A naturalist sense of being human differs in important ways from traditional images in Western culture and religion.
A central part of this is a sense of ourselves as a particular kind of primate. Tracing back further through evolution, we can also see ourselves as sharing wants, needs, and some types of feelings with a wider range of creatures. But, with well-developed brains, we also have something more.
At some point, a line was crossed in the nature of the human mind – to distinctly human types of intelligence and awareness. Due largely to shared genetics and common needs, people around the world act have similar customs and types of behaviors as they interact with one another in social groups.
With a naturalist view, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, mental abilities, and behaviors all originate in the brain. No homunculus, spirit, or intangible “ghost in the machine” animates our bodies. No immortal soul will live on after we die.
Far more than is generally acknowledged, mental activity and actions are unconscious and automatic. And, in contrast to view of free will with decisions guided by rational thought, emotional and intuitive processes drive much of what we want and what we do.
A naturalist view prompts questions that go to the heart of a sense of ourselves.
If all in a human is biochemistry, then who or what am “I”?
If all in our brains occurs with rules of chemistry and physics, was the “choice” I made the only choice that could have been made?
This view has bearing on morals, which can be seen as originating in the need for members of groups to coexist peacefully and cooperate in ways that enables common good. It also has bearing on ways of looking at religion which, as something that has been present in all cultures and times, can be seen as part of human nature.
What does it mean to be human? (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)
Hall of human origins (American Museum of Natural History)
How do humans differ from other animals?
Bonobo apes – Our closest relatives (PBS/NOVA video)
Does evolution explain our behavior?
Wonder – a feeling as inspiration for science, art, and religion
Human universals (traits seen in all cultures)
Human nature and morals (Frans de Waal – “Good Natured”)
Social groups as part of human nature (E.O. Wilson – “The Social Conquest of Earth”)
What are you?
What is life? Is death real?