01/01/2002. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
Two arms. Two legs. A brain in a head at the top of a body. Worse case of parallel evolution I’ve ever seen.
What is ‘human’? I mean, how do you define the term ‘human’?
Do you go for the biological definition like the description above?
Maybe not, as then you’d really ought to be using the Latin term: Homo Sapiens Sapiens or its abbreviated term, Homo Sapiens. Still means ‘human’ but used to differentiate from several other subspecies over the millennia.
Perhaps you view being ‘human’ as being a state of mind or from a philosophical POV. A state that differentiates the main sentient species on this planet from the rest of the animal kingdom. With few notable exceptions, humans are the only species capable of killing members of its own race for other than leadership, mating or territory.
Some, but thankfully not all all the time, do it purely because they like killing their own species. Under the right circumstances, humans kill humans for whatever appears to be ‘right’ to their own motives. Hardly representative of the animal kingdom at large. It isn’t as though we kill our own kind to eat them ... any more! Humans kill mostly because they’re in the way of a particular opportunity.
This editorial isn’t going to turn into a pacifist rant - something I also find an odd extreme reverse of the human ability to kill. Denial of capability of one aspect often ends up with lashing out in other ways. Animal rights extremists groups releasing laboratory mink and damaging a local ecology springs to mind as a ready example.
Under the right provocation, anyone is capable of murder whether it’s justified or not. Sentience seems to provide us with that option. Let’s hope for better maturity when we encounter an alien species that isn’t as ‘advanced’ as ourselves.
I’m here to discuss the word ‘human’ from my own perspective and why it is such an inappropriate label to call anyone.
One of the early things I picked up from General Semantics is that labeling isn’t a particularly clever thing to do. With simple things like a chair and a table, it can instantly identify the prime use for a particular object without necessarily a need to say which one.
You sit on one and eat or labour off the other. Beyond that, it’s not always important whose chair and table it is unless it’s personal property. Both terms can be elaborated with an adjective to specify a particular sort of furniture that everyone knows what you’re referring to. Individuality only goes so far in terms of occupancy, ownership or occasionally type to have any real meaning when it comes to furniture.
As the object, especially when it is of the organic variety, becomes more complex, the definition needs to become more exact to differentiate one from another. It is a recognition of individuality. If nothing else, what is vaguely referred to as ‘human’ refers to a lot of individuals who don’t conform to a single definition. Is it wise to refer to individuals of the primary sentient species of this planet in vague terms? If you’ll excuse the pun, it sorta ‘dehumanises’ them as a whole.
The become numbers rather than individuals. It is far easier to grieve for the death of an individual than for a group of people. It isn’t being heartless to say that we are not shocked by mass murder but grieving is a different process for them.
As a sentient species, we are a composite of individual creatures. Each has, I hope, a personality, some opinions of their own and, when appropriate, can influence others as to whether their behaviour is acceptable in mixed company. There is a suitable division of talent or skill that allows many categories across the population.
I can already see many of you raising your hands saying that as ‘human’ refers to the species as a whole then that, too, is the biggest category. In some respects, that might be so. We can also act individually or together in a gestalt manner depending on the circumstances.
Ethically, it is the consensus of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that has some bearing on what keeps our society balanced between these two extremes. It is a joint decision as to why we agree or disagree on a multitude of things even in societies that aren’t democratic. An extreme abhorrent behaviour pattern is likely to risk the individual being isolated from society to prevent further damage.
This can also be used to put individuals down even when they are right. One only has to look at Gallelio and the church victimising him for his discoveries.
Bad taste might raise a consensus eyebrow from the majority but is often seen as a mark of individuality. Good taste is often thought of as being pleasing to the eye or something we can envy in others. Again, such levels of acceptability and rejection can go on forever as we define one aspect of our society especially as it differs so much across the world. A lot of it is based on so-called ‘tradition’, evolving taste or acceptability depending on how much thought it given to a particular subject.
In much of the Western world, there is a justice system that allows the accused to defend their actions or be condemned. The level of justice is determined largely by what can be considered when caught doing such activities and what is ‘acceptable’ punishment. The theft of, say, a paperclip from the office might be considered fair game as everyone does it compared to stealing jewelry or money which isn’t.
The place of work being seen as a non-sentient uncaring entity - who might get the paperclip back as it’s only ‘borrowed’ - and the other from a living being. What is stolen and from who appears to have greater importance than the action of theft itself. Policing itself tends to specialise in extreme levels of crime against society than what is so minor that we would all end up in jail for committing.
In wartime, killing your enemy is seen as good and acceptable. In peacetime, you would be up on a murder charge. In that respect, the action is dependent on the time of the circumstances and what is acceptable ‘civilized’ behaviour. It’s no wonder that morality is confusing and different depending on where you live and the conduct laws your nation upholds. As to the levels of punishment, that’s an entirely different subject.
There aren’t many things everyone is consistent about. The time of day is more a following of pattern for most people who don’t really have much appreciation for how it’s calculated but we all keep to the same system because you’d never keep an appointment otherwise. All most people are really interested in is whether or not they can have the maximum daylight hours throughout the year.
A lot of scientific knowledge is considered correct regardless of the source it originally came from. Measurement and even currency is aiming for a consistent factor that can be recognised internationally although it will take many nations a time to adapt their people to what will probably be a change for the better. If anything, it’s just a demonstration of developing consensus even if it can also be viewed as a game of one-upmanship by some nations - although the end result is the same. Levels of agreement or consensus have nothing to do with being human.
One of the few exceptions is evolution and in that religion tends to get mixed in with its own theories with little evidence to back it up. If we take Christianity as an example. If someone said they heard a voice from a burning bush telling them what to do today, then they’d probably be locked up.
In the Bible, many of the prophets get their information from such sources. The same can probably be said for a lot of other religions as well. The message was believed by the consensus because it probably made sense as our ethics and morality were developing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everything was...er...gospel or incapable of changing or being adapted with time. Being too steeped in tradition can make us all zombies that can be manipulated by those who think they’re in charge.
A new direction of thought is probably what makes some parts of the world more progressive than others even if it takes some sort of revolution to make the change. It might not always be the right direction but it does allow a certain amount of social evolution and society has changed rapidly in the past few decades..
When it comes to the value of ‘humanity’, words like ‘customs’, ‘tradition’, or ‘we’ve always done things like this’ tend to be spoken. It is not within our rights to say what is accepted as the norm in another nation when we do similar acts within our own. In the UK, we tell off Spain for their bullfighting and at the same time, do little to discourage our own barbaric technique for killing foxes. Morality has a habit of making us all hypocrites when not tidying our own garden first. Like the thieving example above, it is what you do that strikes people more than the act itself.
All of the above should indicate that many aspects of our lives isn’t an exact science or we all share the same ethics or morality. A lot of it depends on individual definition and that often means labeling and think everything or one lies within a set definition. Labels are vague definitions where our species is concerned. Anyone with a particular label can be extreme to mildly interested in the subject. The label needs an adjective to show how deep you are into a particular label. To subdivide the label into many sub-labels dilutes the original meaning when a suitable adjective works better.
We look at the actions of some people and wonder if they belong to the same species as the rest of us? The avocation or commitment of some crimes beggars belief as things no sane person should think of doing. When it comes to injustice, we are often left in the dark as to all the facts of the case. We might applaud the belief but find the means to resolve it in an offensive manner. We have a world of grey truths and falsehoods not simply black and white any more.
Does the word ‘human’ fit in with certain types of people? Do you want to be grouped as part of a species who does certain acts or put a claim on your own individuality by saying they’re the same as you when evidence shows them not? Do you really want to belong to the same categorisation or do you want to step aside and say, ‘I belong to a different group.’ Does or should that group really include the label ‘human’?
A lot of people actually do apply such definition without really understanding where it comes from. Vegans, vegetarians, a multitude of religions, skill camps, intelligence, etc. There’s a long list. As individuals, we become a multiple of vague labels than simply one. The strength of this is that the combination of labels can sum of the individual more than a single label although at the end of the day, we’d probably end up sticking to our personal name. It instantly tells people who you are although not necessarily what you represent.
I can give a definition for myself that doesn’t even use the ‘H’ word. It doesn’t mean I’ve changed my stance on certain ethical considerations that belong to group decisions. There are some areas where consensus is the way to avoid chaos.
What is questionable is an inexact label and being called ‘human’ is one of them. I am more than a label so why should I be defined by a single word? As an SF writer-cum-editor, I also have an Outsider mentality. I can look on the so-called ‘human race’ far easier as an observer than being part of it. The same can be said for a large proportion of the SF community. Disregarding the ‘human’ label makes it even easier even if you do risk a bit of alienation by people who don’t get it.
There are many people in the world who say they prefer the easy life and nothing too difficult for them to understand. It is left to others to make certain ‘important’(sic) decisions on their behalf. Quite why they can’t make up their own minds is hard to say. It can be perceived as an intellectual game which they have no interest or it won’t change their way of life so why worry about it? This is more a case of only seeing their own backyard than what’s over the brickwall. With greater awareness, it’s simply impossible for a lot of us to ignore the bigger picture.
The world is forever changing. It’s becoming increasingly more complicated for a lot of people. You’ve probably seen non-computer users' eyes gloss over when you attempt to explain something you perceive as relatively simple. In a few generations, those conversant with computers are going to be a far greater majority and the world will look different again. It’s an example of social evolution in action.
The off-shoot of such things is that we, as a society, will have to become more precise with what we mean. It won’t be is such-&-such a thing or not. It will be what sort of thing is such-&-such and why is it better or worse. Things are changing at an even faster rate than ever thought possible a decade ago.
The level of communication world-wide across the Net is allowing more integration and awareness of what other people think and do. It won’t be long before customs and traditions will be examined closely and inconsistencies that look stupid or odd be given far more serious thought. Anyone here is capable of starting this particular pot rolling simply by who you communicate with next.
With a more precise labelling system, it is bound to broach on how we see ourselves as well. The term ‘human’ is simply not an accurate way we should define ourselves as individuals. Even if we prefer a different term, it can only define us in one particular way and ignore the other qualities that makes us individual. The sum of the parts ends up being our individual names. Unless you have a common name, there are few like you in the world at large although there might be a few like you in the neighbourhood.
Being individual doesn’t mean you can’t work as a group towards one aim or goal. What it can do is allow more individual thought and considered speculation about decisions that need to be made. An informed society is better than one led as if it was a mindless chicken. We’ve all seen nations that have such unswerving unquestioning loyalties. To think for ourselves might make us harder to be controlled as a group but unless it disturbs our individual type of reality, only certain sections of society will act at a time.
To err is human. To think of yourself as just being ‘human’ indicates a certain limitation in your potential. If you want to aim for the stars, then you need a larger definition for what is you personally. It’s time to slip the label.
Me? I’m not human. I’m more than the sum of my labels. I could fill a room with a variety of labels that might fit some aspects of me. Here’s to individuality.
Thank you, good night and here’s to deep thoughts for the coming year.
Post Script for the above: I’ve hit on several different ‘groups’ above as examples that sprung into my mind as I wrote this month’s editorial. None of you were being singled out, just ones that sprung to mind and most people have heard about. Where I’ve indicated I think the wrong decisions were made and something you agree with, then it’s something you ought to take up with your respective leaders.
PS Well, you know what I’m going to say here about the book samples. Patience is a virtue. I’ve never known a year to go by as quickly as this one so I must have been busy.
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