In the last few weeks I’ve started a series on “What it means to be human” in which we were looking at what is unique about us. In part 1, I introduced the topic and provided 3 main categories of answers that people have provided throughout the years. In part 2, I described how in Christianity the concept of “the image of God” is closely intertwined with what it means to be human and how our reading of the Bible has an effect on how we interpret this image. Links to both posts are provided below.
Today, I want to look at the first category that I mentioned in the 1st post and offer up the question of whether any example in this category is a) helpful in the discussion, or b) sufficient for the discussion. That is, do any of the examples help to illuminate what it means to be uniquely human? And if so, do they completely define what it means to be human? We need to make a clear distinction between these 2 possibilities because we don’t want to throw out (a) even if it’s obvious that we need to throw out (b).
This first category says that we have possess some novel or inherent property of “humanness” that animals lack. The #1 example or poster boy, if you will, for this category is rationality or reason. Another example is the ability to be (or not to be, I suppose) moral. Or how about the desire for and appreciation of creativity, in the arts or music, although there are other examples of creativity that “right-brained” (which is crap by the way) nerds like me appreciate. Yet another example is that humans can be spiritual and have the “stuffs” that enable us to interact with God.
There are two examples that are getting the most airplay right now. The first is that humans possess a Theory of Mind (TOM). A Theory of Mind refers to the ability that humans have to understand that other humans have intentions, feelings, desires, beliefs, etc.. Not only can we acknowledge that others have their own intentions et al., but we can often predict with some degree of accuracy what specifically these are in each other.
The second example that is popular currently is that humans can communicate with each others through language. Although I am not a linguist, it appears that the definition of language has gone through an evolution over the last few decades. Here is an excerpt from the wonderful book, Human, The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael Gazzaniga, which I have linked to on Amazon at the end of this post:
“Syntax is the patter or formation of sentences or phrases that governs the way the words in a sentence come together. Human language can string phrases together indefinitely to produce an unlimited number of sentences that are all different and have never been said before.”
I should point out that this evolving definition of language has made determining whether animals possess language quite difficult to pinpoint. It’s like they have been told to make a 10 foot shot in basketball, then people say, no let’s move you back to 20 feet. No, now let’s move you back to 100 feet. I can certainly sympathize with researchers in this area.
So, here are the putative qualities or capacities that humans believe are unique to humans. That sentence phrasing is deliberate as we must remember that we come to the table of human uniqueness with a high level of bias and prejudice. Or at least we start that way… we often don’t come back to the table with the same attitute. But what has science shown us about these capacities? Can we find them in animals?
Yes and no.
Biological research in the form of genetics, neuroscience, psychology, and behavorial studies (to name a few areas) is revealing that animals are absolutely not as “simple” or “unhuman” as we first thought. My use of “unhuman” does not mean to indicate that I think that we are better than other animals. But if these qualities are perceived as being uniquely human ones than are initial assumptions are that animals don’t have them and are then “unhuman”. Not less that human. Just different.
For the sake of time and the length of this post, I am not going to go into the details of what scientists have found for all of the examples that I mentioned above, but for those that are interested the Gazzaniga book previously referenced does just that. I will summarize however on 3 of the qualities. The 3, rationality, theory of mind, and language have all been observed in at least one or more of our animal brethren, with the most interesting results coming not suprisingly from chimps and other great apes. The debate, however, hinges on to what extent other animals possess these qualities. I already mentioned the language confusion. Theory of mind has different levels or orders as exemplified below (taken from Gazzaniga), with the order in parentheses.
“I know (1) that you know (2) that I know (3) that you want me to go to Paris (4) and that I want to… And you know (5) I can’t and I know (6) that you know but you keep coming up with reasons to go.”
Most humans are comfortable out to the 4th and some are able to go all the way to the 6th order. (I can’t and it very much hurts my brain to try). Chimps exhibit 1st and arguably 2nd order, but that’s it. But is that enough to say they are human in this regard? With regards to reason and language, if they can do it a little bit does that mean this quality is no longer uniquely human?
My take on it is that humans, when looking at the category 1 qualities or capacities described here, exhibit a difference from animals in quantity but not quality. So if we’re looking for something that is completely unique, I think this category fails us. Do others agree with me?
On a related note, if you believe that human uniqueness arises from one of these qualities, what do you do with our fellow human beings that lack that particular quality? It has been postulated that children with autism do not possess a fully developed theory of mind. Are you going to tell the parent of that child that their kid is “less” human? I’m sure as shoot not and if someone did it in my presence my inner and never before seen violent streak would surface. What about those humans that have lost the ability to communicate? Are they somehow now less that human as well? And lastly, reasoning and rationality can be deeply affected as we age and suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Do we lose our humanness then?
Alright that’s it for category 1. Categories 2 and 3 will come in the future. But let’s get the discussion started. What do you think? Do these qualities or capacities adequately describe human uniqueness? I remind you that we want to think of these qualities in terms of the (a) and (b) mentioned in the 2nd paragraph of this post. Are any of these examples helpful in the discussion of what it means to be human? Are any of them sufficient descriptions of what it means to be human?