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HumankindReview - Humankind
A Brief History
by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Mar 31st 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 13)

There is little doubt that Fernández-Armesto likes the big topic. Previous works have been The History of Food, the Millenium and, perhaps with tongue in cheek modesty, Civilisations. In this new book he attempts to describe a brief history of what is, and is not, to be considered human.

He adopts a historical and anthropological perspective for it is clear that the term 'humankind' has by no means meant the same thing to all people at all times. He ranges between popular culture, high science and religious interpretation in his rapid and sometimes breathless jaunt around three millennia and almost every continent (I don't recall any mention of Antarctica, but I wouldn't bet on it). He seems able to extract as much meaning from King Louie, the King of the Swingers in The Jungle Book, singing about wanting "to be human too" as the Human Genome Project, and in this he very successfully meshes serious and popular concerns. He is as interested in the anthropomorphic interpretation of a visit to the zoo as he is the added value that exists in just a few cleverly arranged genes that separate us from other species, or indeed other life forms.

He notes, not without irony, that in the last two hundred years or so, and very much in the last few decades, the notion of human values, human rights, human dignity have all grown in prominence and current debate, while at the same time the ideas of what actually distinguishes the human from the non-human have grown ever smaller. Once there was man who held dominion over all the animals of the earth, now it may be more proper to identify the human race as the third chimpanzee to quote Jared Diamond. But for a gene or two here or there, things might be very different.

He charts the conceptual threat to what it might be to be human as coming from six main sources. Number one, primatology, which has mounted ever more convincing bodies of evidence that there is really nothing special or unique about the human at all, that almost everything that you care to name is, to some degree or another, performed by other primates; it is all a matter of degree. And so, rather than distinct categories primatologists would rather have shifting shades of grey in the primate world and extend the term homo to a much broader population.

Challenge number two comes from the animal rights movement, many of whom have asked extremely awkward questions about what makes humans so special. If Shylock had been a beagle in an animal laboratory rather than a merchant in Venice we might hear him saying, "If you cut us do we not bleed, if you force us to smoke do we not cough and get lung cancer, do we not suffer too?" The debate about the level of sentient beings and consequent natural rights becomes rather difficult to refute for the modern day liberal. We do not want to go back to the 'ghost in the machine' idea of Descartes, but another adequate answers are hard to come by. The challenge laid down by contemporary moral philosophers such as Peter Singer about the value placed on a comatose human in a persistent vegetative state as opposed to a healthy, sprightly young cow is, at its core, a challenge to sloppy thinking about humanness.

Challenge number three comes from paleoanthropology in which Fernández-Armesto argues that history has been written by the winners and the poor old Neanderthals have been unjustly maligned like some loser in an ancient war. We humans are not that unique in whatever characteristic we try to emphasise. Others had big brains too, walked on two legs, used tools like us; they are just not around to spruik for themselves.

Challenge number four comes from a re-evaluation of the accepted norms for the classification of species. Current taxonomists do not seem quite so certain that the criteria for species distinction are really that distinct after all. Perhaps many are a matter of convenience rather than science, and science, as we well know, is not so pure and unadulterated as we might once have supposed.

Challenge number five comes from humankind's own cleverness; something of an irony there. The increasing interest and recent developments in artificial intelligence, itself an interesting term as it presumes a non-artificial one (and among the antonyms that a thesaurus might give to artificial are simple, unflattering and blunt as well as the more expected natural and true). If a computer can be programmed, by a human but also by another computer, to perform tasks associated with humanness, can it actually think? Does Big Blue, chess machine, actually think creatively or just compute very quickly according to certain algorithms? Can a computer create? Is creativity the defining condition of humankind? Well, not if you look at tool using apes, painting elephants or playing dolphins.

The sixth challenge is from genetics themselves. Genetic engineering has shown how it is possible to splice genes from one animal to another, and not just animals. So, are humans really that unique? And even if they are not, are they that special?

Fernández-Armesto goes on to dismantle in a very effective and elegant manner many of the myths that have at times held sway, and continue to do so, over our pitiful attempts to hold on to some uniqueness. He notes the totemic value of animal figures which embody or signify certain human characteristics or perhaps play a role in mythologies. Why should this be if it were not for a curious mix of observation and anthropomorphism. The sly fox, the wise owl, the serpent in the Garden of Eden are all very familiar, but there is little evidence to suggest that owls are preternaturally wise and it may be that snakes have just had bad publicity for a while. But he also shows how humans have an ignoble history of doing this among themselves. A surprising number of human groups, tribes and remote peoples, call themselves 'the people' or some close variation. Some religious and ethnic groups call themselves 'the chosen people'. Clearly, there are distinctions at work here. Some groups or some characteristics have been associated with certain values. Racial stereotypes have been evident as long as they have been recorded, and simply seem to change from time to time, from place to place, from culture to culture. Thus, when the Roman Empire dominated the world to be blond and blue eyed was not the ideal, such people were barbarians, uncouth and incapable of culture. The ancient Egyptians had quite a different view of black skin than was, or perhaps still is, apparent in Western culture. The quite extraordinary interest focused on the size and shape of the genitalia of black people was not all that long ago considered of great scientific merit. There was also the search for the noble savage, something more driven by political blind spots than genuine scientific enterprise. Famously, Lombroso's taxonomy of criminal types attempted to give scientific credibility to what is now seen as overt racism; the criminals were evolutionary throwbacks and the black races more so.

The Twentieth Century may like to think of itself as a high point in the unbiased scientific understanding of our world, but it also saw some most ferocious racist dogma and classification of the worthy and the less so. The Nazi period in Germany or the Jim Crow laws in the United States are obvious examples, but so are the sterilization laws and practices across the Western world where until the 1970s in many countries it was still quite legal to forcibly sterilize those who were mentally ill or intellectually or physically disabled. Importantly, Fernández-Armesto reminds us that although the Nazis made eugenics 'rather unfashionable for a while" it is now very much back in vogue, and it will take some sophistry to make a distinction between designer babies and ubermenschen.

The merits of Fernández-Armesto's account of our attempts to define ourselves are many. It is full of astonishing glimpses into histories and cultures and the insights are drawn out with sparkle and wit, and not a little enjoyment and relish. He loves a clever phrase. But he also has a slight tendency to be the cleverest boy in school and will sometimes use obviously difficult or arcane words when something much simpler would suffice. It may be over-writing to describe the "steatopygous posterior and hypertrophic 'apron'" of Saartje Baartmann, the Hottentot Venus, when her fat bottom would probably do. Nevertheless, there is clearly some very impressive scholarship in the book, and some deeply provocative and serious points. He may write as though it is an entertainment, but this book raises profound questions about not only who we are and who we think we are, but who we think we are not.

 

© 2005 Mark Welch

 

Mark Welch, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Mental Health.


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