Howell - Ape/Human and Nature/Culture Difference: Navigating Muddier Waters

Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Howell, Nancy
Year 2015

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The modest, yet dramatic, proposal in Howell’s presentation is that primate studies are important for Christian theology, especially in relation to the bifurcation of nature and culture. Diverse modes of language acquisition have been proposed and implemented with chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. One study by Andrew R. Halloran even attempts to catalogue a unique chimpanzee language based on the correspondence of vocalizations and behaviour. Barbara J. King, on the other hand, expands understanding of communication by proposing that the complex of vocalizations, gestures, body movements, and facial expressions is not an exercise in delivering information, but a socioemotional interaction within which meaning emerges in the dynamics of the participants. Kanzi, a bonobo with extraordinary capacity for symbolic communication, acquired language not by rote teaching, but by immersion in a complex Pan‐Homo language culture. Kanzi and his bonobo ‐human family point toward a larger concept of the eco‐family and our evolutionary/ecological kinship with Great Apes. The transformative environment in the bonobo--‐human family group suggests that nature engenders culture. The value of engaging primate studies ranges from awareness of genetic and evolutionary kinship of primates (including humans) and the proposal that bonobos are “living fossils” to the dismantling of the nature--‐culture dualism and revisions of Christian theology. Theological primatology is Christian reflection on the meaning of being human and primate in our creative relationship with God, which requires more sustained engagement of primate studies and the theological nuances resulting from primate challenges to human uniqueness.

NANCY HOWELL is Professor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion and Oubri A. Poppele Chair of Health and Welfare Ministries at Saint Paul School of Theology in the United States. Howell also teaches at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in the Bioethics Department. Specializing in interdisciplinary studies involving science, philosophy, and religion, Howell is an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, and she writes and publishes about the impact of primate studies on Christian thought. She is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion. Howell serves on the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Human Origins Initiative of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. She serves on the advisory committee for the “Science for Seminaries” project of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is a member of the Bonobo Hope Board and has served the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary in diverse roles. She is a member of the Steering Committee of the Science, Technology, and Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion.