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The bottom of wisdom

One thinker’s quest to understand the man’s origin and his uniqueness...

The bottom of wisdom

What distinguishes man from other creatures? Or to put it in more elaborate way, one may ask, why man was able to master other life forms and even advance so far in containing and conquering the forces of nature?

As one starts contemplating to understand the man’s uniqueness and his superiority to other creatures, one stumbles upon another fundamental question about existence that made the mystery called man more complex and fascinating — how life came into being in the first place?

The very question of human being’s origin and his uniqueness has been quite stimulating in attracting man’s attention and contemplation from ancient to modern time, bringing along a myriad of theological and theoretical explanations.

Theological explanations interpret man’s existence and his superiority to other creatures as a will and action (creation) of God whereas theoretical explanations rooted in the western epistemological tradition construe it as an outcome of some random accident in universe and subsequent evolution.

Kamel S. Abu Jaber, in his article ‘A Posteriori: Getting to the Bottom of Human Development’, however, finds both the creation and evolution theories “too neat and too linear” to explain the complexity personifying the man.

The Jordanian author of this article states even the giant thinkers of recent history like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud fell prey to logical and linear line in their attempt to answer the question of human life.

Following Einstein’s suggestion that things are not as neat as they appear to be according to Newtonian physics, Jaber emphasises that explanation of man’s extraordinariness can be found in contemplation of complex intermingling of order and chaos in life and universe.

Though the theories of creation and evolution may have host of differences on man’s origin and his journey of genetic mutation, they are more or less in agreement to find the secret of man’s uniqueness in his unique body, which if contrasted with that of other life forms, is found to be the most elaborate, intricate, versatile and adaptable.

Identifying man’s awareness of his existence, of time, change and eventual death as his distinct mark, Jaber focuses on the physical features which contributed the most to development of his distinguishing traits — his ability to use tools, solve problems and think abstractly.

Jaber raises two key questions about the man’s mental faculties (brain) and his use of tools (thumb).

Desmond Morris, a zoologist-anthropologist of the 20th century, took ‘animal’ out of Aristotle’s theory that man is a ‘social animal’ and convincingly explained the uniqueness of ‘naked ape’ as his effort to compensate for his naked weakness by developing his mental faculties and use of tools.

Here Jaber raises two key questions about the man’s mental faculties (brain) and his use of tools (thumb). The first question is about the sequential development of man’s thumb and his brain: which physical feature developed first, his brain or his thumb, allowing him to invent and use the most intricate instruments?

The question may be puzzling — similar to “which came first: chicken or egg?”. But, according to the author, it is not simply rhetorical; nor can the awareness peculiar to man be explained rhetorically, he states.

Man as a biological system, like any system, is bound to behave in accordance with its particular circumstances, which tend to change the body and brain while also being changed by them. Jaber underlines the particular circumstances under which man proceeded from homo-erectus (the upright man) to homo-sapiens (literally ‘wise man’ in Latin).

Standing upright and walking on two feet freed the vision of our bipedal ancestor (homo-erectus). Now he could see beyond the confines of his body, look over the savannah, the horizon, the sky and all the wonders unleashed by his freed vision.

This stage (homo-erectus) of evolution perhaps enabled man to start using rudimentary tools. However, before he could evolve to the next stage, homo-habilis (handy man), Jaber assumes, man had to perfect the use of his thumb.

Within these ‘particular circumstances’ characterising man’s evolution from homo-erectus to homo-habilis, he builds his central argument about the development of an anatomical feature, which, apart from brain and thumb, contributed the most in development of man’s mental faculties.

Standing for long periods did not provide man favourable conditions to perform complicated tasks while using his hands. For this purpose, man needed to sit comfortably for long periods which became possible only after the development of his posterior — soft and fatty textured tissues.

Jaber establishes here that development of man’s posterior — the buttocks that “allowed him to sit comfortably for long periods— that expedited and facilitated development of the thumb and made it possible for him to think clearly, contemplate, imagine, and socialise”.

The second question, he raises, is: “Why is that man has a larger brain, can conceptualise thoughts, can imagine, walk upright on two feet, and use his thumbs to conduct intricate operations?”

Like human being, all creatures have brain with an inherent knowledge to survive. Though some creatures have the capacity to add limited knowledge over their life spans but none of them have the infinite capacity of human brain to add, classify, sort, order and retrieve the knowledge.

Jaber suggests understanding the unique design of man’s form in combination of physical and non-physical characteristics.

Man, according to Aristotle, is a ‘social animal’, while in Rousseau’s words, he is ‘born free’. Grappling with the challenge to meet these contradictory ends, man developed social order and attitudes whereby he had to depend on others.

Like other creatures, man always tried to achieve maximum level of gratification, satisfaction and comfort while investing minimum amount of effort and energy.

At this juncture, Jaber puts forth the possible ultimate distinguishing feature between man and other creatures. He finds man’s well-developed posterior — superior to that of other creatures — making a great contribution to development of his ‘brain’ and ‘thumb’.

In terms of its soft smooth texture, man’s posterior has no match in any other species. Though some species like apes, gorilla and chimpanzee seem to have posteriors but they are quite rudimentary in their forms. Unlike man, no creature can sit on a posterior, comfortably, and for long periods, gazing into the distance.

“Sitting down not only allowed man to free his hands and use tools better but enhanced the development of his brain and provided a host of other benefits hitherto not experienced or enjoyed by him — at once freeing his sight from looking down or sideways like most other creatures.

“With his sight thus set free from its original confines, he was free to look behind the horizon to ponder and contemplate, yes, even to meditate.”

Jaber concludes that man, after becoming ‘erectus’ and with rudimentary use of tools as ‘habilis’ was ordained to find a way to relax and therefore develop comfortable posterior.

The article reviewed here is not a research paper. Rather it is written with a common sense approach and published in the discussion part of the journal.

Knowledge of history, particularly man’s prehistory, is most often conjectural. So this article is no exception.

As the author acknowledges the fact that the complexity of a whole cannot be explained through elucidation of its constituent part(s), putting man’s butt at the bottom of his wisdom sounds amusing but it is not a definite answer to his uniqueness.

Since the article intends to generate a discussion, I conclude by posing a question to the readers of this review.

Can a part of the body that is associated with certain amount of shame and not spoken about in any polite society be really a reason for man’s ability to surpass all other creatures?

Azhar Lashari

Azhar Lashari
The writer is a student of anthropology and history

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