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Humankind: A Brief History, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

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Humankind: A Brief History

Humankind: A Brief History, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

What does it mean to be human? This may sound like it should be obvious and, at one time, it was — but not anymore. Science has blurred the once sharp biological distinctions between humans and other primates. Science has also blurred the behavioral differences between humans and other animals. Where people once thought there were differences in kind are now only differences in degree. So, upon what foundation can we base any claims to a unique and distinct human nature?


Title: Humankind: A Brief History
Author: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0192805754

•  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

•  None

•  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”


Book Review

The meaning of what it is to be “human” is the subject of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto‘s 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? I’m 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 isn’t 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, that’s 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 aren’t quite sure themselves.

Humankind: A Brief History

Humankind: A Brief History, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

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”?

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