I’ll often hear people dish out trivialities about being human without giving second thought to their implicit meaning. I find myself guilty of this regularly. “That is a very human way to feel,” “It is acting very human,” “That is a human thing to do.” Each could suggest that there is a profound meaning to humanity, beyond simply being an appellation. Or that there is an attribute that we possess that is special to us, or so exemplary of our being that it is synonymous with our title. So I set out to find if this were true.
I asked a myriad of people that hail from different walks of life the same question. “What does it mean to be human?” I was hoping for a silver bullet to emerge from at least one wandering cowboy. Some unequivocal piece of knowledge that was impossible to refute. I only really got one, and I’m not a fan.
I was told that there is no meaning to being human, beyond being a species classification. On the most macro plane of thought I suppose that this is only answer we can legitimize. At the end of the day, the likelihood of a specific attribute belonging to only humans is slighter than Marlon Brando willingly memorizing the entire KJV Bible and reciting it from memory. Sadly, it is only a label.
Let me explain. The majority of the answers received from my limited human race subject pool revolved around our complexity. For instance, the fact that we are the only creatures capable of reason, only creatures with deep emotion, only creatures who can empathize, only creatures capable of progression, etc. More or less, each of these “defining” features can be boiled down to complexity. Each answer is different, but the reason behind each dictates that we are more complex.
Now, these points can’t be disproven. As I currently sit and type this piece modern science hasn’t discovered a species that rivals the complexity of human beings. However, stating that it is accurate to define humanity based on our greater complexity is sophistry, as soon as you think beyond the rock sphere we know as earth.
Tomorrow, a hyper advanced alien species could usurp the planet earth within 15 minutes flat. Now imposed as the more complex, apex predators of earth, does this make them human? Of course not, they are no more human than the less complex creatures that inhabit the earth along side of us today. The argument that our complexity makes us human stems from the fact that all known species comprise a slighter degree of it in comparison to our composition. However, an unknown species with complexity that supersedes our own doesn’t annex the title of human, there are obvious idiosyncratic differences to their own composition; qualities that we have that they don’t and vice versa.
I’ll veer off course momentarily to give some insight into an imaginative hierarchy I conceptualized while thinking about that invasion scenario. Say the universe houses a spectrum of creatures, ranked based on levels of complexity. On the low end, there are the multitudes of creatures that exist amongst us on earth. The capybara, black bears, jellyfish and bald eagles to name a few. Each utterly outclassed by human beings in terms of complexity, operating on sheer instinct, devoid of the ability to reason at a competitive depth. Que a galaxy sized pan outwards, to a wide-angle shot of a bunch more planets. Some of those species comprise the eco systems of those planets, similar to how humans do on earth. They travel in herds to nature built high schools, the popular kids imagine themselves as… nothing, because they can’t. Only the intuitive sense of elevated preditorialship exists. Quaint planets, meek and kind, no nuclear devices to be found for light-years.
On the other end of the spectrum exists a group of hyper intelligent creatures, each sentient individual has uploaded their consciousness into a hive mind. Through their amalgamation into a homogeneous brain they have reached an ethereal cerebral state. In the interest of increased efficacy they have eliminated empathy and emotion, all that remains is unbridled calculative precision. There are no errors made in their assimilative conquest of the galaxy, ultimately the universe. This species transcends all other living beings, existing as a supreme galactic entity more than anything else.
So where do humans fit in? I propose that we fill a niche in the centre of these two extremes. A beautiful niche defined by pain, which is, in my opinion, the most human thing one can possibly feel. The simplistic creatures of the universe are capable of making mistakes, but incapable of understanding the consequences. They don’t feel emotional gravity, or agony. The perfectionism of the complex species renders them basically incapable of error, and though they have the capability to understand every repercussion of their omissions, pain that results is deemed superfluous and nullified. There is no pain, just error and consequence; and there is seldom error to begin with.
As the median of the complexity scale, we are simplistic enough to make mistakes, and complex enough to deeply understand them. What results, is torment, and the inherent need to push through our dissonance to create congruity within life. We call it happiness, the most noble and pervasive human goal to exist. Zebras won’t experience heartache when a supposed soul mate is unfaithful, the Hive mind won’t make a calculative error in a pressured situation; we as humans can do both, and are characterized by the pain that results.
Poetic as this premise seems, it falls to scrutiny whenever applied. In all likelihood, there are other species that exist on a similar spot of the complexity spectrum, akin to human beings in their likeness. They could possess so many human esque characteristics they’d have you checking your backyard sheds for seedpods. That’s a quick Invasion of the Body Snatchers reference for the kids. Any possibility of a species identical to humans existing means that within the realm of hypothesis, they could possess every trait that humans do. If we did find a species that could match wits with us, play us to two king stalemates in chess and circulate philosophies with us in hazy garages; it would be our history that defines our humanity.
Regardless of our operation on an even plane, their progression will be divergent. Just as two twins are often indistinguishable in ability, even from their exit in the womb their paths are different. Therein, it is our specific chronology that gives us our identity. As closely interchangeable to a human as an alien kid might be, even if they matched our genetic code to a T; they didn’t grow up trying to dig out trees in forests after reading Swiss Family Robinson. They’ve never been serenaded by Frank Sinatra, or entranced by Marvin Gaye. They won’t understand someone referring to a hamartia when they talk about their “Waterloo.” They certainly won’t have spent long Saturday mornings in front of a TV, ambivalent about whether it was Duck season or Rabbit season as Captain Crunch massacred the roof of their mouths. How could they? Insignificant as they may seem, every memoir and anecdote ever conjured up by man ends up being intrinsic to who we are. Micro to macro, no other consciousnesses will ever experience exactly what you do, no other species will experience what we do similarly.
It is a frustrating thing delving further into the hypothetical, but just bare with me for one more level. Say this alien species paralleled our history to exactitude. Say there was my exact clone on that planet, thinking the same thing, and typing the same words. Bing bong, Grilled Cheese, Skeezer Church, Nitpickings. He would have typed the same thing; he’s still following me flawlessly now. Well that exact copy of earth hasn’t had the pleasure of existing within our quadrant of the universe; they’ll never dip cookies in our exact milky way. However, in the astronomical chance that they end up speaking in the languages we do now, if they denote themselves as human, Homo Sapien; I’ll give it to em’. They are human despite us just as we are human despite them.
This realm of hypothesis is what creates the issue when trying to associate greater meaning to humans. It makes every exclusive or commendable trait that we could possess, become erroneous. It almost seems like common sense in retrospect, but worth thinking about nonetheless.
Bringing this full circle to the seemingly nihilistic conclusion I drew earlier, there is no meaning to humanity beyond being the nomenclature of a specific species. Unless we ever achieve omniscience and know for certain, there never will be. But alas, young dreamer, you mustn’t draw a bath and grab a toaster just yet. As even in this definition of humanity there exists a duality of perception. There is nothing mere about humanity being merely a label; it is the label to the species that birthed Chopin, Michelangelo, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Nicholas Cage. That label, encapsulates every beautiful flaw that composes a charming, unique, magnificent, and hopelessly vain species with the potential of exactly us. It encapsulates what it means to be human, and that, beloved, is fucking beautiful.
Y’see, humanity is force-feeding a duck with fat to change its liver into something that tastes otherworldly. It is expending valuable gas money into the ether for the solace that comes from late night drives. It is the drug dwarfing euphoria that comes from the first time we admit to ourselves that we are desperately in love. And it is seeing a relative at the station after train hopping, raising an arm to wave and dying instantaneously when it connects with the overhead line.
It is cheap Canadian Shiraz and Camel cigarettes after a night of corybantic sex. It is committing seppuku after being captured by a rival clan in Feudal Japan. It is having a debilitating case of trench foot instantly cured by a .30-06 caliber bullet to the forehead. It is coming home to some; we’ll say roughly half of the dishes done.
Humanity is the crazy Mesopotamian engineer that erected the first sail as middle finger to gods wind. It is an isolated victim of divorce committing suicide in his freshly evicted apartment. It is every astronomical feat and accomplishment produced by the most creative and brilliant people to ever exist. And every unnoticed squandering pissant that pathetically tries to scrape together a decent life and fails.
Stare at the vague reflection of yourself on your computer screen for a moment, become transfixed on your human face. We’ve got nothing significant about us, objectively speaking. Yet I still imagine aliens sitting alone in their UFO’s becoming seduced by us as they focus in on a select few. The only thing unique about us is our uniqueness, which can be said for all species one in the same. That being said, own your title. We are significant, because we are naive and egotistical, we have to be. So embrace it. Fuck the pessimism of anyone who isn’t at one point or another awe struck by the beauty of humanity. We are an Adonis.
“What does it mean to be human?” It is nothing but a species classification, for an astonishing species. Being human means being human, and I can’t imagine anything better than that.