What is unique about human beings, compared to other animals, is that we lack a biologically inherited nature that dictates how we can live. There is no specific segment of the world defined by our physiological limitations. We can live on the equator or in Iceland, eat human flesh or frozen yogurt, practice polygamy or monasticism.
We’re born with the potential to take on the accumulated traditions of our ancestors and to be shaped into an individual by the peculiarities of our immediate family. What a human becomes depends on whether she’s born in the Australian bush or Beverly Hills, in the twelfth century or the twenty-fifth.
Every infant has this malleability, an impressionable world-open form. We are ready to be molded by the world we find. This has been the source of our ability to develop, progress, and thrive — not merely survive as other animals do. As a species, the direction and extent of our powers are undetermined and potentially unlimited.
This unspecialized nature requires a nonbiological means for adapting to the environment. What we lack genetically is provided by the socially inherited reality we begin to acquire in childhood. We share a humanly created understanding of what the world is and how it operates — a set of ideas, concepts, beliefs, and practices. Our view of the world has been supplied by our predecessors, who have already conceptualized, catalogued, and interpreted what there is to know.
Inherent in the language we speak, reflected in its vocabulary and syntax, is the structure of this world — its patterns and categories. Our words give us readymade handles on the common experiences we all have. Language encompasses those segments of experience that can be communicated, and it is only within its definitions that we can readily organize, analyze, and reason about experience.
By default, then, language also decrees what we ignore. Only those things that are significant enough to be singled out are named. Only those that survive the test of time are preserved. We pass on to our descendants the semantic relics of our linguistic ancestors. A reality that can be socially inherited relieves the individual of the need to figure out the world from scratch.
A symbolic world overcomes the limitations of immediate experience. No longer confined to information available to the senses at the moment, we can think about other times and places, learn from the past, and prepare for the future. We create other realities that go beyond the concrete physical world — art, mathematics, science, philosophy, religion. Language is the tool we use to gain control over the material environment and, in the process, explain to ourselves who we are.
An individual is not limited to the finite, private world of his own experiences, but lives in the world of predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants. Although this greatly enhances our knowledge or point of view, it is also a source of limitations. Common experiences come to predominate. The rare and unusual do not survive. Those things we all agree on, so thoroughly they need never be mentioned, become invisible. The future will be determined by a wisdom of the past that may no longer be appropriate for new and still changing conditions.