12/14/2011 04:04 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2012

What Is 'Human'?: 7 Ways To Tell If You're A Homo Sapiens

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.