15 Dec 2013 · 3 min read
What does it mean to be human?
This must certainly be a foundational question for all of us, when contemplating almost any aspect of our existence.
And while any brief answer to this question must admittedly be no more than a starting point for further discussion, I think it perhaps worthwhile to provide such a beginning.
And so, here they are: the primary traits we share that I think make us uniquely human.
1. Part of Nature
When Darwin first suggested that humans shared a common ancestry with apes and other animals, many people were shocked by the notion. But Darwin’s principles of evolution are now considered to be scientific fact by the vast majority of responsible scientists in biology and related fields. DNA analysis now indicates that the closest relatives to chimpanzees are humans, and close study of apes increasingly indicates they are more like us than we might have once wanted to believe.
2. Hands and Arms
The combination of an upright posture with hands and arms allows us to interact with each other and with the world around us in interesting ways, including the fashioning and use of tools.
3. Use of Symbols
Humans use a variety of symbols to help us understand and manipulate the world around us. These symbols include diagrams, pictures, photographs, graphic icons, words, math and natural language. These symbols often represent items in the physical world around us. Collections of symbols help us to understand ourselves, each other and the material world.
4. Temporal Sense
We understand ourselves to be time travelers. Human individuals, groups and their creations have starting and ending points in time, and we understand our lives as series of interactions that influence our journeys and our destinations.
This sense of time includes an understanding of our own physical mortality – the intertwined facts that we exist and are alive today, but one day we will not be alive and will cease to exist as a functioning organism.
In fact, one of the great contributions of Darwin was to greatly expand our understanding of the length of time that our planet has been in existence, the length of time that life has existed on our planet, and the way that life has evolved over these vast temporal expanses.
5. Cultural Evolution
We humans develop sets of languages, beliefs, knowledge, stories, behaviors and attitudes that we call cultures. We use these cultures to organize ourselves into groups, allowing us to work together to achieve goals that we could not accomplish as isolated individuals. These cultures have the ability to replicate themselves, from one person or group to another, and from one generation to another. These cultures also have the ability to evolve, to allow us to adapt more effectively to our ever-changing environment.
While other species adapt to their environments and ensure their continued survival through genetic evolution, humans have for several millennia largely achieved these same goals through cultural evolution. Compared to the relatively slow pace of genetic evolution, cultural evolution takes place fairly rapidly, and compared to the advantages conferred by genetic evolution, the advantages of cultural evolution have allowed us as a species to reach a state where we have few if any survival threats posed by other species.
Humans tell stories to themselves and each other. Our anthropological records indicate that story-telling, using one medium or another, has been a habit of humanity for as long as we can consider our ancestors to have been human.
The significance of stories is amplified by the consideration that all of the uniquely human traits listed above — items 2 through 5 — come together in the practice of story-telling. Stories tell of human deeds. The various actors and entities that populate any story are a form of symbolism. Stories, by definition, take place over some period of time, and therefore incorporate and represent our sense of the temporal. And among the other forms of information that constitute human culture, stories inevitably make up a significant and deeply cherished component.
So there you have it. A deceptively simple list of six traits. And yet I find that much of my other thinking and speaking and writing on a variety of topics is based on these foundational beliefs, so it seemed worthwhile to get these out in the open.
If we can agree on these, then there’s much more worth discussing.
But if we disagree here, then we’re not likely to make much progress in other areas.