In this brief article I explore the role of humanities subjects in rethinking what it means to be human at a time of great challenges for humanity.
The opening words of the BBC Horizon documentary ‘What makes us human?’ are ‘I’m Alice Roberts. I’m expecting my second child in a few months and I’m having a day out to visit some relatives’. It turns out, however, that the relatives are not actually human, but Bonobos, who are relatives only in the sense that they share 99% of their DNA with humans. After a brief interaction with a one-year-old Bonobo called Lepore, Professor Roberts states that ‘When my baby is born…as a human, his life will develop a richness far beyond that of our hairy ape cousins. So what is it about our bodies, our genes and ultimately our brains that sets us apart? What is it that truly makes us human?’
Behind these words lies a story that is so commonplace that it barely gets noticed: that what makes us human lies in the differences between humans and other animals. These differences are not only what make us human, but also what make us unique, special, and therefore superior to other animals. This is the story of ‘Human Exceptionalism’ (Plumwood 2007).
The story can be seen as fundamental to traditional Humanities disciplines, which have tended to focus on aspects of humanity that distinguish us from other animals: language, literature, religion, philosophy, a sense of history. Chomsky, for instance, states that ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the human essence, the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man’ (2006, p. 88).
While the story does highlight the importance of human cultural achievements such as great works of literature, it also dismisses certain features as not being part of what makes us human. Emotions, for instance, are shared with other animals, so are not part of what makes us human, while rationality is. Being embodied beings is not part of being human, since animals also have bodies. And perhaps most importantly, living within an environment and depending for our future survival on that environment is not part of being human, since that is shared not only with animals but by all living beings.
The story that humans are superior to other animals because of our uniqueness could be a factor in how we treat animals in factory farms or destroy the lives of countless animals through pollution and habitat destruction. Plumwood (2007) blames the story of human exceptionalism for allowing us ‘to exploit nature and people more ruthlessly (some would say more efficiently) than other cultures, and our high-powered, destructive forms of life dominate the planet.’
The story may also lie behind the way that some groups of humans treat other groups of humans. If it is rationality, religion, and literature that make as human, then those who were labelled emotional, superstitious, or illiterate were seen as less human. Leith Mullings, President of the American Anthropological Association, describes how anthropology in the past treated its subjects as inferior, less than human, beings: “Anthropology is the discipline that fostered and nurtured “scientific racism,” a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, and eugenics.”
Linguists also participated in this scientific racism, by declaring certain languages ‘primitive’, therefore implying that those who speak them are less than human. Hackert (2014:288) writes that “Expressions for ‘tree’ were adduced to show that “primitive languages” possessed many items describing particulars but lacked names for superordinate categories, which of course went to show that the “barbarous races” lacked the ability to generalise” (Hackert 2014:288).
This was during colonial times, but now in postcolonial times humanities plays a very different role. Mullings continues by saying ‘Our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism’, and in linguistics Critical Discourse Analysis has been working against racism, sexism and homophobia from the early seventies. Even before then, variationalist linguists such as Labov worked towards a more equal society by challenging the idea that there are primitive languages and dialects. And in the study of literature there is a strong postcolonial movement which responds to the cultural legacies of colonialism. While the focus has been predominantly on human society, there is also increasing interest in addressing the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
Human exceptionalism is a story that runs deep in western cultures, but in the end, it is just a story, and other stories are possible. An alternative is that what makes us human is partly to be found in the differences between humans and other animals, but also in aspects which we share. That having emotions, caring for children, eating, sleeping, being embodied, and depending on the environment for our survival are just as much what makes us human as rationality, language, literature and religion. The story does not deny that there are differences between humans and other animals, but does not take those differences as signs of intrinsic superiority.
As our dependence on other species and the physical environment for our survival becomes increasingly stark and obvious, humanities disciplines are taking an ecological ‘turn’ and embracing this wider view of what it means to be human. This is most obvious in the emerging ‘ecological humanities’ such as ecocriticism, ecolinguistics, ecofeminism, political ecology, and eco-history. In the same way that anthropology now focuses on anti-racism, ecological humanities are focusing on finding less destructive relationships between humans and other animals, plants, forests, rivers and the ecosystems that life depends on.
The emerging environmental humanities call attention to overlooked aspects of being human that are important for our future, but if they are successful then they will no longer be necessary. There is no need for a separate ‘ecological humanities’ if being human is naturally and obviously seen as simultaneously being animal.
In the end, what it means to be human is a question of great importance for our future and the future of countless other species. Humanities disciplines have a key role to play in asking critical questions, engaging in thinking, analysis and debate, and shedding light on what it means to be human in the changing conditions of the world we face.
Chomsky, N., 2006. Language and mind. Cambridge University Press.
Hackert, S., 2014. The evolution of English(es): notes on the history of an idea. In: S.Buschfeld, T. Hoffmann, M. Huber, and A. Kautzsch, eds. The Evolution of Englishes: The Dynamic Model and beyond. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 282–300
Mullings, Leith. 2013. AAA President Reflects on Race. http://savageminds.org/2013/07/21/aaa-president-reflects-on-race/