Charlotte Sleigh is an honorary professor at University College London, the president of the British Society for the History of Science and the author of numerous books including — with Amanda Rees — “Human.”
Imagine the scene:
The aliens have landed. Their ship settles down into a valley near Mexico City, billowing clouds of dust and leaves. The president of Mexico and the United Nations secretary general jostle discreetly to be at the front of the welcome party: to be the first to greet them, to star in what will instantly become the most famous photograph ever taken in the history of the world. Behind these two leaders stand all the smartest experts in the human sciences to help the work of translation and mutual understanding: linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists. (And behind them, just in case, are ranks and ranks of armed soldiers.)
But to the humans’ utter astonishment, the aliens disembark without a word or a gesture to the greeting party. They ignore it completely. No coming in peace, no aggression, nothing. It’s like the humans aren’t there at all.
The visitors seem to melt through the crowd and disappear. The humans follow them to a nearby lake, where they had some kind of assignation with the axolotls, a species of salamander.
What a galactic embarrassment, not even to be worthy of a moment’s notice.
When we ask the question, “What are humans?,” it is not just a matter of definition, but a matter of value. In the recent history of the West at least, when we ask what it is to be human, we implicitly mean “What are these great humans, and what is it exactly that makes us so great?” It is a kind of circular reasoning, since it assumes superiority and then goes looking to discover what form that superiority takes. It is also, to put it in technical terms, a form of exceptionalism.
Our visiting aliens would, plausibly, have at least two questions in mind. First, what kind of organism should they regard as the top species: the one with which they would have to contend for mastery of our planet, or — if they were not belligerent — the one from whom they would most like to learn? And second, what is the quality of that organism that means it occupies that role of top species, or most interesting species, or most valuable?
It is not at all obvious that Homo sapiens would top their list. In terms of sheer numbers, E. coli would come out immeasurably stronger than their human vessels. Bacteria in general would win out in terms of ability to evolve and adapt. In terms of geological significance, perhaps the uncountable myriads of earthworms — architects of the Earth’s fertile crust — would be of most interest. Or how about the oldest continuously existing species (possibly the tadpole shrimp)? Or the best at cooperation (the ant)?
One can achieve a similar sense of species discombobulation by traveling into the past. The story of Adam and Eve was long ago discarded as naive, yet a hunger to identify the first “real human” fuels our appetite for paleoanthropology. Could a fossil newly discovered somewhere be the actual first human?
The implied counterpoint — but its great-great-great granny was not human — suggests that the more one pursues this line of thought, the more it dissolves into chronological absurdity. The notion of multiple human kinds existing side by side (most famously Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens) invokes the possibility that humanity could pervade more than one species of the genus Homo.
The genetic evidence of interbreeding led some scientists to suggest that Neanderthals should be designated as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. This in turn provoked an immediate buttressing of the human condition by giving us an extra nominative dollop of wisdom, an extra “sapience” in our species name: Homo sapiens sapiens. Wisdom is, after all, our supposed distinguishing mark from the thick-skulled caveman.
Multi-species humanity is little more than an intriguing thought if it can be safely confined to the past, but if the claim were to be taken seriously, it could leak across into other hominid categories of the present day, compelling us to treat chimps and orangutans as human. And once we’d widened humanity to include the great apes, why stop there? There would be no reason in principle not to extend humanity to other levels of animal classificatory groups too.
So maybe it’s time to take a rain check on the question of what humans are. Instead, let’s ask: “What are human beings not?” When we dig a little, we discover that humans are forever busy finding answers to that riddle. “Humans are a bit like X, except that we are different in respect of Y.” As Alexander Pope famously lamented, he was “In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast.”
Gods and beasts are two of the many things that we marshal as exemplary non-humans, the better to define what humans are. We could add machines and aliens — key examples of what we are not, but things which nevertheless confirm our humanity. Humans are like animals, but importantly different in some respects — and so on. Or at least, that’s the usual way of making the comparisons. There’s almost always a sly human superiority in these counterpoints: Humans are not animals because we are more rational; we are not machines because we are more spiritual; we are not aliens because we do not have green skin or grotesquely bulbous heads.
Beasts in particular have long been an important category of the almost-human that has helped to define humanity by contrast. There is a lot we can learn from efforts to draw a line between animal nature and that of human beings.
Many cultures have been keen to assert that humans are in some senses like animals, but in other senses — the most important ones, the exceptional ones — not like them at all. Daoist teaching, for example, suggests that something special (often translated as “understanding”) generally exists in humans alone. In Christian theology, only humans have souls. And, since the time of René Descartes, Western science has generally been at pains to assert that animals are mere automata. In the generation after Charles Darwin’s triumphant demonstration of the evolutionary connection between humans and animals, psychologists actually doubled down on their insistence that no animal activity should be interpreted in terms of human-like processes if it could possibly be avoided.
The strange thing is that these counterpoint categories do additional work within the species of Homo sapiens, fencing off fellow members of the species as subhuman. Ethnic groups are routinely labeled beastly, alien migrants as illegals. Defining the human by the non-human leads to some pretty dark places.
“Beast” or “brute” was a favorite 18th and 19th-century British epithet of sub-humanity. Indeed, calling someone a beast is, if a recent spat among the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is anything to go by, still one of the most genuinely shocking insults in the lexicon.
Less comic examples of the attribution of beastliness unfortunately abound. Victorian British scientists created evolutionary ladders in which the “lower races” were closer to animals, their bestial nature supposedly demonstrated via skull measurements categorizing them as “low brow.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, humans were displayed alongside animals in zoos and science expos; fairgrounds and circuses exhibited persons of color as the “missing link” between the human and the ape. Nazi propagandists compared Jews to cockroaches.
Using the animal to police boundaries within Homo sapiens — between the beastly and truly human — is not only a Western phenomenon. The Daoist model too entails the possibility that a person can fail to be truly human. Not all humans have that crucial quality of understanding; they may have the mind of a “brute.” Hate speech directed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar refers to them as “non-human … dogs.” Once a human has been affirmed as beastly, they can be excluded from the obligation to treat them as if they are one of “us.” Pest control is not, so the argument implicitly goes, genocide.
In posing the question about the nature of humanity, we are — besides asserting our exceptionalism — asking a question about whom to include in our web of privileges and obligations.
What if we began instead by choosing to extend inclusion within the web of privilege and obligation, and then look to see what happens to the category of humanity? Rather than seeking to extend personhood only to those who are like us, what if we began by presuming humanity?
The sociologist Amanda Rees and I proposed the concept of “imhumanism” as the name for this philosophy. Imhumanism holds that humanity can never be identified: You can never say “I’ve got it” or “they haven’t.” Rather, humanity exists in the act of conferral. It can’t be grasped once conferred or ceded. It exists in the relationship, not in the giver or receiver.
Imhumanism has roots in the work of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy wrestles with the problem of being or existence, arguing that it makes no sense as a property since one cannot point to existence without pointing to a thing that exists.
The same can be said of humanity. We can’t point to its existence outside of humans, and when we use categories (such as the animal) to define what it isn’t, we end up folding in on ourselves and excluding some fellow species members from humanity.
Nancy solves his problem through the philosophy of “being-in-common.” The infinitely complex world, says Nancy, is constantly folded upon itself, and where its edges touch, then a thing comes into being — or, in his terms, is delineated. Its existence is made manifest, and essence is asserted. A mother, for example, comes into being (exists), and is revealed as a particular kind of thing (has an essence) through the relationship of an adult with a child. A Briton is delineated at passport control.
Thus the nature of a thing, for Nancy, is an “immanence”: an ever-present potential quality that is “exposed to being” in relationship.
Humanity can be regarded in much the same way. Imhumanism holds that humanity is not a quality that can be described or pointed to, either in the abstract or within the humans that contain it. It is not something that can be searched for in the human as though it were separable from it, or found to be absent in some individuals. Most certainly it cannot be identified and affirmed in oneself.
Humanity is created, or delineated, in the act of being given away.
There is a spiritual tradition closely allied with the paradoxical suggestion that humanity appears in an act of conferral. This tradition holds that Christ’s apotheosis (rising to godhood) was, paradoxically, rooted in his renunciation of that very divinity. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians that “though he [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave […] Therefore God also highly exalted him.” (Emphasis mine.)
The Eastern Orthodox Church has made this doctrine (known as kenosis) central to its spirituality. Humans are created in the image of God, but it is only by emptying themselves of their humanity that they can share in God’s divinity.
There are also practical examples of imhumanism at work. The attribution of personhood to animals is an indicator of psychological integrity. Conversely, research shows that childhood animal abuse is a strong and well-attested predictor of adult human violence. In other words, the development of humane consideration towards other members of Homo sapiens is tightly connected to that same consideration in relation to other species.
Similarly, anthropologists have highlighted that traditional hunting communities tend to regard the animals they kill as non-human persons. Killing is governed within mythological and spiritual frameworks of shared life. In more recent years, indigenous scholars have begun to elaborate with greater intellectual clarity and moral force the practical and spiritual value of such ways of living in the world. Even within the West, most of those who keep pets treat them as people, while many of those who work daily with large mammals (horses, cows, pigs) take their individuality and their personality as a matter of course.
Imhumanism need not stop at the living. In 2017, a Māori tribe of New Zealand’s North Island succeeded in having the Whanganui River, which they regard as their ancestor, written into law as a living entity with legal status. In ordinary language, they made it into a human person.
The move was not without resistance. Many were deeply troubled and provoked by this extension of humanity. They argued that a river cannot make use of many legal rights enjoyed by humans, such as education, that it could not be considered a full legal person unless it could also be held responsible for its “misdeeds,” such as flooding. But it is already the case that non-living entities are given quasi-human rights and responsibilities under law — businesses and companies. A river is no less well enmeshed in our web of needs and obligations than a business. Arguably, more so.
Animals have long been used as a border between humans and others. Our very genus name, Homo, means “sameness.” The rest of the animal kingdom, by implication, is different. Deriving from the same Greek etymology, the human being is a person who is like me: a dangerously subjective judgment.
The other half of that slippery term, human being, may be a more promising place to start. Being, the drive toward continued existence, is the one quality that unites the expanded multi-species “us” — and in the human-made era of Anthropocene, it is this very thing that is under threat. A radical extension of humanity — as per the philosophy of imhumanism — may represent one of the few tools we have to save Homo sapiens sapiens.