One is not born, but made a human.
In every period of history and every culture, commonsensical constructions of who is "fully human" exist, but this is always being undermined and re-constructed. In "What It Means To Be Human," [Counterpoint, $32.00] I not only argue that there is a porous boundary between the human and the nonhuman animal, but also that the distinction is policed with demoniacal precision.
I start my exploration of the human/animal border by looking at the musings of one anonymous writer of the 1870s. A woman signing herself "An Ernest Englishwoman" asked: who is entitled to the status of "human"? Her basic assertion was that women are not considered to be fully human: indeed, their status is substantially worse than that of the rest of the animal kingdom. She pleaded with the government to at least give women rights equal to those of animals. As she boldly entitled her missive: "Are Women Animals?"
It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to actually state what differentiates the human from the animal. As I show in "What It Means To Be Human," many conventional distinctions between humans and animals are applied inconsistently, or are simply wrong.
Is intellectual ability the crucial criterion? Or self-consciousness? Or the possession of a soul? Or tool-making? Or private property? Or genetic inheritance? Whatever definition we choose, it excludes some creatures we might want to include in the "human."
By looking back into the past, we can trace competing ways in which "the human" and "the animal" have been imagined. Fundamentally, though, telling stories about what makes us human is fun, vicious, mischievous, reassuring, disheartening, and fulfilling.
The "naked ape self-named homo sapiens" is "proud that he has the biggest brain of all the primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis," stated zoologist Desmond Morris. In effect, this made humans male. This is not an uncommon assumption. For centuries, cruelty to woman was allowed by law. Even animals had better protection under law. Misogynist humour routinely classify women as pussies, chicks, birds, vixen, cows, and bitches. Many scientific, legal, and sociological accounts continue to assume that "man" is simply a synonym for human. Defenders of this usage of "man" claim that those of us who feel excluded from "mankind" are simply falling prey to political correctness. © 2011 Joanna Bourke from "What it Means to be Human." Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.
Human rights are invented. At various times, slaves, executioners, religious minorities, Jews, and actors (on the grounds that they pretend to be someone else) were set outside the human. "Humans" have tended to refer to well-off men. They belong to a sovereign state. They are swathed in white skins, Western bodies. Who are given "rights"? How did marginalised groups such as women and slaves contest its narrow construction? Are animals "persons"? Racist and sexist beliefs have been crucial in excluding certain members of Homo sapiens from full personhood; but is "speciesism", or discrimination based on membership of a species, just or unjust? From the start of the human rights age, people barred from "mankind" (with its rights) protested against their exclusion. Women and slaves were particularly vocal. Yet, many women still remain excluded from many of the rights allotted to men and there are more slaves in the world today than at any time in the past. © 2011 Joanna Bourke from "What it Means to be Human." Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.
"If we are to eat meat at all, why should we not eat the best?" At least that was the view of Louisa May Alcott's (author of "Little Women") father. Nineteenth century accounts of "survival cannibalism" often observe that eating fellow-humans was only undertaken "after consultation and prayer". And, today, many women who have recently given birth swear that eating the placenta wards off post-partum depression. As one mother quipped, "It is the only piece of meat you can eat that you don't have to kill to do so". The prohibition on cannibalism is limited. After all, we pretend not to notice that blood transfusions, growth hormones, and organ transplants all involve taking products from other people's bodies and putting them inside us. In the future, the definition of human-on-human cannibalism might be further complicated with the creation of animal-human chimeras. Currently, by injecting human stem cells into sheep, chimeras can be created whose livers are 80 per cent human. Would it be cannibalistic to eat that sheep's liver? Yes. © 2011 Joanna Bourke from "What it Means to be Human." Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.
Faces matter. To be human is to possess a certain kind of face: a face that differs from that of dogs, cows, and monkeys. However, not all Homo sapiens were thought to possess faces, or, at least, faces that demanded equal consideration. Nineteenth century writers often argued that women's faces resembled those of children and the higher animals more than they looked like the faces of those exemplary humans, that is, male ones. Vicious racism often reared its head. Notoriously, in the eighteenth century, Petrus Camper classified different faces by drawing two lines against a facial profile. The ideal angle was 90 degrees - a measurement conveniently approximating that of Europeans. In contrast, he argued, the facial angle of Africans was 70 degrees while dogs possess a facial angle of only 35 degrees. Fully-human faces belonged to the classical Greeks. Plastic surgery also embraced classical ideals. In the words of a prominent plastic surgeon in 1979, in order to succeed, surgeons needed to be regularly exposed to "art collections and museums". In this way, ideal forms of beauty would be both consciously adopted and unconsciously absorbed by surgeons, keen to re-forge the human in the image of European, classical sculpture. © 2011 Joanna Bourke from "What it Means to be Human." Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.
Chimeras are organisms with both human and animal cells throughout their bodies. They are created by injecting stem cells from one species into the embryo of another species. These stem cells are exceptionally malleable, growing into a range of tissues. As a result, chimeras possess two or more different populations of cells, derived from different organisms. The question becomes: when is a chimera "human"? Should we simply decree that any organism whose cells are genetically more than 50 per cent human can be designated "human"? Or is it better to adopt a "sliding scale" approach, with different levels of humanness being governed by an assessment of higher-level human cognitive traits and the possession of crucial human biological tissue? These are questions for the twenty-first century.
In 1789, philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously argued that the important ethical question was not whether a creature could reason or talk, which have often been regarded as the crucial faculties distinguishing humans from other animals, but "Can they suffer?" Are human-beings the only creatures who can truly feel pain? Many people reserve exquisite sensitivity to humans alone. They pointed to a great Chain of Feeling, which placed male Europeans at one end and animals at the other. This did not necessarily mean that animals could be treated cruelly. Even those who argue that animals are not susceptible to pain-sensations might still be appalled by cruelty to animals. This only makes sense once we realise that it is taken for granted by practically everyone that allowing cruelty to animals would open the way to cruelty towards people. Physicians who experiment on animals would inevitably turn their scalpels upon those next in the hierarchy, that is, lesser humans. As one commentator warned in 1891, scientists who tormented the flesh of "the dog or the monkey" would one day demand the living flesh of the paupers or condemned criminals. © 2011 Joanna Bourke from "What it Means to be Human." Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.
Aristotle claimed that humans are "speaking animals". Language enables humans to respond, and not simply react, to the world. But this creates hierarchies of humans. After all, Charles Darwin asked, "at what age does the new-born infant possess the power of abstraction?" If to be human means to possess language and self-consciousness, then what does this mean for infants, the comatosed, the severely intellectually impaired, or the mute-person? In the 1880s, for instance, a teacher at an institution for deaf-mutes was blunt: mute-people, he argued, were "little above that of the more intelligent brutes [animals], and lower than the most unenlightened savages". Such arguments were undermined with the invention of sign language. When chimpanzees were taught sign language, another way of differentiating humans from other animals was undermined. © 2011 Joanna Bourke from "What it Means to be Human." Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.