Humans are Homo sapiens. We experience emotions such as love and hate. We are capable of understanding that we exist as individual beings separate from other humans. These are all some fairly accurate observations of what humans are. They are also of course incorrect. Thousands of years ago Homo Sapiens shared the Earth with the Neanderthals. The Neanderthals were human. In fact Neanderthal DNA is present in the human genome today. But when we think about humanity we exclude them because when we don't the picture becomes a little less clear and hard to fully understand. The observation that humans can be defined by the presence of emotions is likewise untrue. While almost all humans experience emotion on some level their is a spectrum and even those who experience normal emotions are in some cases capable of completely shutting them off in order to commit acts which would otherwise be unthinkable. The final observation is true of almost all adult humans without severe mental impairments but interestingly enough it is not true of infants who as far as researchers can tell believe themselves to be the only thinking beings in the world.
I am writing this in response to a video contest from the Big History Project. The contest aims to encourage discussion and contemplation of the question of what it means to be human. I'll go ahead answer that now. A human is an organism scientifically categorized as such. This of course is done by humans and is somewhat meaningless on a universal scale where we can all be looked as nonliving particles acting to consume energy which have organized into an arbitrary and random pattern. I don't think the question that most people are asking when they say "What does it mean to be human?" is actually about humanity itself. It is more so about any being that has equal to or great than human intelligence and can understand the world and engage with the world in a way that the non-human animals we see on Earth simply do not. The question is more about personhood. This is not the abstract concept of personhood which Republicans like to apply to anything which could someday be a person. This question can be broken down into three parts. 1. What is personhood? 2. What are the identifying markers of a person? 3. How are people fundamentally different from anything else be it living or nonliving in their environments?
- Personhood is defined as the quality or condition of being an individual person.
At first glance you might think that this doesn't tell you much but the wording does say a lot about
how we as a society tend to think about personhood. A person is an individual. An individual is a person. The two words are easily interchangable. The smart wasp or ant is never truly person because they act as a hive mind and can not be separated as singular and functional individuals. So a person is something with a brain capable of understanding its own existence and percieving some aspect of reality beyond the perception of lower creatures. They can think as individuals and as as questions such as "Why am I me rather than them?" For argument's sake let's say the young and the psychologically abnormal who belong to groups that could on the whole be categorized as people are people.
2. As stated people look at the world in a way different than other creatures capable of thought and think about themselves on a deeper level as well. Because these are all arbitrary rules made up by humans it's fair to say that this intellect is beyond that of the primates that share the earth with us today.
3. It might be that for some people what I've already spelled out makes people seem pretty different from everything else that is I'm not sure I buy it. Dogs aren't people but they can love. Corpses are shaped like us but they're empty inside. In the end we are both the sum of our parts and so much more than that.
I'm not going to lie. I wrote this most because I was hoping aliens might be reading my blog. It seems unfair to me that the Doctor despite how wonderful and lovely he is does not fit some definitions of what a person. It seems abundantly clear to me that he is a person regardless of his fictional nature. It is highly likely that there are aliens (who very probably don't resemble humans) that could be called people. It is very very probable that with advances in artificial intelligence you will one day be in the company of mechanical people. Humans are special. We are the only people any of us have ever met and that's something to be proud of. We have this opportunity to live in a universe of constant change and experience it as it is right now. We get to build ourselves and shape our own realities. That's what it means to be human. More importantly that's what it means to be a person. Have a lovely day.
Here is John Green's video response to the same question.