Why a New Theory of the Human?

“Introduction”, pp.1-29, in:
Frost, S., 2016. Biocultural creatures: toward a new theory of the human. Duke University Press, Durham.


The critiques that trace the difficulty of differentiating the “truly” human from its nonhuman others suggest that rather than denoting a creature per se, the category of the human designates a constellation of rights, duties, and prerogatives that attach to those who recognise one another as worthy of carrying them.


Pointing to the play and structure of language, to the mutual shaping of reason and the passions, to the embedding of economic norms, social expectations, and cultural conventions in the intimate depths of desire, psyche, and flesh, and to the reverberation of individual and collective actions through social and material space and time, scholars have discredited the notion that humans are self-mastering, that their actions are characterized by deliberation and autonomy, that their intention is realized in and contains the action that is its effect.


Indeed, considering the ways that humans and nonhuman creatures and objects only together exert effects to transform the terms and possibilities of our coexistence, Jane Bennett proposes that we relinquish the idea of individual agents and think instead in terms of “a heterogeneous assemblage” that produces effects through its various and changing interrelations (2010: 23).


For theorists as well as contemporary scientists, then, humans are constituted through a matrix of biological and cultural processes that shape one another over various time scales in such a way that neither one nor the other can be conceived as distinct.


Contemporary scientists are finding increasing evidence to support the claim that culture, symbolic forms of communication, and imaginative anticipation shape the ways that bodies compose and recompose themselves over time (Cole 2009; Kuzawa and Sweet 2009; McEwen 2012; Slavich and Cole 2013).