What makes us human?

17 June 2014

What can the human and social sciences and the arts teach us about what it means to be human? Can close self-study help us live better lives?

In earth's ecosystem, human beings are one species among many millions - a species on which the humanities focus almost exclusively. How can the close study of how humans think, communicate and express themselves; organise themselves into groups and structures, with governing systems; and engage with the surrounding environment and other species who inhabit it help us advance and evolve our understanding of the world (and our place in it)?

What sets us apart as a species?

To help unpack what the humanities can teach us, it's worth questioning what sets us apart as a species.

Some have suggested it's our larger brains (relative to our body size) - crudely, that a larger 'computer' makes for better computing. Others point out that we're one of a few species not just to have a mutually beneficial relationship with other species, but to befriend them: taking animals into our homes and treating them as one of our family. Agriculture and animal husbandry have played a significant role in our advancement. Using tools we've fashioned with our own hands, we till the land and tame wild animals; we also prepare our food, and have developed a fairly elaborate (if not always healthy) relationship with what we subsist on, whether plant or animal.

Still others suggest it's language that sets us apart: that our ability to think, to think about that thinking and to convey that thought to another human, allows us to imagine the future, to evaluate and learn from the past, and to try get to grips with our place in the world.

The seat of the soul

Where before, our life force was believed to be based in the soul (of which psychology was originally the study), much of what defines us as human is now believed to reside in the brain.

"From the neuropsychological point of view, what makes us human is the relative size of the part of the brain that distinguishes us from other primates - and indeed from other mammals - namely, the prefrontal lobes," explains neuropsychologist (and head of the Department of Psychology) Professor Mark Solms. "The prefrontal lobes have two major functions. Firstly, they inhibit outputs from the instinctual-emotional parts of the brain, which would otherwise compel us to respond in fixed, stereotypical ways to events. This inhibitory function creates the possibility of thinking, which is the second major function of the frontal lobes.

"Thinking in this sense boils down to an experimental or virtual type of action carried out in the safety of our own minds before committing ourselves in the real world. Action derived from thought is vastly superior to instinctual action, in that it creates flexibility and adaptability based on learning from experience. We should, however, never forget that these higher cognitive functions of the human brain are still ultimately driven from below; thinking does not replace instinctual drives - rather, it only elaborates and refines them."

The storytelling animal

For primatologist Jane Goodall, the first of the Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture speakers in 2014, what sets us apart from primates like chimpanzees is our complex linguistic ability: "There isn't a sharp line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom," Goodall argues in a 2002 TED talk. "It's a very wuzzy line. It's getting wuzzier all the time as we find animals doing things that we, in our arrogance, used to think were just human ... The one thing we have, which makes us so different from chimpanzees or other living creatures, is this sophisticated spoken language - a language with which we can tell children about things that aren't here. We can talk about the distant past, plan for the distant future, discuss ideas with each other, so that the ideas can grow from the accumulated wisdom of the group."

Oral historian Sean Field, former director of the Centre for Popular Memory, would argue that storytelling - as a way of recognising patterns, drawing connections between them, and making meaning of the world around us - is central to being human: "Telling or performing stories across the private and public worlds we experience is central to the human condition. But the paradox of life stories is the conscious and unconscious ways in which they are framed through memory-work and cultures. The stories not told or expressed unintentionally are as meaningful as those consciously told, in different ways and times, to various audiences."

Witnessing humanity

Language and the stories we tell ourselves don't just shape identity. Questions of who or what is human (and how language enforces the divide) have also significantly shaped history: systems of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, patriarchy and other forms of discrimination are predicated on how 'human', how 'civilised', people are believed to be. Systems of violence depend on dehumanisation.

"We live in a society where we have inherited this notion of humans as 'waste'," says Jay Pather, director of the Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts. "At the height of colonialism and slavery, a deeply entrenched sense of who we were as possessions for the masters, or for the apartheid government, was engrained. So were notions of masterhood in those who were privileged over others in these systems." It's the arts - and other forms of public expression, like protest - that can help bring us back to our senses, and to our sense of self, Pather argues. Art can help us 'see' our own humanity - and that of others. "Eruptions in our society in the mining industries and evident in the service delivery strikes may on one level be about material things such as money or facilities. Underneath this, though, is a much deeper call to witness the human, to be made visible in a tide of negation, degradation and invisibility. Art comes a long way towards enabling visibility in a range of facets. Unfortunately some of this has been entrapped by elite structures and mechanisms in art industries, some of which have simply not taken on the enormous, ethical project of redress. Let loose of these, art can go a long way - together with economic change, of course - towards restoring to our species the notion of the human."

Defining the dividing line

For Professor Deborah Posel, founding director of the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) - one of the signature umbrella research themes of which is the study of 'being human' - a key feature of our humanity is plasticity. Speaking at a recent HUMA symposium, Queer in Africa, Posel commented, "[What makes us human] is a question that I think probably every single discipline within the human and social sciences has to grapple with. It's also an issue that is at the heart of most politics - certainly most politics in the 21st century. And there are swathes of literature on it. At the risk of doing violence to all of the complexity in that literature, it seems to me if you were to survey it and extract one essential, one kernel of wisdom from it at the moment, it would be that the key feature of being human is what one can call plasticity - a certain kind of fluidity. There is nothing absolutely and completely fixed. There is no solid essential human nature. We can speak about a human condition, but there is a great deal of variety that rests in that."

She spoke of current work in the sciences - specifically new biologies and genetics - and how these seem to be returning to "the idea of a human condition, to ... what we all share as humans". What she sees there is not a frightening vision of human biology, but the assurance of 'soft wiring' in our genetic script, "malleable, plastic relationships between what we're born with and how the environment shapes us". It is this very plasticity that suggests the answer to 'what makes us human' is not only undefined, but also open to radical redefinition.

The humanities project

Associate Professor Lesley Green, who is behind efforts to launch a cross-disciplinary degree in the environmental humanities in 2015, believes that radical redefinition is key to the humanities project: "I think the central challenge of our times is to rethink what makes us human - to rethink it is to be part of a planet that has been brought into crisis by our assumptions about humanity. The work of the humanities in the years ahead is enormous: if we are to survive, we need to be reimagining what makes us human. Sciences can point to the problems in disturbed earth systems, but working out how to alter the current course requires every field of the humanities."

For Green, the dimensions of problems we face - such as our inability to act decisively and collectively on climate change, an issue that threatens our very survival - are distinctly human. More hopefully, though, potential solutions are too.

"The world's problems are never tidily confined to the laboratory or spreadsheet," argued Deborah Fitzgerald, dean of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Massachussetts Institute for Technology (MIT) recently in The Boston Globe. "From climate change to poverty to disease, the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale, and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions ... Our students also need an in-depth understanding of human complexities - the political, cultural, and economic realities that shape our existence - as well as fluency in the powerful forms of thinking and creativity cultivated by the humanities, arts, and social sciences."

Story by Judith Browne.

back to top

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.

Monday Monthly

Volume 33 Edition 05

17 Jun 2014

Download PDF

Previous Editions