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What makes us human?

Have you ever wondered what makes you different from any other living species in the world? Dr. James M. Calcagno, director of the Fellowship Office at Loyola University Chicago, may just have the answer you’re looking for. In the article he co-authored, “What Makes Us Human?: Some Answers from Evolutionary Anthropology,” he attempts to answer the most fundamental question in anthropology.

“Despite its appearance as a basic question, it is exceptionally difficult to answer,” says Calcagno. “Yet I, as well as my students, are unsatisfied with being left in the lurch after countless pages of reading, and felt a desire to produce an answer in one page, or even one PowerPoint slide.”

“What Makes Us Human?” was published in Evolutionary Anthropology in October 2012. The article, which is a synthesis of essay responses from scholars in biological anthropology and archaeology, attempts to create discussion around the topic.

“There are two main components, the first dealing with what “made” us human and how we should approach the question; the second with what “makes” us human,” says Calcagno.

After being invited by Anna Vigen, an associate professor of theology at Loyola, and Patti Jung, a professor from the Saint Paul School of Theology, to participate on an interdisciplinary panel on gender and Christian ethics to provide an evolutionary perspective, Calcagno found further motivation to answer his question in the theology department of Loyola. He was delighted that theologians cared to know what an evolutionary anthropologist/biologist thought about human nature.

“Shortly thereafter, John McCarthy, an associate professor of theology at Loyola, organized another session titled “What Makes Us Human?,” again bringing together individuals from diverse fields to discuss the issue,” explains Calcagno. “By then I realized that although I had ideas of my own, I felt as though I was presenting my personal views as an evolutionary anthropologist, not evolutionary anthropology as a whole, and sensed each of us would have our own separate answers that may or may not overlap well.”

After organizing two sessions at two different conferences and assembling scholars from biological anthropology to discuss ideas related to the topic, he organized various individuals from the field to give different angles on the question but to also make sure that all areas were represented.

“I just gave them the question, ‘What makes us human?,’ and I limited their responses to 800 words,” explains Calcagno. “I thought it would work well because I didn’t want to write a book, I wanted to write a short article with a short answer, something people could assign to their classes.”

He hopes his article provides some common ground among most evolutionary anthropologists, but more importantly, when asked by undergraduates, as well as curious people outside of academia, he hopes his article will provide an answer that generates clarity on what makes us human.

“Anthropology represents a celebration, not the fear or rejection, of biological and cultural diversity,” concludes Calcagno. “To improve upon how we interact, I sincerely believe that education is the key, and perhaps the most important aspect of that education is understanding who we are as a species and how we are connected to each other.”

For more information about “What Makes Us Human?,” please contact James Calcagno at jcalcag@luc.edu. You can also view the article by clicking here.

  • By James Mastaler on 3.11.2013 at 3:09 pm

    A great example of the interdisciplinary and collaborative research going on at Loyola–sounds like a very interesting project!

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