Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > How Biologists Lost Sight of the Meaning of Life > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Meaning is ubiquitous

We are nothing but creatures of meaning. We never make a movement that isn’t a meaningful gesture — one that the psychiatrist, physical therapist, student of temperaments, sociologist, stage director, and all the rest of us can read with more or less success. Even an infant, in its own way, finds significance in the most subtle human movements. Any infant who is not raised in a speaking environment fails to develop anything like normal human capacities. And speaking environment refers to the meaning implicit in every significant gesture. Before they themselves can speak, infants take an interest in and learn to read gestures — to the point of distinguishing, in silent videos, between speakers of two languages they have never heard before.

Even the bee dance referred to above is purposeful speech, freighted with meaning for the hive, however unconscious and objectified. The way a deer, motionless, gazes at you from a distance while waiting for a sign of imminent danger or a return to normalcy, is meaningful speech — and its meaning is immediately read by other deer in the group, who also cease feeding and take up the attentive gaze. The newborn offspring of many mammals read, and learn from, every slightest behavioral suggestion of their parents or mentors.

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