What Is It to Be a Human?

Wired.com had this article on the World Science Festival in New York City. I think all of us – at some point in our lives – questions who we are, what makes us different, or even why we’re “here”. But have you ever sat and thought to yourself, “what makes me human?”. Here’s my answer. I’m curious to know about yours.

We are unique in our ability of self-recognition. We know ourselves; we recognize ourselves as being unique; and we know that others around us are unique, too. We build upon that and communicate in a way that is different from every other creature. We look at the world in concepts and abstractions, rather than concrete “things”.

That is my answer. What’s yours?

7 thoughts on “What Is It to Be a Human?”

  1. Do we think we are unique and special because we were taught, though? One can argue that you could “raise” a robot as a child, instilling the same things into them.

  2. We don’t know with confidence that some non-human animals here on earth don’t have all of these properties. For example, the “mirror test” is generally used as a test of self-recognition. Many animals (mostly mammals) pass the mirror test, which suggests that they recognize themselves as individuals rather than generic examples of their species (or whatever).

    The transmission of cultural knowledge in some animal species suggests both sophisticated communication, and the employment of abstraction. For example, members of chimpanzee tribes will teach each other how to make particular tools from raw materials in their environment, and this knowledge will be passed on over time and sometimes transmitted to other tribes. Even if the method of instruction is “monkey see monkey do,” this suggests the use of abstract concept: a chimp learns not that a specific stick can be manipulated to create a specific tool, but rather that, in general, a stick of a particular shape can be used to make a particular kind of tool. “Stick” and “tool” are abstract concepts here.

    The success of efforts to teach chimps American Sign Language makes a similar point about language.

    This is not to say that humans aren’t special. We seem to be the smartest animals around. But, more and more, studying animals is reinforcing the idea that (like Darwin said) we exist on a continuum with other animals, and the differences of capability between us and them are more helpfully thought of as differences of degree.

  3. Dave’s point about humans being part of a continuum of other species is well made: it is a big change in perspective to start thinking of humans as not being necessarily special or unique, or even of occupying a special place on a continuum.

    My definition: the ability to imagine the world in a way that is other than it really is. Tool-using chimps do this to a certain extent, the see a stick and imagine themselves using it as a tool, rather than just as a stick.

    But this tendency has much more dramatic effects in humans, with the result that landscapes are reworked and materials substantially altered to our purpose.

    Imagination and abstract thought, combined with the ability to alter our environment, are certainly key parts of the definition – if it is reasonable to speak of a “definition” for humanity.

  4. Without getting into a long diatribe regarding semantics, “stick” is a concrete object. “Hand stick to offspring; teach offspring to use stick; offspring uses stick; offspring teaches his/her offspring to use stick” is a series of concrete actions passed down through the intuition of survival.

    Conceptualizing something in terms of abstractions – emotions, inanimate concepts (God), abstractions (universe) – are things that we, as humans, have been able to vocalize about, write about, and philosophize about for millennia; chimpanzees have not, and they’ve been around as long as we have.

    That, to me, is the different between “concrete” and “concept”.

    Also, the discussion was “That is my answer. What’s yours?”. 😀 We now continue with our regularly-scheduled program.

  5. JB, I know that we’re now arguing about definitions, so I’ll try not to belabor this. But it’s bizarre that you characterize “stick” as a “concrete object.” (Your rhetorical strategy of stripping the articles out of sentences containing “stick” is unconvincing.) The particular stick that I stumbled on in the park today is a concrete object, but “stick” ties together arbitrarily many concrete objects based on certain shared characteristics. It is _abstract_ from any particular instance of a stick, and it is _abstract_ from many particular properties of a stick (for example, a stick of gum and a section of tree branch are both sticks; the concept of “stick” is abstract from the material it’s made of). “Stick” is not a concrete thing, it’s a mental and / or linguistic tool for making generalizations. It’s a concept, it’s abstract; what more can I offer you?

    Your narrowed definition of abstractions — comprising emotions, universe, god, and similar — is puzzling. For one thing, even this narrowed definition doesn’t rule out nonhuman animals. Take emotions: (some) nonhuman animals seem to be aware of their emotional states. For example, chimps can use ASL to describe themselves as happy, sad, or angry. There’s every reason to suspect wild chimps can convey similar ideas with their native modes of communication. More broadly, the concept of an emotion like “happy” is not far from the concept of a kind of thing, like “stick.” “Stick” is a way of generalizing about external experiences. “Happy” is a way of generalizing about internal experiences. The distinction would seem like a thin thread on which to hang a theory of human specialness, even if nonhumans couldn’t conceptualize happiness.

    The examples of “God” and “the universe” are puzzling but interesting. Perhaps there is something special about fictitious abstractions (“God”). Nonhuman animals can deceive (not merely by instinct, but also in some cases by cognitively calculating what other minds will perceive by their actions). But, as best I know, they don’t believe in God. Perhaps this is significant. (Though I myself am not proud of our species’s invention of God.) What about “the universe” (the abstraction for the collection of everything that exists)? Is there some significance to devising larger and larger abstractions? It’s conceivable. But let’s make sure we’re clear what we’re talking about: _not_ that only humans have concepts, but that humans have concepts that are larger, stranger, more complex, or something like that. The first formulation sounds more dramatic but is wrong; using the phrase “abstract concept” that way is simply misleading.

    To tie this into the regularly scheduled program, I think I’m giving a useful non-answer, which is that focusing too hard on what makes humans special threatens to pull us into the (all too easy) error of thinking that we’re more special than we are. The point of my remarks are that JB’s proffered answer falls into exactly that error.

    If one must give an answer, something like TJ’s seems more correct to me.

  6. A human being is someone who can say he is one; and not piss off other humans.

Comments are closed.