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
Missouri State University