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Being human and the definition of human life has been an enigma from time immemorial. Can we give a definitive answer to this dilemma? Yes.
I’ve been thinking and working on The Explanation Series for most of my life. Some fifteen years ago, I visited the evolution gallery of the British Museum. I wanted to see how various classes of scientists defined human. What is it that sets us apart and at the pinnacle of living creatures on Earth?
(Audit of the Universe, chapter 7.2)
First, for clarity’s sake, I want to elaborate on what humankind has in common with animal kind:
- Both have physical bodies and skeletons made of bony material. We know that some animals do not have skeletons, like jellyfish. There are exceptions to all these points.
- Both have a blood circulation system to feed the cells in their bodies.
- Both have an oxygen circulation system to burn the food (sugars, fatty acids) and supply energy to their cells.
Humans and animals have life, and if we break certain physical body parts, both die. If we cut off blood circulation, both die. If we cut off oxygen circulation, both die. In these three areas–physical body, blood, oxygen—of life, although the functioning (and even existence in some cases) of these major life systems can be extremely different–fish breathe oxygen underwater, humans cannot–both animals and humans are comparable.
Now let’s see the focus of the British Museum and the Smithsonian; the Louvre and the Cairo Museums are probably the most renowned in the world and should be able to enlighten us in our quest to pierce the mystery of what being human is all about.
There are many exhibits of the physical specifics of humankind. Here is a very brief summary of these traits:
- bipedalism – The ability to stand upright and walk for lengthy periods of time. Our human skeleton is adapted from its central cranial base attachment to the spine down to its pelvis and feet via the strength of the femur and articulation of the knees.
From head to toe, humans are made to stand upright.
- Big brains – Humans do not have the biggest brain (human brain about 1.5 kg), which is reserved for sperm whales at 8 kg. But humans have the biggest brain compared to their body weight.
Anthropologists indicate, ‘what caused this drastic increase in size is unclear‘ but believe this human trait allowed humankind to progress and develop more sophisticated hunting tools and strategies, social structures, and eventually language.
I don’t want to dwell on these physical traits, but the British Museum exposes three other differences identifying humans:
- Similar-sized sexes – Males were much larger and equipped with canines to fight for females.
- Childhood – The ability to take care of their young after weaning.
- A precision hand-grip – Manual dexterity to grasp firmly a small object between your thumb and the tips of your fingers.
All of these five physical traits contribute to setting humans apart and making our species unique.
But let’s take it a step further. If these human skeletal characteristics are important by themselves, what is more primary is what they allow us to accomplish. Bipedalism allows us to practice sports of all types. Brains allow us to do research and mathematical calculations. Similar-sized sexes allow men and women to cooperate in a more human way. Childhood is not a ‘skeletal trait,’ and I’m not sure why it should be included in the British Museum list. This trait is vital for humans, and I will return to it at length in chapter 12 about how humankind socializes. Precision-grip permits us to manipulate our environment in umpteen ways.
I realize what the vocation of the British Museum is: focusing on the physical traits of human beings and the morphology of skeletal remains, as revealed by archaeology, anthropology, and related sciences. However, in so doing, we reduce and even limit the comprehension of humankind to just a physical level. But this emphasis clouds the essential.
The definition of what being human involves deserves a much more profound analysis rather than just scrutinizing material parts of dead bodies. Human life is vastly more than that. As important as these physical abilities are, what is capital is what they allow humans to do and what humankind has accomplished with them.
Skeletal traits are useless without something to supervise and administer them, so the physical body knows what to do. In the last chapter, philosophers indicated the traits of humans. What being human is all about: civilization, language, abstract thought, morals, ethics, perfectability, technology, and analysis.
None of these traits can be produced by a physical body alone. These are cognitive attributes. Some people, most people, would attribute these characteristics to the brain. Animals have brains, but they have none of these philosophers differentiating attributes. People would say that animals have lower levels of some of these traits. Yes, much lower levels. People would add that the human brain is ‘more developed’ than the animal brain. Yes, vastly more developed. Then we can add instinct into the equation–but there again, there remains a huge chasm between animal instinct and human capacity.
I submit to you that to bridge this vast chasm that separates being an animal from being a human is the cognitive capacity of humans. The dictionary defines cognition: as relating to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning, as contrasted with emotional and volitional processes. The seat of this mental capacity is referred to as the mind.
Museums Reveal what Being Human is
Let’s stay with the theme of museums and reveal what being human is. In Inventory of the Universe chapter 10, I compared humankind and animal kind. In Audit of Humankind, I take it to a far superior level. In fact, other than bodily and skeletal comparisons, there is absolutely no similitude whatsoever between humans and animals. The gulf is so great; it is insurmountable.
France, where I live, is the country of museums. No other country has a density of museums as France does. There are about 1250 officially recognized museums. But to this must be added thousands of municipal and local museums. They fall into multiple categories.
As you read through this list, I’d like you to think of one point: Being Human is ALL these subjects. Being Human is ALL these activities. Being Human is all this creation. Being Human is all these accomplishments. Human Life is ALL the stories told by these museums.
Being Human is a never-ending story in itself.
|Artillery museum||Hair museum||Palace museum|
|Aviation museum||Hall of Memory||Postal museum|
|C||Heritage center||Prefectural museum|
|Cabinet of curiosities||I||Private museum|
|Ceramics museum||Imaginarium||Public museum|
|Children’s museum||Interpretation center||Regimental museum|
|Collection (artwork)||J||Rural history museum|
|Community museum||Jewish museum||S|
|Computer museum||L||Science fiction libraries and museums|
|Dime museum||Living museum||Sex museum|
|E||Local museum||Ship museum|
|Economuseum||Maritime museum||Technology museum|
|Ethnographic village||Migration museum||Textile museum|
|F||Mobile museum||Torture museum|
|Farm museum||Musaeum||Toy museum|
|Fashion museum||N||Transport museum|
|Folk museum||National History Museum||Design museum|
|Food museum||Natural history museum||U, V, W|
|Geology museum||Open-air museum||Virtual museum|
|Green museum||Wax museum|
There’s definitely something innate about being human that sets humankind apart in a superior way.
It’s the capacity of the human brain and mind. Only humankind, of all the creatures on earth, are dreamers, thinkers, and poets, as witnessed by all the museum collections. Humankind lives light years beyond its skeletal and biological existence and concerns itself with mental, civil, cultural, and even spiritual life. This is why humans rule planet Earth as the highest expression of life.
Did you notice the Imaginarium in the list of museums? Being human, each person who has walked the face of this Earth is innately equipped with imagination. The ability to conjure up new concepts about every imaginable and even unimaginable subject–like creating a museum dedicated to the imagination! That’s the epitome of the mind, the characteristic of being human.
Wow, it makes you stop and think.
This blog post is an excerpt from chapter 7.2 of Audit of the Universe
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