyone who seeks to comprehend this way of experiencing the world will also understand how great is the mystery-even for science—of the origin of man.