Of flesh and blood I’m made

16 01 2014

What is human?

I got into it with commenter The Wet One at TNC’s joint, who chided me not to, in effect, complicate straightforward matters. I responded that straightforward matters often are quite complicated.

In any case, he issued a specific challenge to claims I made regarding the variability of the human across time and space. This request was in response to this statement:

At one level, there is the matter of what counts as “reasonably concrete realities”; I think this varies across time and place.

Related to this is my disagreement with the contention that those outside of the norm have fallen “within the realm of the ‘human’ for all intents and purposes’. They most assuredly have not and to the extent they do today is due to explicit efforts to change our understanding of the human.

Examples, he asked?

As one of the mods was getting ready to close the thread, I could only offer up the easiest one: questions over the status of embryos and fetuses.

Still, while I think that a reasonable response, it is also incomplete, insofar as it doesn’t get at what and who I was thinking of in writing that comment: people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities”: even that phrase isn’t enough, because “disability” itself isn’t necessarily the apt word.  I had referred in an earlier comment to those whose morphology varied from the statistical norm; not all variations are disabilities in even the strictest sense.

In any case, when I went to my bookshelf to try to pull out specific, referenced, examples, I was stopped by that basic question which set off the whole debate: what is human?

Now, in asking that here I mean: how maximal an understanding of the human? Is to be human to be accorded a certain status and protection (“human rights”)? or is it more minimal, in the sense that one sees the other as kin of some sort, tho’ not necessarily of an equal sort?

Arendt argued for a minimalist sense when she noted there was nothing sacred in the “naked” [of the protections of the law] human, meaning that such status granted no particular privilege. That I both do and do not agree with this is the source of my estoppel.

Kuper in Genocide notes that dehumanization often precedes assault—which suggests that before the one goes after the other, that a kinship is recognized which must then be erased. But maybe not. I don’t know.

Is the human in the recognition? If you are akin to us (and we know that we are human), then we will grant such status (for whatever it’s worth) to you. We might still make distinctions amongst us as to who is superior/inferior, but still grant than an inferior human is still human. There’s something to that—something which I perhaps should have emphasized a bit more than I did in my initial go-’round with TWO.

But I also think are cases in which the kinship might repulse rather than draw in: that disgust or horror (or some kind of uncanny valley) gets in the way of seeing the disgusting/horrid/uncanny one as human. I’m thinking of the work of William Ian Miller and Martha Nussbaum, on disgust, and, perhaps, to various histories of medicine,especially regarding the mentally ill. Perhaps I should dig out that old paper on lobotomy. . . .

Oh, and yet another wrinkle: Insofar as I consider the meaning of the human to vary, I don’t know that one can elide differences between the words used to refer to said humans. “Savage” means one thing, “human” another, and the relationship between the two, well, contestable.

I’m rambling, and still without specific, referenced examples for TWO. I can go the easy route, show the 19th century charts comparing Africans to the great apes, the discussion of so-called “primitive peoples” (with the unveiled implication that such peoples weren’t, perhaps, human people). Could I mention that “orangutan” means “person of the forest”, or is that too glib? Too glib, I think. Not glib is the recent decision to limit greatly the use of chimpanzees in federally-funded research—the extension of protections to our kin, because a kinship is recognized.

And back around again. I don’t know that one can meaningfully separated the identity of  a being from the treatment of the identified being; identification and treatment somersault over and over one another.

So if one protections are offered to one member of H. sapiens and it is withdrawn from another, then it seems to say something about the status of that other: that we don’t recognize you as being one of us. We don’t recognize you as human.

If things can be done to someone with schizophrenia (old term: dementia praecox) or psychosis—various sorts of water or electric shocks, say—that would not be done to someone without these afflictions, then one might wonder whether the schizophrenic or psychotic is, in fact, recognized as human, that as long as the affliction is seen to define the being, then that being is not-quite-human.

Ah, so yet another turn. I allowed for the possibility of superior/inferior humans [which might render moot my examples from eugenics and racism]; what of lesser or more human? Is someone who is less human still human? What does that even mean?

Back to biology. Those born with what we now recognize as chromosomal abnormalities have not and are not always taken in, recognized as being “one of us”. A child with cri-du-chat syndrome does not act like a child without; what are the chances such children have always been recognized as human?

Oh, and I’m not even getting into religion and folklore and demons and fairies and whatnot. Is this not already too long?

I can’t re-read this for sense; no, this has all already flown apart.

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7 responses

16 01 2014
16 01 2014
The Wet One

Hey AbsurdBeats. Thanks for providing your reply somewhere on the web. Much appreciate!

Re: the debate over fetuses and embryos, I would respond with this, does anyone think that human embryo or fetuses (or those sourced from a human) would turn into anything else other than a human adult were it permitted to follow its natural journey through development? Would it ever become a cat, a blue whale, a crab or a robin? Does anyone doubt this?

In other words, will an acorn ever become a pine tree? Or a house? Or an oak table? Occam’s razor can be applied here I think.

You say this, “In any case, when I went to my bookshelf to try to pull out specific, referenced, examples, I was stopped by that basic question which set off the whole debate: what is human?” and again I would answer humans are at the minimum, that which has human DNA. It’s pretty simplistic in a lot of ways, but it will capture (perhaps overbroadly) everything that has a hope of being human.

What we humans actually accord the status of “human” is a subjective thing (e.g. blacks used to not be humans in America, or not fully human as were the humans discussed in the declaration of independence), however, what is objectively human is scientifically knowable in a more or less concrete fashion (thus my DNA point above) with a high degree of certainty and clarity. I would also not that “dehumanization” is a very human trait, widely shared and recognizable across the species in its behaviour towards other humans (one wonders if chimpanzees do the same thing to other chimp troops that they slaughter?). I’d still suggest that DNA is more reliable a marker of humanity though (humanity as in belonging to that group of living organisms known as humans, vs. that character of thought or behavaviour known as humane).

Gotta run to work now, but i’ll be back. Problably from work, to continue reading and rebutting.

Great conversation!

Cheers.

16 01 2014
The Wet One

“Is to be human to be accorded a certain status and protection (“human rights”)? ” Doesn’t history teach us that this is wrong or continuously in error? Lots of people weren’t accorded status and protection (heck Americans off American soil don’t get status and protection and can be drone bombed to death contrary to American constitutional law. Were they any less human once they entered a foreign country? I think not.) Consider slavery and Jim Crow laws in the U.S. My family fled the U.S. because they weren’t considered fully human there. Did they become more human just because they crossed a border or were U.S. laws and mores (or rather the nomos that predominated in the U.S. at that time) simply wrong? There are many differing opinions on this still today, but I can assure you as one of the supposedly less than humans, that nomos was simply wrong.

To be clear, this is the sense in which I’m using nomos this wiki entry (can you tell I’m not a scholar?) details it well in the first paragraph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomos_(sociology)

But let’s not confuse nomos which is malleable, changible, and differing from time to time and place to place in human affairs with fact, everywhere and always that an embryo or fetus sourced from a human being will always become a human being and never a cat, a bird, a whale, an insect or a plant. This never happens, never will and never can. Humans might one day evolve into something else over time (possibly even a short span of time), but no human woman will ever give birth to anything except another human. No nomos will ever change this fact. I note that unlike horses and donkeys which can give rise to sterile mules (like lions and tigers giving rise to tigons and ligers), humans can’t even successfully mate with their near relatives (yeah, that experiment has been tried and it just doesn’t work http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanzee). So my point is even more concrete since the biology (which is somewhat diffuse on this point as shown by the examples given above, i.e. mules, tigons and ligers) doesn’t even work.

You wrote:

“I’m rambling, and still without specific, referenced examples for TWO. I can go the easy route, show the 19th century charts comparing Africans to the great apes, the discussion of so-called “primitive peoples” (with the unveiled implication that such peoples weren’t, perhaps, human people). Could I mention that “orangutan” means “person of the forest”, or is that too glib? Too glib, I think. Not glib is the recent decision to limit greatly the use of chimpanzees in federally-funded research—the extension of protections to our kin, because a kinship is recognized.”

These were kind of examples I was thinking you would give, but I think I’ve addressed those in my DNA counterargument. Clearly, Africans are humans. Always have been. The nomos might well have differed on that, but out there in the real world (not the one that exists in people’s heads. It’s all well and good that so and so at such and such a time thought that that group of people with a different skin colour, or social status or legal status or whathaveyou weren’t “human”, or were “savages” or “barbarians.” Nowadays, I think that science can offer us, within the limits discussed in the prior paragraph regarding chimeras or hybrids of two species, an irreducible definition of what is “human” and what is not, that really is something and not nomos.

You write:

” I don’t know that one can meaningfully separated the identity of a being from the treatment of the identified being; identification and treatment somersault over and over one another.”

This I again disagree with, or alternatively, I don’t know what you mean.

I mean there are criminals. We treat them differently than non-criminals. However, they remain humans. Same with enemies. We treat enemies quite differently than we treat non enemies. Non enemies may be allies or they may be “us” (if you follow my meaning) or another category. That fact bears on how we treat them, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are humans, even if we treat them in very inhumane ways. Humans are (so the history and daily news shows), incredibly nasty, vicious, sadistic and cruel beings. Always have been, probably always will be. They aren’t these things to those on their side though (as dictated by the nomos), unless they’re real assholes. Otherwise, they’re pretty pleasant and interesting beings to be around and chat with. By if you’re an enemy, oh dear. Things could get ugly real fast (and that’s an understatement).

To phrase your quote another way, isn’t it the case that the treatment of a human being, or group thereof, depends on their relationship to another human being or group of humans? It isn’t the case that their membership in the category “human” comes into question, it’s just that their treatment from a particular group depends on the category of relationship in which they belong. E.g. spouse, father, neighbour, fellow townsman or New Yorker, fellow American, ally, enemy, foreigner. All humans, but the treatment of each varies pretty drastically, depending on the category of relationship. In no case is their membership in the human species in doubt and barring reproductive difficulties, any male member of any group could successfully mate with a female member of the other group. All humans biologically speaking, without a doubt.

You say:

“So if one protections are offered to one member of H. sapiens and it is withdrawn from another, then it seems to say something about the status of that other: that we don’t recognize you as being one of us. We don’t recognize you as human.”

This is absolutely correct up until your last sentence. That last sentence is a reflection of nomos, not concrete reality. Human can treat other humans in all sorts of horrible ways, always have and always will (so far as I can tell). However, what is “human” can now be objectively determined without reference to the varying nomos that exist out there. We’d all be on much better ground if everyone recognized this fact and behaved accordingly, but clearly we have a much longer way to go. I wonder if I see this clearly due to being an outsider by race in my country, yet being accorded full status as human being by my countries laws and customs, whereas this is less so the case in the United States (where I assume you’re from).

Finally, let me say that I’m glad that there was a way for us to continue the conversation and hopefully learn a bit from one another. I kinda see where you’re coming from in your approach to these things and where some of the questioning of what is human comes from. However, I think that a pragmatic, radical, simplification of things gives us an answer that reflects the truth even if it doesn’t always ease our way (or ease our conscience) in doing what we want to or need to do.

E.g. I want to abort this fetus growing in me, but I can’t kill another human because that’s wrong. Too bad, so sad I say. Kill that human and deal with it, or don’t. Don’t stick your head in the sand and pretend that the fetus isn’t human. It might be unprotected in law, but it always was, and always will be human. Same thing with vapourizing cities with nuclear bombs. The Japanese might well have been enemies of the U.S. in WWII, but they were always humans too, no matter that they were incinerated, blow apart, and vapourized by the U.S. military machine, and rightly or perhaps necessarily so. Humans make war on one another. That’s what humans do. Always have, probably always will. Indeed, our nearest cousins (not all of them, but some of them) make war (or something very similar to war) in the normal course of their affairs as chimpanzees roaming about their territories. Of course, bonobos don’t make war, and we humans would dearly love to be more like bonobos to soothe our consciences (or something), but we’re not. We make war. Not endlessly, and always and everywhere, but regularly, everywhere at some point within memory. Some humans might have been lucky enough to not have war within memory from time to time in place to place, but I don’t think that’s really lasted anywhere. Even there, I think there was murder and violence or abuse.

And before I carry on with a lengthy bit of wordiness on something else, I bid thee adieu and I look forward to further exchange if one is so desired.

Cheers!

16 01 2014
The Wet One

Uh oh. Did my reply earlier today go into internet never never land? Tell me it ain’t so.

16 01 2014
The Wet One

Nope, caught in moderation. Phew!

16 01 2014
The Wet One

P.S. I saw your comment at TNC’s today. I look forward to hearing your further musings.

16 01 2014
absurdbeats

Hey TWO. I’ll have to wait until tomorrow: I am BEAT, and since I don’t care to offer up another round of rambling, I’ll put off a solid response (or as solid as I can muster) until me brain’s fully functional.

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