Title: Humankind: A Brief History
Author: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Interesting and thought-provoking work dealing with philosophy, culture, science, and history
Forces one to confront the ways in which modern science has undermined traditional notions
Examination of definitions of humanity
Describes biological and cultural definitions, weighing pros and cons
Argues that we need to re-think what it means to be human
The meaning of what it is to be human is the subject of Felipe Fernandez-Armestos short book Humankind: A Brief History. Professor of Global Environmental History at Queen Mary, University of London, Fernandez-Armesto discusses the various ways in which people have tried to define humanity in the past, why those definitions and methods no longer quite work, and what (generally unrecognized) implications all this has for us today ethically, legally, and socially.
Are you human? Im sure you think so, but when you call yourself human, what does that mean?
Humanity and Biology
Perhaps you mean this as a biological reference: to call oneself human is to assert that one possesses the genetic code unique to human species. Unfortunately, that genetic code isnt quite as unique as many assume. Chimpanzees possess 98% of the same genetic code as we do, and other species come rather close as well. What makes us homo sapiens rather than chimpanzees depends on just a very few genes. An anthropologist from a different planet might classify us, chimps, and Bonobos as the same.
Looking into the past, using the biological definition of human forces us to address the question of just when we became humans in the biological sense in the first place. Homo sapiens were always human, thats fine, but which of our ancestral species first crossed the line? When did we start being human and stop being something else? Paleoanthropologists have spent a lot of time studying ancient hominids and they arent quite sure themselves.
Looking into the future, we can anticipate the ability to play around with our genetic code to a remarkable degree. Setting aside ethical questions and doomsday scenarios, this too poses a problem for the biological definition of humanity. Our tinkering might expand the gap between us and chimpanzees, but it would create significant differences between individual humans as well. How much difference does there have to be between the genetic code of two people, or one person and their ancestor from the 1800s, before they no longer both qualify as human?