05 February 2006

What makes a being human?

What makes a being human?

The problem with the theory of evolution is that it lacks
emotional persuasion. In no uncertain words, we are asked to
imagine an ape morphing into a human being. It is not that
the human brain cannot cope with this kind of imagination,
but in this case the jump is too big and too personal.

As a consequence, we tend to feel more comfortable with
simpler ideas such as creationism or intelligent design.
Conceptually, being created by some super being is much
easier to understand than the option of waiting over many
thousands of years for things to happened and to change.
Never mind that the evidence for evolution has always been
there. Children inheriting their parents' traits, some of
which can even be seen in the grandparents. A sickly child
dying before the age of two and so on. There are still many
people who do not buy into evolution, even if some of them
should know better. One of the implications of this position
is that we assume that somehow humans are different from the
rest of life forms on Earth. Our idea of ourselves on Earth
is that we have some privileged status or even VIP status
when compared to other life forms.

Does being different a criteria for being better? And even
more relevant, does being evolutionary successful mean
better than other life forms? Of course, success and better
are relative terms and value judgements. Successful compared
to what, to the dodo or successful compared to bacteria? And
how does evolutionary success mean better? Better at what?
And what makes my value judgements better than yours?

Of course, our achievements as a species are different from
other forms of life. But are our cities better than the
structures of some insects? The sophistication of a termite
nest is no less impressive than a coliseum or a pyramid. And
when it comes to interior environment, termite hill are even
more intelligent than the glass boxes that keep sprouting up
in cities; their air conditioning works perfectly.

Does this mean that from the biological point of view human
beings are no different from other living creatures? As far
as I know, no one has yet reported the discovery of a Life
gene. What I mean by this is that there isn't a "something"
that is added to a system that makes it come alive. If human
beings are to be conceptually different from other
biological life forms, then surely what gives us life must
also be conceptually different from other life forms. Of
course, to date, this conceptual difference has not been
discovered, probably because there is no conceptual
difference between human life form and other biological life
forms to be discovered.

However, there is one important biological difference
between human beings and other creatures and that is the
brain. No doubt, the human brain has given us the successful
edge in evolution. Of course, some will argue that the brain
of some animals is as complex as ours, if not more.
Moreover, identifying the human brain as the one thing that
makes us different from other creatures might be arbitrary
if not fortuitous. This is a valid objection, but as we know
the human brain just does not have any competition.

Other creatures might have advanced brains for what they do,
but not necessarily the most advanced for what can be done.
For example, we do not see other creatures developing their
"technology" nor their survival skills to improve their
living conditions. Probably, termites have not changed the
way they build their cathedral mounds for the past few
millennia. Lions have not developed cattle farming, nor have
gorillas gone into market gardening. The point is not that
these creatures do not need to go into farming, but that a
long time ago humans were competing with these creatures for
the same resources.

For our purposes, just because we can identify the brain as
the organ that gave us the edge over other creatures, it
does not mean that we need to go on and examine the brain
itself. However, we can assume that what passes as human
activity (and not behaviour) is the direct result of the way
the human brain developed. I want to argue that the "human"
element of human beings depends on human activity rather
than behaviour.

Human activity needs to be distinguished from human
behaviour in order to give meaning to our question. This
distinction is a long standing debate in philosophy, but
what we need here is to find that extra ingredient that
makes a human behaviour into a human act. Let's take an
example. Many creatures in the animal kingdom build shelters
and dwellings. However, few, in fact none, go on to build
theatres, cathedrals or even monuments. Fewer still would
employ interior designers or hang chic art on walls. If you
like, an act is the hallmark of being human, understanding
act will help us understand the human element.

Of course, building theatres is just another way of
expressing biological superiority and even, maybe, an
ability to survive. Besides the aesthetic and functional
values of a theatre or a cathedral one can also point out
that such constructions are wasteful in material, labour and
financial resources. But the kind of waste that is offensive
is not the one that seems to be required by the second law
of thermo dynamics, but rather the extravagance beyond
reasonable proportions.

Yes, a concert hall might cost a lot of money and materials,
but such structures also involve value judgements. These
judgements, as you would have guessed, do not only involve
utilitarian values, but also moral judgements. Building a
theatre instead of a hospital or a block of flats is also a
moral judgement. Termites and bees do not need to make moral
judgments when building their nests. What interests us here
is not whether building flats is a better moral judgement,
but that we can act from the basis of a moral judgement.
Building a palace, as evidence of one's wealth and grandeur,
is no less a moral judgement than building a school as
evidence of one's altruism and charity. And although there
is evidence that some animals do have moral type behaviour I
submit that this is not the norm. So, acting on the basis of
a moral judgement is a powerful distinction between humans
and animals.

Do animals have a sense of freedom? Having a sense of
freedom is very important for human beings. We feel we are
free or can be free in many aspects of our lives:
economically, physically, intellectually, emotionally and
morally. As individuals we strive to be free and of course
have a longing for freedom when we're not free. There is no
reason to suppose that animals, or at least some animals, do
not have this sense of freedom. A brief visit to a zoo will
remove any doubt we might have as to whether animals have a
sense of freedom.

Could it be that we derive this freedom from the fact that
we and most biological creatures also live in a society?
Even those who do lead a quasi solitary life, such as the
fox, also need the social structure of a society. For
example, to find a mate and to look after the cubs. Could it
be that this sense of freedom arises from the constraints of
living in a society or is it the case that we suppress our
feelings of freedom in order to enjoy the advantages of
living in a society? Which came first, the sense of freedom
or the suffocation of a society? That we link freedom with
ethical systems suggests that we use freedom, unlike other
creatures, not only for movement but also for self
fulfilment. For us being free to worship or to have
political opinions is as important as being free to roam the

There are many similarities between the social structures of
biological creatures and human beings. Division of labour is
a common feature we find between certain animal societies
and human societies. The advantages that accrue from
division of labour are beyond the reaches of a single
individual to achieve. And even when we do not see any
perceptible division of labour, there are advantages to be
gained from group formation. Herds of animals survive in the
wild by grouping together against predators. Of course,
there is always a price to pay. The first, as I pointed out
earlier, is that the individual has to give up some, if not
all, the sense of freedom. But there is an even more serious
consequence of group structure.

Although the individual has a lot to gain from living in a
group, one thing that seems to be out of the individual's
control is survival within the group. The survival of the
group becomes paramount even at the cost of the individual.
We have all seen the scramble of the migrating wildebeest
trying to cross the Grumeti River. In that mad scramble many
of the wildebeest end up dead through injury, drowning or
most probably as lunch for one of the Nile crocodiles.

When we look at those films we cannot help wondering why the
wildebeest don't find a better spot to cross the river? Or
even, why don't they do the crossing in a more orderly
manner? However, such ideas are irrelevant in this case
since the wildebeest do not have the capacity to think in
the way we think and strategies. For them, crossing the
river at that point is the strategy; that's what they have
always done since eternity and will continue to do so until
we make them extinct. But as far as we are concerned now,
what matters is that this is an example where the survival
of the individual comes second to the survival of the group.
But survival of the group is not an alien concept in human
society. The ultimate proof of this is the institution of
military defence. Soldiers are asked to give up their lives
in order to protect their society.

However, the difference between human societies and animal
groups, is that we find certain human societies that give a
lot of importance to the well being of the individual. Of
course, the ways and means of achieving this individual
protection can be quite rudimentary, if not unfair. The test
here has nothing to do with protecting the young or keeping
intruders away from the group. The test here is the kind of
help we give to those adults who cannot look after
themselves. I am thinking of hospitals, social security,
unemployment benefits, retraining opportunities and of
course charity work. Once again, what matters here is that
we have this idea of helping others when they need help and
not the nature or substance of that help. The reasons why
certain societies have these backup institutions maybe
complex and probably not that relevant here anyway. What is
curious is that not all societies have these backup
institutions to help those in need. In fact, why aren't all
human societies equally developed to help those in need?

Another common factor we find between animal and human
societies is a strong hierarchal structure, with leaders
having to fight their way to the top, sometimes even
literally. And this is the defining parameter between the
two groups. The way leaders are selected in the animal
kingdom is usually through aggression and physical strength.
Sometimes, survival of the fittest does mean that, the one
who is still on their feet gets to walk away. Of course,
this form of choosing leaders is also present in human
societies. Bullies, thugs, dictators and corrupt people can
still be found leading societies today. On the other hand, a
number of societies have developed elaborate systems to
choose leaders which take the sting away from brute force.
Needless to say that these more civilised systems are not
perfect, but at least they make a better effort at being
fair. For example, today leadership contests rely on stacks
of money rather than muscle power. Elections have probably
replaced the frenzy of the cheering crowd when the
prospective leaders are sparking steel. So why can't all
leaders put themselves forward to be elected in a more
civilised manner?

There is this theme that keep recurring between animal life
and human life. Both systems may have the same traits, for
example, leadership selection, yet somehow the human trait
developed, in many cases, from brute force survival to,
let's say, brute intellectual force survival! Once, leaders
were selected by winning a sward fight, but now we use
complex election systems. And these system requires
intellectual prowess to first think about them and then put
them into action. What is of concern to us is a second
recurring theme, but this time it is within the human group

Both animal societies and human societies seem to depart
from a common point, for example the use of physical force
to win a leadership contest. The animal society makes no
changes to its structure, but the human society moves on to
develop maybe fairer and more intellectually valid ways. The
second concern, is that fair and equitable systems are not
found throughout all societies. Somehow, the development of
human society becomes fragmented and development, or
progress, takes a very unstructured pattern. In other words,
there is no coherence in the development of human societies
or rather within human society.

Of course, some of this incongruity is the result of
geographical differences. But then again, even animals, such
as ants, have the ability to adapt to geographical
differences. However, this does not explain the huge
discrepancy in the development and progress between
different human societies. An other argument that can be put
forward is that some societies suppress and exploit others
to the point where they cannot progress. Yes, but few
societies have not been oppressed or suppressed at some
point in their history. Hence, geography and oppression
cannot be the only reasons for the discrepancies between

We need to go back to the distinction between an act and a
behaviour maybe to understand the discrepancies I identifies
above. To begin with, this distinction introduces the ideas
of intention and instinct. It is true that the superiority
of human beings was sold for a long time on the supposed
fact that humans act from intention whilst animals behave
from instinct. Humans, of course, sometimes also behave from
instinct. If we didn't, we'd have no chance of making it to
the end of the week. For example, reacting to on coming
traffic, noticing someone from our peripheral sight,
reacting to very hot food and so on and so forth.

The argument, therefore, is not whether it's instinct or
intention, but when is it intention? When is an act the
result of an intention and not a matter of instinct? This is
a big question not only for philosophy, but also for medical
science, psychology, jurisprudence and even society in
general. Of course, what activates intentions are
information, beliefs, knowledge, experience, value
judgements, desires, wishes and needs. What is interesting
is that in many cases when we act, we do so because it
conforms to some general plan we have for ourselves. There
are few instances when we are forced to think about
survival, these usually involve serious adverse conditions,
or evolutionary progress.

Beliefs, knowledge, information and experience are vital and
important for human beings. We seem to need these
commodities not only to survive, but also to enrich our
lives and experiences. Moreover, we use our knowledge and
capacity to learn from experience to plan for the future.
Sure, other creatures have a concept of planning for the
future, but mainly from season to season and not for a life
time or the group itself. Knowledge and the acquisition of
knowledge is what makes human beings different from other
creatures. Knowledge, for example, helps us with long term

Could it therefore be that the discrepancies we have between
societies is not just due to geography or oppression, but
precisely due to limited access to global knowledge and
experiences. If I am not aware that the wheel has been
invented or have access to the wheel, my mobility will only
improve when I happen to discover this invention for myself,
but that can take a long time if at all. Could it be that
without this universal access to knowledge and information
universal social progress won't happen coherently? We know
that is probably the case, because at this very minute there
are societies who are busy making sure that their members do
not have access to universal knowledge and information.

Although knowledge is clearly what gives us the edge over
other creatures, I would argue that the ability to ask
questions is the key to our distinction from other
creatures. Asking questions is at the core of what makes a
being human. Think about it, when was the last time a lion
asked you for directions to the supermarket?

Take care


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