What makes us human?
We can all agree that humans are vast, complex, and anomalous, but as we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, the question of our humanity has taken on an urgency. It has become a call to action.
Our planet is fragile and debate is polarised; we may have the latest iPhone but we have never been less connected. Many believe that as a species we are at a critical point. Hyper-connectivity, mood-tracking technologies and sentiment analysis algorithms threaten to reduce the human race to consumers and data suppliers. A culture of corporate managerialism infects every aspect of our lives, and whilst we are an extraordinary species with a sophisticated brain, our increasingly impaired ethic threatens our humanity.
Humanity is not a given or unique to our species. I hold a view, proposed by many, that we are born man but we become human. Some argue that as we become more technologically advanced, the key to rebalancing our humanity is a neo-enlightenment, a return to reason. Whilst this may seem like an appealing argument, I concur with Carl Jung that ‘rational’ minds are a socially constructed narrowing of the human ability to expand consciousness.
The dominant social system of patriarchy and political ideologies of left and right do not define our ability to be human, and whilst they may have evolved from brilliant minds, we need to remind ourselves of these words by the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir: ‘in masculine hands, logic is often a form of violence’.
This experience is mirrored by the black American writer James Baldwin, who observed that America was suffering ‘an emotional poverty so bottomless and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable organic connection between his public stance and his private life.’
History has shown that the outcome of this has been a deep fear of ‘difference’, and a pathological obsession with the mastering of nature and the dehumanisation of others. As an observer of human nature, Freud understood this all too well. He argued that rationalism and science only go so far before the monster retreats to a deeper domain.
Of course, we now live in an post-Cartesian world, where we understand that reason and emotion are not separate and opposed, there is no clean left brain, right brain split. Reason is dependent on emotion, emotion gives value to things which enables us to make choices based on those valuations. The pragmatism of the human mind exists because it is aesthetic.
The ancient Greek word ‘metanoia’ encapsulates the human potential of this, noia being ‘mind’ and meta being ‘greater’ or ‘beyond’. As the theologian Cynthia Bourgeault explains, being human is not about thinking differently, but about ‘going beyond the mind’, of connecting deeply with other minds.
A neuroscientific perspective may help explain what is meant here: as a species we have evolved a nervous system which, according to the psychologist Daniel Stern, ‘is constructed to be captured by the nervous system of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin, as well as from our own.’ The importance of touch, eye contact, curiosity and an openness to others must be developed as we seek to establish deeper and more complete connections. Through the co-created experience, the mystery of our humanness is revealed.
Science may reduce us to particles, that is a fact, but it does not take into account the human condition. For that we need stories. Humans have an autobiographical self and the need to make sense who we are is part of that. As soon as man began to share tales around the campfire under the stars, his humanity was revealed. All stories need something magical and mysterious which cannot be rationalised away. Whether it is the Greek myths, the Bible or the works of Shakespeare, stories build symbolic connections between memory and experience which is a very human attribute.
Curiosity about the lived experience of others is the corner stone of humanness. Through empathy and compassion, connection and co-regulation, the complexity of our selves becomes lived. Without doubt, the frontiers of humanness are expanding. As we gain a deeper understanding of other sentient beings, and our relationship with them and the planet as a whole, all of this will need continuous reassessment.
Of course, we are always a work in progress, but the potential is huge: together we can create more human-focused morality, ethics and social structures. An over-focus on rationality and scientism has led to a narrowing of these structures, with the outcome that we pathologise human experience, value helicopter parenting over the humanities, and search for meaning and purpose in quick fix spiritual appropriation and ideological certainty. This is the slow erosion of what makes us human, and none of it makes us truly happy, nor gives space to our inner selves.
So it seems that Descartes was wrong after all; it is not I think, therefore I am rather I am because of who we are, and whilst this might sound like a neuroscientific meme, it is in fact an ancient Nguni expression as old as time.
Olivia Laing - Everybody
Daniel Stern - The Interpersonal World of the Infant
James Baldwin - The Evidence of Things Not Seen
Anne Lamott - Bird by Bird
E. M Forster - The Life to Come