Making Humanity

Adam Seybert Professor in Moral and Intellectual Philosophy Gary Hatfield and Bok Family Professor in the Humanities Holly Pittman look at how humans make stuff, and how making stuff made us human.
August 1, 2013

The brain and the mind are not the same thing, and we don’t yet know how the biologic processes of the brain turn into the way we actually experience our lives. “Why is it that when a certain set of membranes in the back of your head becomes more permeable to potassium and sodium ions, you experience yellow?” asks Gary Hatfield, Adam Seybert Professor in Moral and Intellectual Philosophy, who has long studied theories of vision.

Answers will require both scientists and humanists. The new book Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture is the result of a conference at Penn in which psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geneticists, and environmental scientists sought to understand the origins of the human mind and what Hatfield calls its “biological substrate,” the human brain. He organized the session with Bok Family Professor in the Humanities Holly Pittman, an archeologist specializing in iconography and Chair of Penn’s Department of the History of Art; they also edited the book. 

The meeting was one of a series of International Research Conferences sponsored by the Penn Museum, where Pittman was then deputy director. They began by requesting papers on the topic by experts all over the world, then circulated the papers to all writers to read before gathering at Penn. The goal was to “put them in a room alone together for three days so there was intense discussion,” says Pittman. “The point was to generate new knowledge.”

The group’s debate ranged from what differentiates human from nonhuman culture to how the material the human culture produces both represents and affects culture and even human evolution. “If you define culture to mean socially transmitted behavior patterns that differ among groups, then certainly chimps have culture,” says Hatfield. “What is unique about human culture, and how did it develop?”

An interdisciplinary approach to a complex issue is nothing new to either Hatfield or Pittman; both have been involved in Penn’s Visual Studies program from its creation ten years ago. “This [conference] was one model of interdisciplinarity, to bring together people from various disciplines to work on a project,” says Hatfield. “Another way to think of interdisciplinarity is to try to capture in a single person a range of skills that would come from distinct disciplines. And that’s the model in Visual Studies.”

The major looks at vision as a process of both brain and mind. Students engage with vision science and the workings of the brain, as well as the philosophical considerations of vision and the history of how humans have used vision for cultural expression.

“When people who’ve lived in a rainforest and haven’t ever seen long vistas come out and see buffalo that are a long way away, they look like insects,” says Hatfield. “Well, is that because their size perception is different than ours? Or is that because they’ve never seen things really far away before? Because they look small to us as well, right?

“And so that raises interesting questions. Where is the difference? Is it in the interpretation of the experience? Or do they really have a fundamentally different spatial organization than we do? Then we might be able to bring insights to effects that have been achieved by artists by understanding how vision works.”

All visual studies majors must complete a senior project, which has both a written requirement and a visual project, called the “making,” which is displayed at the end of the year. “Human beings are distinguished from any other creature through using stuff in order to not only accomplish what they want to accomplish, but also as an extension of thinking and therefore as a driver,” says Pittman. “The material itself has agency in order to cause people to think differently. In Visual Studies, the students engage in these projects of making, and through these projects their thinking evolves.”

She regards the making as vital: “Having that opportunity as an undergraduate to actually craft an entire project that has to be your own… That is a transformative experience.”

Hatfield adds, “Our idea is that visual studies students will be able to bridge scientific and philosophical thinking with historical cultural thinking with making, and that gives them a multilingual mindset. It builds a different set of skills.”