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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Evolved, naked and united: What it is to be human

What defines humanity? Over the holidays I was drawn into a semi-discussion with friends about just how different humans are from other animals.

A book I read some years ago, Desmond Morris’ “Naked Ape”, written in 1967, describes the human from a zoologist’s perspective and has some fascinating angles on much of our evolution. For example, he highlights the title quality – bare skin – as crucial to our survival as it allows for heightened sensitivity and intimacy. In this way it plays a large role in “pair-bonding”. Love between partners, a distinctly (if not exclusively) human trait, is necessary for keeping parents together to more effectively protect and rear their vulnerable child. (He also goes on to note the pattern our body hair follows as indicative of potentially having spent some time as swimmers.) I recommend this book to any human, but specifically his ability to observe behavior in an objective way was interesting and demonstrated some hard-to-take truths. In particular, we are surprisingly instinctive.

As an A level student I studied English Language (not a typical choice to match with Maths and Physics, I know) and we learned for a while about feral children. One story that sticks with me is that of Victor, a young boy who stumbled from French woods in 1797 having apparently spent his whole life with wolves. He was taken in by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a French medic who had an interesting belief regarding humanity. He felt that the two qualities which defined humanity were language and empathy. Unfortunately, Itard never succeeded in teaching him to speak and write French, and in fact, he didn’t behave as though communication was important to him at all. Some say he may have developed autism. In fact evidence suggests that if one is not exposed to language early in life, learning it will be almost impossible, as an adult brain learns language in an entirely different way. However, he did display signs of empathy. He had been taught to set the table each evening for dinner, and after seeing Itard’s housekeeper crying one day (her husband had died), he lifted the plates back up and put them away. Of course, having never grown up with humans to recognise their expression of sadness, this is a very interesting result – it implies that displaying empathy is not consciously being nice but reacting instinctively. Also, empathy doesn’t seem to be an exclusively human instinct after all (this article has some interesting points).

And of course, animals communicate, on some level. Our complex language is simply a very clever and extremely useful tool by which we can live cooperatively. Morris points out that humanity relies on our ability to work together, coexist, care for each other. As an atheist, I like Morris’ observations because I have been condemned by some Christians as apparently having “no reason to be a good person without God” (this has happened to me in person on more than one occasion, and judging by the angry atheist videos plaguing youtube I’d say I’m not alone! This comedy points out the misunderstanding nicely) This is a ridiculous view – we all know that morality (avoiding the unusual grey areas) is instinctive, obvious, natural, sensible. Those who break the law, murder, steal or do cruel things are (mental disorders aside) going against their own conscience, being driven by a bigger motivator, often an instinctive one. In fact, even in the grey areas of morality, people make choices based on the instinct blasting at them the loudest, be it your own survival, protecting your family, obtaining acceptance…of course being such a strange communicative and cooperative species yet still trying to compete for survival makes us behave in strange ways, and some scientists even think our own evolution has probably been stopped in its tracks as a result.

So how do we define humanity? It’s tricky. I personally think that our ability to communicate information through generations, and our unquenchable curiosity, have allowed us to go beyond that of other species and make us truly unique. Of course, all animals examine their surroundings – they learn in order to survive. But we are different – we are pushed, developed, accelerated by the need to keep learning, to understand. Animals have varying degrees of self awareness, but we are aware of our entire existence, our insignificance, the world beyond us. We survive to continue learning. We push the edges of observation and of understanding. And what we learn survives – it is echoed down to each new generation. We are scientists. This is how I like to think of us. Of course, there are millions of things I didn’t touch on here, and many of them are not as nice as this picture.  How do YOU define humanity? Post your comments please.

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3 responses to “Evolved, naked and united: What it is to be human”

  1. jfb2252 says:

    Well done post. I must quibble with the sixth sentence from the end, beginning “And what we learn survives – ” I am afraid that much of the digitally stored material we’ve learned from will not survive.

  2. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    Now that’s a scary thought! :-S

  3. Neil B says:

    I suppose the corresponding Facebook comments don’t make it here automatically, so I’ll repost mine:

    Humans have a power of abstraction that other critters don’t (AFAIWK?) That we can think about things like different kinds of infinite sets through arguments like Cantor’s – never being able to “see” an entire such set – or about modal realism (the idea that there is no distinction between supposedly “real” substantive worlds like this one feels like, v. conceptual logically-possible worlds) is amazing. That is more than just learning about regularities and numbers, and forming a simple physics. Perhaps a bright, budding monkey physicist could have an inkling that things go ever faster as they fall, such that Aristotle was wrong. Parrots can be taught to count, and name properties. But could they wonder about the utterly continuous nature of the number line?