Jon Marks lectures on humanity

Each year, the Science Conversation brings one speaker to campus to lecture on texts or ideas included in the program and to engage students in lively and meaningful discussion.

Professor of anthropology at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Jon Marks did just that in a public lecture he gave on Tuesday, March 12. Marks is author of the books “What It Means To Be 98% Chimpanzee,” which explores our perception of science, and “Why I Am Not A Scientist,” which approaches science through an anthropological lens.

His speech, entitled “Human Exceptionalism,” focused on how evolution is biocultural, not biological, thus distinguishing humans from other primates.

Marks focused mainly on biological anthropology. He said that, while humans are biological, they are also cultural, something people cannot forget when diving into the depths of science. Marks sought to answer the question: “Where is the merit behind being 98 percent chimpanzee?”

According to Marks, one of the tragedies of modern science is that evolutionists will say anything at all, often employing rhetorical devices, to score debating points against creationists. In this way, creationists control the scientific agenda.

Darwin’s theory hinges upon “descent with modification.” By pointing out that humans are essentially apes, evolutionists neglect the “modification” part of evolution. Marks compared this to the statement, “your ancestors were peasants; therefore, you are a peasant,” pointing out that human evolution is biocultural.

Marks proceeded to sum up his three main points: that science is highly cultural, that culture is an ultimate cause of humanity and that culture is a proximate cause of humanity.

Marks also examined the dichotomy between nature and culture, explaining that nature is something innate, while culture is something that is learned. For example, language use and walking upright are both characteristics unique to humans.

Human brains are hardwired to learn language and humans differ from their ape ancestors in being able to walk upright. Yet, both of these traits must be taught. In this sense, learning and nature work synergistically.

In another example, Marks cited childbirth and the unique trait of humans to give birth with someone else present. This, he argued, is cooperative breeding that evolved in response to human biological problems, such as difficulty with childbirth.

Marks kept the audience engaged with frequent jokes, references and discussion of relevant questions. He said that he himself found the audience “very engaged” and that audience members had “great questions.”

Marks also commented on the Science Conversation program, calling it “an intimate opportunity to discuss important issues in regards to science.” One of the focuses of the Science Conversation is an interdisciplinary aspect, which Marks viewed as integral, stressing the need to “rethink domains of what scholarship is.”

The Science Conversation lecture not only reflected this year’s academic theme, but a larger idea of interdisciplinary work at St. Olaf. Marks highlighted the contributions the Science Conversation gives to the St. Olaf community.