What Does It Mean to Be Human?
Once that question arose within my heart and mind, it fascinated me and gave and still gives direction to my life and to my search for meaning and truth. I started college as a chemistry major, but the questions that I encountered in the humanities were the ones that intrigued me the most. As much as I respected science and the truths it discovered and proclaimed, I came to believe that biology, chemistry and physics alone could not answer the question: What does it mean to be human?
In fact, the physical sciences often seemed to doubt that the question itself had any meaning since it was searching for an answer beyond mere physical existence.
The physical sciences teach us many facts about life but I did not believe that a purely chemical analysis of the human body, even when 100% accurate, could ever reveal the meaning of being human or the meaning of life. Such knowledge was beyond the limits of science. For those who like the TV show, BREAKING BAD (and I have not followed it through the seasons), there is a brief moment in the first season in which Walt still doing research as a young chemist is puzzled by the fact that a complete chemical analysis of the human body cannot quite account for the entire mass of a human being – there is (at least in the show’s chemical analysis of a human) just that tiniest bit that remains unaccounted for which that episode suggests is part of the mystery of what it is to be human.
In college, my interest as a result of questioning what it means to be human moved from chemistry to anthropology then psychology as well as sociology, and then to theology. As a junior in college I read Teilhard de Chardin and was taken by his integration of science and theology in explaining humanity. But de Chardin was as anathema to the anthropology professors at Ohio State as he was, so I discovered, to the professors at seminary.
But, for me, the question remained in various expressions: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a human? What is the meaning of being human? What is it to be human?
I have never lost curiosity concerning what it means to be human, and while theologically finding a harbor in the anthropology of Orthodox Christianity, the question remains as fresh in my mind, and as much as part of the mystery of the universe as ever. While theology showed the aspirations of the human spirit in seeking meaning in the universe beyond the self, still we humans have a physical existence which can be studied by science which imparts a significant answer to the question. We are part of the empirical universe and can be studied in part by the scientific method.
So I read with great interest E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, knowing that his view is a scientific one, but a scientific one that rejects any value coming from theological or even philosophical reflection. Wilson is an atheistic materialist, who teaches absolute biological/genetic determinism. His views are antithetical to what I have come to believe about what it is to be human. And yet, I found his book an enjoyable read offering an overview of millions of years of evolution which has led to the development of human beings. What is obvious to me in that history is that evolution does not appear to be a slow and consistently paced development but there are long periods of slow and little change followed by sudden bursts of significant changes.
But I am getting ahead of myself. In this blog series I intend to comment on my reading of THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH. In that book Wilson puts together a story of how the evolution of the social creature, the human, might have occurred. It is the story of what Wilson calls:
“EUSOCIALITY, THE CONDITION of multiple generations organized into groups by means of an altruistic division of labor, was one of the major innovations in the history of life. It created superorganisms, the next level of biological complexity above that of organisms.” (Kindle Loc. 2181-84)
His definitions conform to and are limited by his biologically predetermined notions of what life is. Humans are one of the few organisms that have developed eusociality, and we are by far the largest creature to have done so. It is a development that has enabled humans to conquer the earth. Eusociality exists in a few other creatures, mostly insects like bees and ants, but it has served humans particularly well in their conquest of the planet.
Humans according to Wilson have evolved uniquely of all creatures on earth.
“Overall, it seems now possible to draw a reasonably good explanation of why the human condition is a singularity, why the likes of it has occurred only once and took so long in coming. The reason is simply the extreme improbability of the preadaptations necessary for it to occur at all.” (Kindle Loc. 768-70)
The existence of humans is highly improbable according to Wilson and according to his take on evolution, and yet here we are. And despite our success on the planet, evolution has not favored other species with our peculiar qualities which also seems unusual. The high improbability of our existence and the success of our species has led to very divergent views as to how or why this happened. That divergence in modern times has led to the adversarial views of science and religion, which we will eventually address in this blog series. But first we will look at a few things that make humans unique and Wilson’s storyline of how we got here.