Friday, June 20, 2014

On Being Human

What are we—we creatures that rule over the earth?  Our scientific designation is homo sapiens (the sagacious primate); we are the surviving species of the genus "homo" (man) of the primate family.  We are mammals, and hence broadly speaking animals.  In polite company we generally refer to ourselves as human beings.  We tout ourselves as "made in the image of God" (Gen 1:26), a "little less than God" (Ps 8:4-8), and believe that we have, or are, an "eternal soul."  On the other hand, we are capable of unimaginable inhumane atrocities.  Two questions arise in my mind: what exactly, besides our brains, distinguishes us knowledgeable primates from the rest of the animal kingdom?  What distinguishes our better self from the egregious evil aspects of our own nature? Or putting the second question another way: could it be that some homo sapiens are actually less than human?
            One way to begin is by asking: what characterizes the species homo sapiens from other mammals?  Here are a few.  Perhaps to some slight degree some of these have been recognized in other mammals as well; nevertheless, it is only the homo sapiens that is characterized by things such as these:
Discovery and use of fire, invention of language, invention of writing and reading, abstract thought, curiosity, problem solving, inventiveness, invention of the family and the state, respectful disposition of our dead, mathematics, geometry, poetry, music, pursuit of science, space travel, etc.
            The word "human" comes from a Latin adjective: humanus: that is, aspects of or characterizing "man."  The word primarily is used of the finer aspects of our nature: humane, philanthropic, gentle, obliging, polite; of good education, well-informed, refined, civilized.  The word and its use suggest that someone can be homo sapiens and yet less than what we characterize as human.  The trajectory of our species from our "animal origins" to a "rage for knowledge" suggests that there are likely degrees to being human.  Apparently not all members of our species have either the capacity or the inclination to achieve in the areas noted above.
            The accomplishments of homo sapiens have generally benefitted our species.  And that feature (i. e., benefitting the common good) might be considered one standard for distinguishing the human among us from those who should be characterized as "less human."  In other words some homo sapiens are more controlled by the animal aspects of their nature than by their humane aspects.  While all of us are homo sapiens, not all of us are human in the sense of behavior embodying, or aiming to embody, the higher aspects of our nature.  Hence, an ethical distinction exists between the members of the species homo sapiens.  Some are clearly human in that they behave according to the higher aspects of their nature; others are less human because they do not; and still others may be said to be only marginally human because they behave in accord with the animal aspects of their nature.
            If these observations have any merit, they raise questions about how we educate and provide treatment for those in society who live by the laws of the jungle.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Community Christian Church said...

In my opinion, most of our uniqueness lies in our arrogance. I believe that the universe is made of 12 particles of matter and four forces of nature. The stuff that makes up a human is the same remnants of star dust that makes up the computer under my hands and the ficus tree that stands in my living room. I do not believe that I have a soul any more than my ficus tree does. If my ficus tree were able to conceive of a God, it would probably look a lot like a big ficus tree.

We created for ourselves an image of an anthropomorphic God and later were impressed by the fact that God looks a lot like us and we told ourselves that we are made in the image of God…. a sad bit of circular logic.

In a pre-scientific age, personifying aspects of nature was a way of understanding and coping with the universe. Now, that way of thinking and believing seems to be profoundly out of touch with reality. Aspects of religions were always coping mechanisms or, in a meaner sense, a way for the informed to control and manipulate the uninformed or the gullible.

Still, because religion deals with meaning, ethics, purpose, and character, it is useful to us as we strive to live better, more loving, more meaningful lives…. as long as we are not drowned in the magic and superstitious thinking. Most of modern religion, in my opinion, is dying for want of a good dose of reality orientation.

Humans are one of the animals that inhabit the earth. We have strengths and weaknesses. We can accomplish some fabulous things that other animals cannot and we conversely can do more damage than any other. We simply need to be better at being who we are. That is, of course, just my opinion…. I could be wrong.
Roger Ray

Anonymous said...

Charlie, are you saying that some of us may be less than human because of their behavior? That can be a dangerous argument. for eons it has been used to marginalize whole groups of people, not necessarily because of their behavior, and to justify inhumane treatment. I'm sure that's not your intention, but I do take issue with your distinction. Whether driven by nature or nurture, all humans are capable of a wide range of behavior, some of it very destructive, horrific and a danger to society. I don't have a lot of faith in our ability to educate or treat our way out of this dilemma, but we have to continue to try. A more inclusive political system, a more equitable economic system, a more just criminal justice system, and a more accessible system for mental health care are goals we can all work towards, but there will always be a segment of society that is a danger--and they are fully human.


Anonymous said...


The science of human psychology has done much to answer the various questions raised in your essay. The nature of humans is now known to be a wide and varying dimension in all characteristics-including good and evil. Take for examples human intelligence, height, sexuality, & beauty. The range of human capacity in all these characteristics vary dramatically from what is defined by a "mean". A mean human I.Q. is thought to be "100", but I.Q. varies among humans by a wide margin from very low to very high. Interestingly, the vast majority of humans fit near the mean, and few vary far from the mean either high or low. Likewise, human goodness or evilness also varies dramatically, and few vary far from the mean. It can be noted that none are all good nor all evil. We all exhibit some of both. Unfortunately, a few exhibit a strong tendency toward evil-think Hitler, Stalin, and even members of our present society. Extremes of human evil exist among or leaders, club, church, work associates, family, etc.

Why human characteristics vary so much in all aspects from very high to very low is now being studied vigorously by Science, e.g. psychology. It is thought that heredity, physical environment, and socialization/education are significant factors, Al three factors can be altered to some extend to bias human outcomes to exhibit more goodness and less evilness, and you rightly introduce these possibilities in your last sentence, i.e. education and treatment. Gene selection for off springs will be coming very soon.

Science, education, and humanistic philosophies hold the most promise for reducing human evil!


Charles Hedrick said...

Good Sunday Morning, Marcia.
This note replies to the last line of your post: "and they are fully human." My response is: it depends on what you mean by "human." You seem to use the word human as if it were a noun and think of the word as if it designates an entity. But the word human is an adjective describing the quality, behavior of, or aspect of the entity homo sapiens. In short, there is no species "human," but there are homo sapiens that behave humanly. And you are correct that I have argued that not all homo sapiens behave "humanly," that is behave in accord with the finer aspects of their nature--which is behaving in a way that benefits the common good. That such an observation is true seems to me to be obvious. And if it is true, then it follows that there are degrees of being human among the members of our species. You asked me about the origins of evil in a separate email: see my blog on March 13, 2013. You had a comment on that post.

Anonymous said...

I see your distinction, Charlie, but the Oxford dictionary defines the word as both an adjective and a noun, "Human: a human being, especially a person as distinguished from an animal or (in science fiction) an alien," and that was what I meant. I particularly like Jim's response concerning the wide range of behaviors exhibited by people. (I think we agree on that word.) The prospect of gene selection is scary, however; the history of eugenics is pretty dark.


Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Marcia,
Thanks for pushing me on this issue. And I take your point about the sometimes dark history of eugenics. You are correct that the Oxford Dictionary lists "human" as a substantive. The practice of the Oxford Dictionary, however, is to list significations (i.e., meanings) of words in the historical order in which they had arisen in the language. See the front matter under III. Signification. Human as a substantive is last in the historical order of significations. Hence the word human as a substantive in the judgment of the editors is a late use. Is it possible that the shift in signification in the use of the word "human" is ideological?
Basically I am arguing for the word "human" as an ethical description of behavior, and suggesting that educational institutions and treatment facilities, in which people are incarcerated for deviant behavior in human society, should be modified to accommodate the recognition that even some adults, not only children, need to "learn" how to "be human." In short it is not enough just to teach them a trade.

Anonymous said...

Oh that our politicians might read this blog. I would suggest that to be a "human" being one must think creatively along all points that the normal curve allows on a given issue, without getting stuck at a particular point along the way. We remain in trouble as long as parents and training institutions don't formulate their instructional responsibility in this way. On the matter of behavior, most, but not all, can learn to be human.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.