There are many different versions these days of theories which address what it means to be a human being, and in all fairness to the authors of these many versions, since many other species on our planet share certain characteristics with humans, and since we cannot claim that any of our talents and capacities make us superior to any other species in any comprehensive way, attempting to frame our human nature in a species-specific category that clearly defines us in a unique way seems to be the only approach that offers any hope of explaining how it is that we occupy our current position in the global community of living creatures on Earth. Without knowing what it is exactly that gives us our unique character in the pantheon of earthbound species, how can we feel confident about our prospects for the future? Since we are the only earthbound species with grammatical languages, advanced sciences, abundant and diverse cultures which produce all sorts of positive results and disastrous consequences, there must be something about us that sets us apart from the rest.
The only problem with this premise is that it almost doesn’t matter what it is EXACTLY that makes us human, any more than it matters how it is exactly that we were able to evolve into our current version of Homo sapiens. The fact is that we clearly did evolve over millions of years to became the current version of modern humans, that we currently possess an amazing array of talents and capacities, and currently occupy a formidably unique niche on this planet. What’s more important at this point, it seems to me, is not so much figuring out what it is that makes us PHYSICALLY human, but rather, what it is about being a human that gives such a unique meaning to our existence. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only species that is consciously and meaningfully aware of the way it FEELS to be us. The long path of evolution has produced a remarkable capacity within us to not only be awake, alert, and consciously aware of our existence, but also to convert all of the accompanying sensory data, memories, and cognitive capacities in the brain, into a conduit for a keenly personal and subjectively profound awareness that we refer to as human consciousness.
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, I read a quote from philosopher Roger Scruton, which struck at the very heart of this idea:
“There is a widespread habit of declaring emergent realities to be ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them. The human person is ‘nothing but’ the human animal…sexual love is ‘nothing but’ the urge to procreation…the ‘Mona Lisa’ is ‘nothing but’ a spread of pigments on a canvas…it is just as absurd to say that the world is nothing but the order of nature, as physics describes it, as to say that the ‘Mona Lisa’ is nothing but a smear of pigments.”
–From English philosopher Roger Scruton’s “The Soul of the World,” (Princeton, 2014)
In a WSJ review of a new book by David Sloan Wilson entitled, “Does Altruism Exist,” evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, David Barash, points out that:
“We (humans) are unique among animals in our consciousness, of our own selves and of the social groups in which we are immersed. (In support of the idea that altruism is beneficial to human beings) There is no other species that not only punishes selfish ‘defectors’ but is also readily convinced of the desirability of acting, often selflessly, for the benefit of the group.” (He then rightly points to the conclusion…) “When it comes to human beings, purely biological insights, although valuable, don’t tell the whole story.”
A recent discovery in South Africa of “bones of a ‘human-like’ species” caused quite a sensation in paleo-anthropology circles, not so much because it revealed any direct link to a human ancestor, but rather, because the fossils indicated that they likely belonged to “an early offshoot of humankind,” and that the arrangement of bones and bodies raised “questions about the origins of ritual burial and self awareness.” Directing a team of 60 scientists, paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger announced the discovery of “Homo naledi.” The WSJ article written by Robert Lee Hotz reported that “Naledi means ‘star’ in Sesotho, a local South African language.”
We seem to have an intense interest in all things that are “human-like” and if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating discovery, I recommend you look for a copy of the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine which has a fascinating look at what was found and the scientists involved in recovering these artifacts. I’ll be talking more about this and other recent scientific investigations in the coming months.
Throughout human history, many great thinkers, writers, philosophers, and scientists have all contributed various ideas to the collective library of thought on the nature of humanity, as well as what distinguishes us from other species, and many have attempted to define what it means to be human using a variety of approaches. Many of the early philosophers focused on our humanity from the point of view that human beings represented the highest form of life, and because of our singular abilities and specialized talents, they seemed to feel that this warranted conferring upon us an elevated stature above all other species. While there are a number of ways humans seem to have the advantage presently, we have come to understand a little better in the 21st century that whatever advantage any species may have over another, that all forms of life are inextricably linked to all other forms, and that we need to use our advantages to make sure we can maintain our own lives and the habitability of our planet, if our future generations of children and grandchildren are to have a chance to prosper and thrive in the centuries to come.
We are uniquely positioned at this point in human history to witness an expansion of our technological and scientific advances which will contribute in important ways to our survival as a species, and in my view, we have an opportunity at this point to use all of our discoveries and advances to ensure that we continue to preserve and protect our own future, by including as many different ideas and avenues of research as we can. What it is that MAKES us human, in a very important way, is our ability to be fully and subjectively conscious and aware of the way it FEELS to be human.
In my next few postings, I’ll be reporting on many of the recent findings in the efforts to develop a “science of consciousness,” as well as the recent offerings in the new ideas presented in books and films that deal directly with our unique subjective human consciousness.