What does it mean to be human? (The identity crisis according to Felipe Fernández-Armesto)
Marisa Ruiz Tristão
HUMANS AND NON-HUMANS: A DIFFERENCE OF DEGREE
One of the great debates that attempts to trace the search for human identity is the differentiation between human beings and other animals. According to Felipe Fernández-Armesto, for a long time it was thought that humans were the only animals capable of making and using tools or instruments; today we know that many ape tribes use and modify various natural materials to fulfill their purposes. It's true that we don't see such a high degree of complexity in ape tools as we do in human tools, for example in the Homo habilis example. But the ape techniques are suited to their own purposes, which seem to be different from ours. For Armesto, the difference exists, but it is only a difference in terms of degree and not in essence.
«The more people see of primates, the more struck they are by their human resemblances and the more obvious it seems that people are part of the great animal continuum.»
Many argue that only humans are capable of developing what we mean by art. Do other animals also have this capacity? It's interesting to begin by pointing out that not all human beings produce art. A group of people called the «sea people», who live in the Bay of Bengal, were studied by Walter Grainge White, who marvelled at them precisely because they didn't wear any kind of adornment beyond the bare essentials, nor did they produce music or dance. When asked why, they replied that they have already reproduced these kinds of artistic symbols in the past but, as a matter of choice, decided not to do so anymore. Armesto wonders if there isn't something similar that is happening also with the other animal species, who don't do it because they simply don't find a purpose or the need for it. Even on the questioning of what art is, it is very difficult to find a definition that can satisfy all cultures, and we may indeed be failing to realise the artistic power of other species. For Armesto «art is the realisation of something that is imagined», and it is clear that many other species express symbolic imagination, chimpanzees even express their understanding of the idea of human art and do even use objects to adorn themselves. But we must bear in mind that art manifests itself on a subjective level and that each species' way of looking at the world can be very different from our human way. Anthropomorphising species as a way of valuing, equating and understanding them doesn't seem the best way to understand the true essence of all of them, not least because we could be making very wrong judgments.
The use of fire is also described as an uniquely human skill, but primatologist Anne Russon witnessed the case of an orangutan who learnt how to make fire in the forest after being taught in captivity. But we can see that what is most important about the discovery of fire is its social impulse and not so much its technological one. Through the use of fire in bonfires, it was possible to create rituals that established a deep bond between the communities that practised them. But are rituals only human? According to the case observed at the Yerkis Institute, of a supposed «rain dance» by a group of chimpanzees, it seems that they too practise what we humans understand as a ritual. Even if there are unique cultural elements capable of defining the human being, this doesn't necessarily justify taking our species out of the group of other animals and placing it in a special, separate category, since non-humans can also have unique cultural aspects when we look at the definition of culture.
If we define culture as any behaviour that is transmitted by learning, then human beings are not the only ones to have it, as it is shown by the famous monkeys on the island of Koshima, who, starting from the innovative behaviour of one of the females – Imo, such as washing the food or even separating the wheat from sand using water, were followed by several members of their tribe until it became a common habit among all the members. This example shows learning happening in a social context and has been discovered not only in other primates, but also among elephants, rats, whales and birds. But this cultural and social evolution does not seem to have originated in all the individuals of a given culture, but only in one or other individual who reveals these traits of genius and makes the whole group with whom they cohabit evolve. The same can be observed in human communities. Whether or not humanity as a whole tends to evolve is down to the merit of a few. However, in humans we observe a much more changeable social and cultural life than in other animals. The question arises as to why human societies have evolved in such different ways to those of other animals.
Another characteristic that Armesto points out as not being essentially human is the articulated language. Several inconclusive experiments have been carried out to understand whether language is an innate capacity in human beings, or is triggered by a process within evolution itself. Noam Chomsky's  theory understands that the structure of language lies at a deeper level which he called 'D-structures', which today are known as syntax and grammar. He suggested that there was a strong link between the structures of language and our brains. According to Chomsky, these structures are already part of the human mind and do not require an evolutionary process. It's called 'mentalese'. This explains why it is so easy for children to learn a language, because the structures are already in place in their mind. According to Chomsky, this capacity also exists for any kind of knowledge that involves an articulated system, and perhaps this explains how we acquire scientific knowledge, because it is part of our mental constitution. But Chomsky sees this human ability on the same level as other distinctive abilities in many animals, such as the radar of bats or the construction of webs by spiders. These are distinctive capacities of each species that do not translate into superiority of one over the other.
Although this capacity is highly developed in human beings, other species seem to demonstrate it in different ways. He associates the great development of our articulate and discursive language with the need to communicate in large groups, compared to the small groups of other apes, who didn't need to develop this capacity in the same way as us, although they also have communication systems suited to their own purposes. However, in their minds there seems to be an articulated thought that makes them much more capable of sign language, and of reading non-verbal signals by looking; they are even thought to be able to develop telepathy, something that science fiction dreams that will be part of human capabilities in the future. The famous example of the «Hanz Horse» told by Paul Watzlawick, which disappointed with its linguistic ability but impressed with its intellectual abilities, which allowed it to interpret the right signs in our heads and respond accurately in German or answer maths questions by tapping its paw on the ground. There's also the example of the gorilla Koko, who has a considerable vocabulary of around 800 words and can talk about subjects as special to humans as death.
At the moment, we can only imagine, for example, being able to visualise another person's body from the inside. Being able to see the flow of blood and the functioning of organs. But dolphins and whales already have this ability through eco-localisation. They can see inside each other's bodies and realise if something is wrong. Most surprisingly, they can immediately recognise each other's emotional states. These beings are open with each other, in a kind of social sincerity. And we can only imagine what social consequences this biological honesty could have for human communities. According to Paul Watson, our auditory system has poor spatial perception but good time discrimination, which explains why our language is made up of simple sounds arranged in elaborated temporal sequences. Dolphins' auditory system is mainly spatial, with the capacity of receiving a wide variety of information simultaneously and with a little awareness of time. In this way, dolphin language consists of complex sounds perceived as a unit. Unlike humans, who need an articulated set of sounds to communicate with each other, the dolphin translates this set into a single sound. This is why dolphins respond so well to music, which is more in tune with their language.
Jean-Jacques Hublin presents us with the study of a gene, FOXP2, which is one of the characteristics necessary for articulated language. Mutations of this gene, Hublin tells us, have been found in other non-human species, namely gorillas, chimpanzees, dolphins and some species of birds. However, the fact that animals don't have this ability doesn't mean that they can't think abstractly, rationally and articulately, because characteristics such as thought and self-awareness seem to be present in most animals without discursive language, as António Damásio reveals in his theory known as the «Damasio triangle» associated with what he calls nuclear consciousness.
And even when these capacities are uncertain in our eyes, nothing tells us that because we don't recognise them they aren't there in some other way, not least because the experience of being a certain being is a subjective experience, a private experience, inaccessible to an outside subject. So we can never say that any species is inferior or superior because it is different, because it has different ways of life, habits or abilities. We can't be certain about the unknown, but only try to understand it, accept it and learn from it. The linguistic capacity of humans is merely another difference of degree and not uniquely a human capacity, as Armesto argues:
«The best available conclusion in our present state of knowledge is that there are many species with forms of communication specific to themselves, and it is unclear why language – even if it is in some sense a peculiarly human resource – should be treated as a basis for classifying the species that uses it apart from all others.»
WHO ARE WE?
The concept of humanity implies something beyond a simple biological definition of the species Homo sapiens. It aims to bring a deeper meaning, something metaphysical, that can refer to the human nature itself, including the ways of acting and thinking common to all human beings. But at what point did human status emerged among us? Is the concept of human, and everything it implies, present naturally in us or do we find it through action, as a human-doing? Can this human-doing develop only through social behaviour? In ancient China, it was first thought that social tendencies were the main difference between humans and non-humans. But in the Tang dynasty this position changed, when something like the social and warlike organisation of ants and bees was observed and taken into account as an example for human societies. Even in dolphins and whales, can now be observed what can be categorised as much more cohesive societies than our own. If the social aspect is part of human culture, then this aspect cannot be a sufficient condition for a specifically human definition. However, if we think in terms of culture, this is not a condition unique to the human species, but exists in very specific forms in all species, which could be the key to finding out what it means to be human in comparison to other animals.
It is therefore proposed to abandon the concept of human nature for a human being/doing in the sense of a human way of acting, through cultural characterisation. But how do we identify the defining cultural characteristics of a human being? The search for a real and significant human cultural difference has been transformed throughout history into an opposition between valuing what can be called civilised or savage. This gave many members of the human species themselves the status of savages, such as indigenous peoples, pastoral peoples, who differed from the peoples of the great civilisations and cities who were considered civilised. The trend reveals a need for the human species to differentiate itself hierarchically, where there is an inferior and a superior. The very concepts of savage and barbarian refer to a dualism between bad and good, worse and better, wrongly used when associated with the cultural dimension. It seems to me that the problem is essentially of an axiological nature in relation to the separation or differentiation that is made. If we divide a pyramid horizontally, with the human being at the top and the other species or cultures closer to the bottom, we are faced with a vision that does not value differences, but preconceptions of selfish superiority between species or cultures. If, on the other hand, we have a vertically divided pyramid, there is no hierarchisation, and all species or cultures are valued for their differences without selfish hierarchisation, and they all depend on each other. Nowadays, the notions of what human culture means, of what is to be savage or civilised, have taken on completely different meanings. The very notion of the savage, or primitive, is part of human nature and accompanies human evolution just as it has always been present since its biological origin. Being civilised is accompanied by a moral, altruistic and virtuous rationality that condemns the corrupt and the violent. According to Armesto, the endeavour to consider a cultural definition as sufficient for a definition of what it means to be human also fails due to the difficulty of finding universal characteristics that can constitute a human culture with all its cultural diversity, and the non-human cultures that prevent the claim to cultural capacity as uniquely human.
WHERE ARE WE GOING? POSTHUMANISM OR DEHUMANISM?
Can our technological evolution take us away from our animality, our natural contact, experiences and interactions with the world? Can it be translated into a total physical and intellectual transformation? In biological and anthropological terms, how would the human species be evaluated? Could we still call ourselves human animals? The theory of the evolution of species ceases to make sense from the moment that man intervenes in the very structure of evolution in an unnatural way, through science, and modifies the natural world for his own benefit, interrupting, accelerating and modifying those same natural biological mechanisms. For Armesto, scientific evolution has two sides to the understanding of what it means to be human. The positive side is that genetics and biology have given us an objective definition of the human species. The problem is that genetic research shows us that this distinction between humans and other animals is weak and doesn't explain how it was developed. The genetic difference that inscribes us as human and that we exhibit in genetic terms in relation to other primates is almost the same as the one we exhibit in relation to each other, and so it's not that significant. One solution could be to abandon the biological proposal and adopt the proposal of definition through culture. However, this wouldn't make sense, since both dimensions are necessary to constitute what is meant by being human. Armesto suspects that in the future we will lose human characteristics without realising that we will be losing something very valuable, because we don't really know what it means to be human, or what characterises us as human animals, and so we won't realise that we are losing our human quality. Armesto argues that the biotechnological revolution in humans or other species should be stopped, but he lacks good arguments.
Genetic mutation experiments on animals are proving to be frightening and raise questions about the future of rights and ethics if used on humans or animals on a regular basis in the future. Armesto refers to Francis Fukuyama who claims that the human personality is already being modified through pharmaceutical drugs that claim to increase abilities, which doesn't prevent genetics from taking its place later on. What would it be like if we could alter any genes we wanted? We could prevent certain diseases and provide a cure for many others, but many would suffer for the sake of such research and die. The so-called personality genes could be manipulated and there we would have the possibility of modifying the «intelligence gene» or the «criminality gene». Proponents of Eugenics agree with these types of practices, which could mean freedom from human physical weaknesses. But it is a freedom possible at the cost of the involuntary or voluntary sacrifice of many, in which some could benefit at the expense of others. It can also be a form of moral unaccountability, because if everything is a question of genetics, it is genetics that will ultimately be responsible for what we are, for our actions. In this sense, the «nature vs. nurture» debate also becomes relevant and the question of existentialist freedom takes centre stage. If genetic manipulation prevails, our understanding of life will change drastically, as well what can be considered self-realisation or a life project in which we are the protagonists, free from determinism, and in which we reconstruct our being in a unique way, as the philosophers Heidegger or Sartre thought. These will no longer make sense. Materialism will take over and the study of the mind will no longer be significant, because it will all be a question of genetics. Can the human essence be reduced to genetics? On the other hand, we could witness a computerised evolution that could greatly extend our cognitive capacities, or even create new intelligent consciousnesses, but which, according to Armesto, will never be able to obtain the power to assign meaning, to feel about life or to reflect on itself, it will not be able to question its own way of being as a human being-in-the-world.
In short, Felipe Fernández-Armesto tells us that it is difficult to find physical or mental capacities that are uniquely human. Capacities such as language, tool-making, symbolic imagination, self-awareness, brain size and bipedalism are all found among various non-human species. The boundaries that delineate our human nature are vague and all findings indicate that they only translate into a difference of degree. Armesto tries through the historical study of the concept of humanity itself to trace its development and understand what this concept really means, but we realise that human nature itself does not offer the possibility of an absolute and permanent definition. We are the set of various aspects, biological, genetic, cultural, technological, manifested in a certain, concrete way, and in various ways simultaneously. We have to abandon a limiting objective concept that seeks to postulate differences between us and the world. We are an integral part of everything around us, with our own characteristics, just like all the other entities that inhabit the world. We are part of the continuous flow of things, of life and death, and as long as we don't realise this, our supposed evolution could turn into our own extinction. Perhaps our humanity, our idea of ourselves as a species, comes from a feeling of loneliness, which tries to find succour in the search for meaning, that is, ultimately, we are our own work of art, the creation of ourselves that wants to escape into its own reality. As we've seen, the differences between human beings and other animals can only be a question of degree, perspective and purpose. We can then ask the question: how will the other animals see us when they look at us, sense us, detect us?
(Special affection and thanks to the Portuguese Philosopher Carlos João Correia)
^ Felipe Fernández-Armesto (born 1950) is a British historian and the author of several popular works of revisionist history.
^ ARMESTO, Felipe-Fernández (2004). So you think you're human? New York: Oxford University Press, p.62.
^ Avram Noam Chomsky (Philadelphia, 7 December 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher and political activist, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
^ Paul Watzlawick (Villach, 25 July 1921 - Palo Alto, 31 March 2007) was one of the most notable theorists of Communication Theory and has done important work in family therapy and psychotherapy. He is one of the founders of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California.
^ Paul Watson (Toronto, Canada, 2 December 1950) is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and co-founder and director of the Greenpeace foundation.
^ Jean-Jacques Hublin (born 30 November 1953 in Mostaganem, French Algeria) is a French paleontologist. He is currently a professor at the Max Planck Society, Leiden University and the University of Leipzig and founder and director of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He is known for his work on Pleistocene hominids, Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens.
^ António Costa Damásio (Lisbon, 25 February 1944) is a Portuguese neurologist and neuroscientist who works on the study of the brain and human emotions. He is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California.
^ ARMESTO, Felipe-Fernández (2004). So you think you're human? New York: Oxford University Press, p.22.
^ Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama (Chicago, 27 October 1952) is a Japanese-American political philosopher and economist. A key figure and one of the ideologues of the Reagan administration, Fukuyama is an important figure in conservatism.