What does it mean to be human? Dancing, music, love, sex, cooking, other people… You’ll have heard these answers. Many are problematic.
EXPANDING THE QUESTION
First, this question has various answers depending on context:
- What does it mean to be human and not some completely different animal?
- What does it mean to be genus Homo compared to some other human-like species which came before or branched off?
Much of the time, though, ‘what it means to be human’ feels like another way of exploring ‘what it means to feel alive’ or ‘what it means to live a meaningful life’.
…being solitary for a long time and fully attuned to the natural world means risking everything human.Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
The same author understands that humans are far more built for alone time than we modern-times dwellers commonly think:
Our genus, Homo, arose two and a half million years ago, and for more than ninety-nine percent of human existence, we all lived like Onwas, in small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Though the groups may have been tight-knit and communal, nearly everyone, anthropologists conjecture, spent significant parts of their lives surrounded by quiet, either alone or with a few others, foraging for edible plants and stalking prey in the wild. This is who we truly are. The agricultural revolution began twelve thousand years ago, in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and the planet was swiftly reorganized into villages and cities and nations, and soon the average person spent virtually no time alone at all. To a thin but steady stream of people, this was unacceptable, so they escaped. Recorded history extends back five thousand years, and for as long as humans have been writing, we have been writing about hermits. It’s a primal fascination. Chinese texts etched on animal bones, as well as the clay tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from Mesopotamia dating to around 2000 B.C., refer to shamans or wild men residing alone in the woods.Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
PROBLEM ANSWER 1: ANTHROPOCENTRICITY
Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans are at the centre of everything on Earth, and that other species exist only to serve and validate us.
Anthropocentrism also gives rise to the idea that humans are superior to other animals. Our own kind of intelligence becomes the very definition of intelligence. And despite all evidence to the contrary, humans are seen as the only species capable of acting morally.
Tropical birds dance. Arguably, most birds are better than most humans at making music. And anyone who has lived alongside a pet dog will know for sure that animals are capable of love. For all we know, some animals love in a way that is more pure than human love.
PROBLEM ANSWER 2: ABLEISM
If ‘dancing makes us human’, what does that mean for people who cannot physically dance? Before we expand our definition of ‘dancing’, no, not everyone can dance.
PROBLEM ANSWER 3: ACEPHOBIA
- “Sex is what makes us human.”
- “All humans need sex.”
- “Humans are sexual creatures.”
First, sexual reproduction was happening long, long before humans popped in. If sex makes us human than flowering plants are also human.
But let’s take it in good faith and assume that “Sex makes us human” is actually short for “loving (partnered) sexual acts” make us human. Even then, an African safari tour during lion mating season will offer a spectacle of just that, and no one is arguing that lions are human. Fortunately, lions don’t care what we think of them.
More problematically, there are very human humans who are affected by this othering language, because not everyone seeks, needs and desires sex. Many in the asexual community are routinely dehumanised by such language, which is everywhere. “Sex is what makes us human” is a prime example of a microaggression. It often comes from within the queer community, and frequently comes from people who have fought hard to reclaim their own sexual identities and sex lives in a culture which makes sexual freedom a hard-won battle.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD
It’s not usually necessary to make a statement about what makes us human. So often when this comes up, it’s a very minor point made in support of a completely different point.
Unrequited love is one of the most universal and emotional experiences of all. Everyone past puberty has felt it, from time to time. Once I was pitching a teen story about a nuclear apocalypse. The person I was pitching to asked, “And who does the girl like that she can’t get?” I thought surely nuclear apocalypse would provide enough drama in her life, but it’ shard to really identify with that problem, whereas everyone can identify with unrequited love, so that will frequently be your way into a story.Matt Bird, The Secrets of Character, p92, making an incorrect and wholly unnecessary sweeping statement which excludes many in the ace community. Not everyone past puberty has experienced unrequited love.
Corrected for inclusivity:
Unrequited love is an extremely emotional experience. Since most readers will have experienced this, it’s worth exploring in fiction…(Frankly, until writing experts move away from expectations of amatonormativity, we’ll keep getting more of the same old, same old plots. No, not every story requires a romantic subplot.)
Often, when a “sex positive” (but not an asex positive) person says “we’re all sexual beings”, they are trying to convey the sense that there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Below is another unnecessary tossed-off comment which could easily be nixed from an otherwise thought-provoking conversation about a broad range of contemporary feminist issues:
To control populations you need to control things like health, domestic life, deep control over the labour force, which means controlling population, which means controlling the individual at the level of their sexual behaviour. But we do also experience sex as deeply personal, individual and part of what makes us human, who we are. We need to think about how this is used against us, and to think about the possibilities of sexuality as something other than that. Rather than this thing that’s the intrinsic heart of the subject, the truth of who we are, if we could free it from that it could be something much more exciting.Feminist Dr Sita Balani in conversation at the Novara FM podcast. Author of Deadly and Slick: Sexual Modernity and the Making of Race.
Better instead: Be genuinely sex positive and show by your words and actions that sex is nothing to be ashamed of. In the above example, it was entirely unnecessary to throw in a comment about how sex is ‘what makes us human’. The argument worked on its own.
AVOID DEHUMANISATION AT ALL COSTS
Outside a discussion among evolutionary biologists and similar specialists, it is almost impossible to non-problematically talk about ‘what makes humans human’ without dehumanising a group of very human humans.
Avoiding such statements isn’t simply a polite and inclusive strategy. This isn’t just about being nice. After all, genocide begins with dehumanisation.