In a world of information and knowledge such as never seen before in the history of humans, we still struggle to answer the question “What does it mean to be human?” Some scientists say it comes down to our DNA. Other people point out that it is the way that we can walk upright and use our fingers and hands. Perhaps our humanity comes from the fact that we have been able to adapt so well to any condition. Others say it is the way we think about what we think; That we are self-aware. Others wonder if our humanity is contained in our way of socializing.
And finally, some have concluded that it is our science and technology that makes us human. Anyone who has seen the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey will remember the scene where the ape, after touching the monolith, picks up a bone and uses it as a club, the first tool. It is our use of science and technology that allows us to change the world.
Many people, when asked this question, will focus on what emerges from the use of our brain. We are conscious, communicate in complex ways, think creatively and abstractly. Is it possible to verify that we are the only species with these characteristics? What about whales and dolphins? There are certainly other species that seem to exhibit some complex thought and communication abilities.
Is our humanity defined by our doing all these things so well together? Whales and dolphins are among many complex species that seem to be well suited to their environment. One might even argue that humans actually exhibit a variety of negative behaviours. We alter our environment in negative ways. Where do you draw the line between what is a negative behaviour or what are negative changes to our environment? A large city may seem like an advanced activity, that is if you don’t take into consideration that cities produce pollution, traffic jams and other negative harmful and dehumanizing byproducts.
Many scholars, scientists and sociologists have thought deeply about what it means to be human. Here are my ideas from observation and experience.
We are aware that we are going to die eventually. Our lives are a struggle to stay alive, prolong our lives, heal ourselves with some even looking for ways to increase longevity. At the same time we do things that decrease our lifespan. In many ways this is a paradox. Take smoking cigarettes, for example. We know they kill, yet many people can’t stop and others will even start smoking, knowing the dangers. Smokers will defend their smoking habit. High risk behaviour might be another good example. There may be definite dangers, yet people will continue to do the activity and defend their choice. Why are we so often drawn to the over use of sugar or salt, or other foods that are deemed to be unhealthy.
Even though we are aware of our impending death, we work hard to delay it; we also work hard at decreasing our lifespan. Yet it is within the human behaviour to do that which is dangerous or unhealthy and defend the right to do it. That might be something that is uniquely human.
We often act in irrational and illogical ways. Just as we act to prolong our lives, we also do that which might shorten our life. This doesn’t make sense—it is irrational and illogical. We could consider numerous other activities that are diametrically opposed to one another. How often do you find people who are exercising because they ate too much?
This sort of irrational and illogical behaviour is not done merely on an individual basis; we as a society have many activities that need to be changed. The big one, of course, being our dependence on petroleum, oil—fossil fuels. Burning these fossil fuels creates pollution. These days the contention is that this, along with other activities, contribute to climate change. We don’t actually know if climate change is primarily caused by the activities of humans, or is part of the natural cycle of planet Earth. Likely, it is a combination of both.
In the automotive industry, there have been strides to develop alternatives to the internal combustion engine that uses oil products. Electric cars could have entered the market long before they did. The oil and gas industry is huge and has considerable weight politically and economically. Humans use political and economic issues to steer society away from healthier activities.
Because we human beings walk upright we are able to use our hands, with the unique opposable thumb, to do things that other animals are not able to do. Humans can do fine manipulation of things with their fingers. Evolutionists would say that humans came from an animal that crawled around on all four limbs, like other animals and somehow evolved into walking upright, thus free the hands for special uses. There may not be any actual proof of this in the fossil record, nor do we see any living examples of animals that might be at the in between stage. Apes simply don’t have the dexterity that a human has.
Like many people of the boomer generation (mid 1940s to mid 1960s), I grew up watching science and science fiction shows on TV. I often heard the term humanoid which referred to human-like beings, perhaps aliens, with human appearance and characteristics. As I recall, these were actual living flesh.
We are living in a world we are increasingly having to share with robots; a sophisticated machine that can perform a human function. I believe they were originally called an automaton. They are not necessarily human-like in appearance or behaviour, however, they can function and move things around in a similar manner to a human. That is called robotics.
We tend to have a view of robots being more human-like in appearance and striving to become human-like function and characteristics. A robot might be simply an arm that can perform a human function as part of an assembly or manufacturing process. Scientists are building robots that are visually similar in size and appearance to a human being. One might think that the goal is to make an android, or human machine. The reason is actually that, if a robot is to function in the spaces that a human being lives in, it make sense to have a robot that is similar in size.
To be human is to wear clothes. We don’t walk around naked, at least, not anymore. We may have originally. Clothing hides out nakedness, allowing us to live in colder climates and to adjust our temperature as required. Humans use clothing and jewelry as fashion. Fashion helps to show others part of one’s identity. This is uniquely human.
Clothing is a technology that we use to enhance our lives and to make a statement about ourselves as to who we are as individuals. Some fashions, a uniform for example, identifies a group we belong to, such as military or police. Clothing helps to make us human.
Humans also have a number of emotional and psychological differences from other beings. One reason we have clothing is because we have sexual urges that would otherwise get in the way, although, someone might argue that it is clothing that makes us less comfortable with the human body and unable to control sexual urges. However, clothing is also used to make certain people more sexually appealing. Once again, we have a paradox or dichotomy. We can see advertising aimed convincing teens and pre-teens to dress in an overly sexual manner beyond their age. This is a way of using the technology of clothing to dehumanize.
Humans will argue and fight for a variety of reason other than for survival. They actually experience what we call love. We may not be able to determine if other animals experience love. At least not as humans do. There are three kinds of love. Love for a friend, love for a family member or mate, and a love for God. Love separates us from other beings.
Love tends to drive societies in many directions. Listen to popular music and you will notice that the majority of lyrics are about love. Love is arguably the strongest emotion that humans experience.
If a person is deemed to have thoughts, emotions or behaviours that are not normal or are inappropriate, even destructive, they may undergo procedures to alter and improve them such that they meet with society norms. Some emotional and psychological changes are temporary. Perhaps the result of a trauma, such as a death in the family. Soldiers return home and often have short-termed or long-termed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may relive traumatic experiences in their head. This too, when untreated, can dehumanize people and those in their families.
This might be another characteristic of humans. They have long-term memory. Memory that they can recall and often relive, often negative experiences.
A few humans may actually kill other humans for other reasons than survival or self-defence. Entire societies will go to war. That leaves somebody in charge of ordering another human to kill somebody they know nothing about and have no quarrel with.
Perhaps, what really makes us most human is that most people have some sort of faith or belief that there is another spiritual side, that there is a God. This seems to exist in all societies. This might be cultural or part of what it means to be human, or both.