Hominization as a sickness

Michel Tibon-Cornillot

Translation : Morgan Gardiner-Saletta, 2001

Michel Tibon-Cornillot is a leading figure in anthropo-technological research at the École des Hautes Études des Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, France. This text is an excerpt of a study published in Objet perdu.

It is necessary to search far into our past, back to our shadowy origins in order to understand the possible dissolution of the human body and the enormous effort of forging a new destiny; we are perhaps only trying to master an original destiny even more terrible which with great skill and perseverance we are trying to shed - with no tears and no regrets.
Michel Tibon-Cornillot

Homo sapiens at a crossroads: the ambiguity of modern technology

Is the evolution of technology moving in the direction of a transformation of the body, or rather in the opposite direction- its conservation. Humanity finds itself in a rather strange situation of a widening difference between two time scales, the geological scale of bodily transformation, and that of technical transformation, at the scale of generations 13. The process by which "exuded" and autonomized technologies allow humans to maintain their cultural heritage creates a problem because the gap is widening between a social and technical universe transforming at a dizzying rate and "man of flesh and blood, a veritable living fossil, unchanging on a historical scale, perfectly adapted to the time when he triumphed over the mammoth, but already obsolete at the time his muscles "grew" claws14.

Technology is thus deployed along two different orientations, intricately tied together. It has permitted humans to considerably increase their mastery over their environment, to invade ever-larger numbers of ecological niches and to expulse or conquer the living beings that occupied them. The process of control which developed over so many thousands of years was enabled by another movement by which the human species has systematically projected out of itself, in the form of tools, machines, domesticated animals, etc. instruments which permitted the augmentation of his performances. They were thus able to maintain the geological rhythm of their bodily transformation and maintain a state of readiness and immaturity, which makes the incessant process of learning possible.

The profound purpose of the technological sphere is not the same as that which characterizes the activism of occidental rationality at work in the sciences, that is, the general project of reconstructing both the world and man. However, to the extent that traditional technical processes have entered little by little into the internal logic of modern science which has both transformed and dynamized them, they are part and parcel of the vast movement of control and transformation which animates the techno-scientific mix. Should we thus deduce that techniques have been so profoundly reworked that they have no other destiny than inclusion in the destiny of the sciences: to transform the world and particularly the human body? Or should we consider on the contrary that modern technical objects, manipulations and instruments are still rooted in the dynamic of maintaining bodily integrity and preserving the geological rhythm of evolution which the human species is undergoing? In this case, modern techno-scientific activity, oriented toward a radical transformation of the human species, would be more contradictory than it would seem at first glance, demanding ever greater efforts on the part of its technical half to resist change. What elements do we have to shed light on this matter?

We have constantly reaffirmed the autonomy of technical processes and the deep links which unite them to the human body as well as to other living beings. Do they not liberate human beings from the derivatives of biological specialization which would distance us from the "immaturity" which is the source of our creative potential?

Nonetheless, the analyses of Leroi-Gourhan is not entirely satisfying. When he expounded it, in the fifties, biotechnology had not yet been invented. How could we ignore that technical creativity had played a major role in the perfection of processes by which the human species has, in a matter of decades, gained access to hereditary material and the ability to transform it to his own ends? We are obliged to recognize that our developments lead to contradictory results: different from the sciences in their purpose and their relation to the human body, responsible for preserving the integrity of our species for thousands of years, technology now plays a privileged role in its transformation. Could it be that technologies close relationship to the scientific approach and its Promethean activism caused it to lose its vital connection to the human body at the heart of the hominization which they maintained for so long?

I am going to try to steer a course between myth, hypothesis, and scientific data in an attempt to show that this contradiction at the heart of modern technology does not change their independent status.

Hominization as a Sickness and technology as a treatment

Technology and science play an incontestable role in the delicate position we find ourselves in (the nuclear balancing act), however, our basic diagnostic must not be twisted by the confusion and sophism mentioned earlier: the confusion of technology with science, the mythical existence of a "healthy" individual and collective life, the maniacal anthropocentrism which constantly confuses the destiny of life with that of humanities because we see in our history the progressive emergence of the truth of our own evolution to our stupefied eyes.

The deeper reality of our condition is even less glorious, and to understand it, technology is a good starting point. Modern man is caught between the archaic aggressiveness of a clever omnivorous and warring predator and the extravagance of his modern means of destruction acquired thanks to secular cultural activity. The permanence of our most archaic instincts makes triggering a nuclear conflagration plausible and even, I might add, inevitable. This situation, in which humanities most primitive elements can manifest themselves through its most refined cultural developments, is neither due to a confusion of being and beings nor to an original fault, but simply to a grave sickness of which we have already described several symptoms and which needs to be described in greater detail.

Hominization, bipedal locomotion and cerebral-spinal development

The location of the geographic hearth of the species which participated in the process of hominization is now fairly precisely known to be in Africa between the Rift Valley and the Indian Ocean. It is there that palaeontologists have discovered "skeletal remains and tools of 2,3,4,5,6 and possibly ten million years old.15" It is there, at Hadar, in modern Ethiopia, that an entire skeleton of a Pliocene hominid "Lucy" of the species Australopithecus afarensis was found. In the same region, Tim Whites team has just found significant remains (45 percent) of an adult Australopithecus ramidus, older even than afarensis. "This evolution of hominids is accompanied by all the anatomic, biochemical and cytogenic evidence necessary to show that we are cousins of the panids16". Our distant cousins were largely located in the west of the Rift valley, where forests lay, for which wooded environment they are well adapted with their brachiation and their Quadra pedal locomotion. Modern palaeontology has clearly shown that the distribution of the panids (gorillas and chimps) and that of the hominids (Australopithecus and the first "men") occurs neatly on one side of the Rift valley and the other. This is the demarcation line which changing sea levels and precipitation led to, with the west remaining wooded and the east seeing its wood cover reduced and an opening of its landscape.17"

The systematic study of the geological and climatic evolution of Africa during the period of hominization shows a general movement from humid to less humid: "the wooded savannah became more and more open toward 3 million years ago and changed rather drastically by 2,200,000 years ago to the point of resembling a veritable steppe. All this seems to point to the fact that the landscape played a role, perhaps even a crucial role in the selection of these two hominids to an open and clearly dangerous environment where they were vulnerable, Australopithecus boisei protected by its size, Homo habilis aided by the development of his central nervous systemÉthe conjunction with the "great divide" causing them to adapt to a dryer and less wooded environment.18"

It is this adaptation to a new environment which allows us to understand the key element in human evolution, bipedal locomotion; it is in any case what we observe in Homo habilis, "the epitome of the dominant primate of the arid savannah, omnivorous biped, opportunistic, tool-making and sociable, cunning and prudent, self-aware and talkative."19 Bipedal locomotion came first: the cerebral-spinal development was a consequence, which A. Leroi-Gourhan strove to show in a good part of his book20.

The anatomical reorganization which permitted the development of the nervous system of hominids is centred on the decisive influence of the forces on the vertebrae constituting the spinal column of our ancestors. The vertebrae were compressed and stacked like a pile of saucers; the neural tube was enlarged, which allowed the development of the spinal cord. The back of the skull was also freed and the visual field enlarged due to the new rotary freedom of the skull which found itself "balanced" on the spinal column. Upright posture also freed the hands and creates a dynamic frontal space. It is the freeing of the hands which signal the end of using the mouth to forage or to interact directly with the environment, allowing a greater sensitivity of the lips and tongue. Tongue, lips, and throat, freed from fiber and soil thus were given the qualities which allowed the articulation of language21.

In the description of the processes liberated by bipedal locomotion, none is the direct cause of the other. They need to be understood in terms of a mutually reinforcing group of determining factors which permitted the freeing to the back of the skull and the accompanying development of the telencephalic cortex at the precise time when the physiological possibility of language development appeared. It seems likely that the development of the cerebral-spinal system allowed a qualitative leap: the systematic use of language. Language in turn became involved in technical creativity in what was clearly a crucial time in human evolution. There was an important shift from the dominance of bipedal locomotion in the evolution of hominids which permitted their cerebral-spinal development to the moment when the latter’s extraordinary evolution extended its hegemony over all of human development.

Cerebral-spinal development: representations and the birth of anxiety.

It is not the present purpose to seek a meaning in the emergence of reflective consciousness associated with cerebral-spinal development, but to ask if its breathtakingly rapid development might have had other, non-adaptive side effects with serious consequences for humanity. Its development allowed the birth of a representational world, the appearance of subjectivity, mnemonic capabilities and foresight, in other words, everything that makes up human temporal experience. These capacities are the basis of culture but are also the generators of a fundamental angst which characterizes our species. The study of evolution shows us the adaptive advantages of sexual reproduction and the death of each genetic carrier22. Each individual carrier of the human genotype, representative of one sex, tends to mix with other carriers and, once the reproductive period is over, to die and thus leave the field open for future generations of human genetic carriers. The diversity of carriers permits a rapid weeding out of mutations which are "marginal" and a rapid diffusion of beneficial characteristics: the multiplicity of carriers also guarantees a rapid spatial diffusion which is the best guarantee of protection against exterior environmental events. However, while this process is an integral part of the human species, each individual is cognizant of his own death and feels the disappearance of those close to him or her as an almost intolerable loss.

From over determining to over development

The reason for the enormous difference between the experience of most mammals and that of humans is well known and rests, once again, on the central nervous system, which induces the birth of a representational domain, memory, and other intellectual operations, for which, though we don’t know exactly how, it is the physical support. It is also clear that the appearance of a representational domain and thus existential temporalism renders the classical mammalian experience insufferable for man.

By acquiring the possibility of representing oneself by anticipation of one’s death and that of one’s loved ones, by being able to recall compulsively one's past, we live in a constantly explosive situation, between our mortal destiny and our aspirations and desires, a situation which is a constant source of anxiety and stress.

What has just been said is in part conjecture but also part reflection based on the observations of palaeontologists and shares some common ground with philosophical traditions. The present context sheds new light on Nietzsche’s and Freud’s analysis of human illnesses. Applied to Freud, these hypotheses can be used to interpret psychic development. These observations also give new force to the distinction proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss between traditional "cool" societies and modern "warm" societies: industrialized and rapidly evolving23. If we accept that humanity and its works are to a large degree determined by a search for solutions reducing the source of this angst, we can consider that collective solutions have developed in two directions which correspond precisely to the distinction proposed by Lévi-Strauss.

The first orientation and the answers it provided to such a dark destiny consisted essentially of collective representations and a control of individual subjective experience. Traditional societies seem to be characterized by a two pronged movement: a check on the uncontrolled development of the individuals representational field, a disapproval of subjectivity, and the creation of a constraining representational system regarding life and death; death becoming a test, a necessary passage before entry to paradise or the "great hunting ground in the sky". These collective responses proved highly efficient in their control of the individual and their particularly annoying habit of becoming aware of their real situation.

Modern technology and the transfiguration of the body

The response of traditional societies has disappeared; the few remaining traces such as "tribal revival movements" or "world music" show the radical nature of this loss. For occidental man, enemy of emotional pathos, this type of response has little meaning. Christian societies helped breach the traditional regulations in favour of a faith, which itself has worn thin over the centuries. At the same time, modern societies have given great importance to individual subjectivity, first in its Christian form, then in the secular political subjectivity of citizens and the economic subjectivity of consumers. Occidental, societies, "warm" societies, are characterized by an extra-ordinary reinvigoration of the anxiogenic structures linked to the over development of the nervous system, a situation all the more explosive following the collapse of Christian mythology. In this new situation, there are only two possibilities to reduce this fundamental angst. The first lies in collective suicide and has the advantage of ending the problem once and for all. This solution is unfortunately well on its way to completion and has the disadvantage of killing many other species who are not at all responsible for our problems. Although collective suicide is a real possibility, it has little interest from a point of view of reflection and action because it would end them, and it is ethically inconceivable because it would include a number of imminently respectable species in the disaster.

There remains another solution which is to promote cultural developments, particularly scientific and technological, which, linked to the development of the central nervous system and the representational field it induces, would be capable of modifying the human body and psychology. It is to this end that occidental culture has moved since the end of the Middle Ages. The birth of science and the multiplier effect they had on the explosion of technology is the path by which humanity hopes to find a way around its fate. A good part of science and technology operates in a strategic theatre which is the human body which it wishes to transform to reduce anxiety and end suffering. The massive movement of technology around the human body and in the development of procedures to control living material can be interpreted from this point of view. The inhuman face which science and technology all to often present can be ascribed to this movement towards the death of the traditional human body in order to substitute a remodelled body which no longer carries the insupportable death of the old model.

It is necessary to search far into our past, back to our shadowy origins where hominians have emerged, in order to understand the meaning of this possible dissolution of the human body and the enormous effort of forging a new destiny. By the way, it is inaccurate to claim that men search for forging a destiny; we are perhaps only trying to master an original destiny even more terrible which with great skill and perseverance we are trying to shed - with no tears and no regrets.

  1. 13. André Leroi-Gourhan, Le Geste et la parole, page 50
  2. 14. ibid., page 51
  3. 15. Yves Coppens, Le singe, l’Afrique et l’homme, Paris, Fayard, 1988, page 111
  4. 16. ibid., page 112
  5. 17. ibid., page 114
  6. 18. op. cit., page 113-115
  7. 19. André Leroi-Gourhan, op. cit., tome I, page 32
  8. 20.ibid., page 33
  9. 21. ibid., page 33-34
  10. 22. The interested reader can refer to Jacques Ruffié, Le sexe et la mort, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, coll. « Points », 1986
  11. 23. This theme is present in much of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss ; a good summary is found in Race et histoire, Paris, Gonthier, 1961