Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Essentialism, Psychology, and Homo Sapiens

For today, I’d like to feature a couple articles from Edge Magazine that talk about essentialism: the idea that something’s existence is preceded by some “essence” that defines it. First, an article by Richard Dawkins, our lovable (hateable?) neighborhood biologist and secularist:

Essentialism (“the tyranny of the discontinuous mind”)

More about the categories by which doctors, government officials, and censorians alike ask us to describe our race—some recent work by Danielle Young, Diana Sanchez, and Leigh Wilton suggests that adopting this kind of monoracial classification reinforces the idea that race is essential, a belief that has negative consequences for stereotyping and group dynamics. One interesting example is from data presented by Tonia Kang at last week’s Conference for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, which suggested that biracial targets face especially negative evaluations from those who believe in the low genetic overlap between people of different racial backgrounds. (Genetically, we’re all quite similar: we share ~99% of our genetic makeup with other humans. But, many people don’t think this is true.)

(I had one friend in junior high who was, like me, half Filipino and half Caucasian. We colorfully referred to ourselves as the “Half Vanilla Thrilla Killas from Manila.” Even then, we clearly knew that racial essentialism was no good.)

And, here’s the second article, written by my graduate advisor, Kurt Gray. This article more specifically addresses essentialism in psychology and the insistence to taxonomize the species of the mental world (e.g., 27 discrete mental illnesses; 5 moral domains; 7 basic emotions).

Numbering Nature

What’s important to keep in mind through all this is that labels *are* good for communication; without them, how would you tell someone that you saw a lion, decide that you feel guilty, or split an apple in two equal halves and share it with someone you love? (It probably wasn’t quite 50/50, but hey, it’s the thought that counts!) Even when we say that we are Homo sapiens, we refer not to a discrete category of being, but rather humankind’s broad (and shifting) occupation of a small area on a continuous spectrum of evolving life. Essentialism and evolution don’t mix—like Dawkins mentions in his article, “there never was an Australopithecus mother who gave birth to a Homo child”.

Though, when you try, you do get some odd results:


We Are Homo Sapiens

But when did we become? I feel that I am,
as were the Romans, and the Nazis too
(precisely no more and no less than any Jew).
But is it true? Is the man that is as Adam,
or Moses, or Cain? Surely, some of the same remains,
but we grow, and become even wiser still—
ever-more sapient, if you will—
and begin to believe the soul is in the brain.
Perhaps our humanness exceeds the old nations,
who far surpassed Australopithecus.
Were they essentially un-human, or just compared to us?

(Believing both are true begets a weird consideration:
if some of us become a Being not Homo sapiens,
will those who live in Paris still all be Parisians?)


Take care,