Humans from earth, pt III

23 01 2014

So I fudged in the previous two posts.

I assigned the “practical” to pt I and the “ontological” to pt II, and then promised to return to the practical in this post. But really, it’s all been pretty much fudgily ontological,  or should I say, practically[-]ontological?

Which is to say, I think the question of being-in-the-world, the ontologically query, is also a question of great practical [political, ethical] urgency. Further, that the difficulty of the question ontologically is part of the urgency of the practical question of humanness gives that urgency purchase in the ontological.

Short version: the border between the two is foggy. Fudgey. Part of being human is to be recognized as human by other human beings. Which came first. . . ?

I don’t know, and I don’t know that anyone can know. One can argue, with TWO, that there is something irreducibly “human”  (his “concrete reality”) in our species-being, and that the lack of recognition of a group’s humanness is simply a kind of dodge, a repression, a story told to cover the horrors of inhuman treatment.

Among the books I pulled off my shelf was a copy of my dissertation. Early on I quote Elaine Pagels on the long history of “us vs. them”, as well as her caution that “[T]his virtually universal practice of calling one’s own people human and ‘dehumanizing’ others does not necessarily mean that people actually doubt or deny the humanness of others.”And she may be right.

But that concrete reality of the Arendtian-naked human, however practically correct it may seem, runs right into a practical problem: how do we know that this person is human except by the way we treat him? Isn’t the treatment of the other its own practical recognition of the status of that other?

I’ll come back to this, but in the meantime, a few examples:

  • Hans Frank, Nazi General Governor of Poland: “the Jews were a lower species of life, a kind of vermin upon contact infected the German people with deadly diseases” (Robert Lifton, Nazi Doctors)
  • Alfred Hoche, Freiburg psychiatrist referred in 1920 to “incurable idiots”, of those with “mental death” as “human ballast” and “empty shells of human beings” (Lifton)
  • “The Guarani-speaking Paraguayans who hunt the Ache and the Ache, both speak varieties of the same language stock, Tupi-Guarani. But the Guarani-speaking settlers are men of reason, while the hunting and gathering Ache are in their terminology merely Guayaki, ‘rabid rats’; and the rabid rats must be exterminated.” (Eric Wolf, quoted in Leo Kuper’s Genocide)
  • Colin Legum, writing of massacres in northern Nigeria: “While the peasants complained of exploitation, the educated Northerners spoke of Ibos as vermin, criminals, money-grabbers, and sub-humans without genuine culture”. (Kuper)
  • Wilfred Jones: “By a peculiar twist of logic (which has not been completely dispelled in our day) those afflicted with mental diseases were generally treated as if they had thereby been stripped of all human attributes, together with their rights and privileges as human beings.”

There are more, of course, unbearably many more, divvying people up by ethnicity, religion, mental capacity, morphology, language, culture—anything, really.

And here we are at the point at which TWO and I can point to the same evidence and reach opposite conclusions. TWO could say, “yes, but these people were all recognized as humans, and their oppressors and killers clearly had to try to take their humanness away from them—which ipso facto reinforces my point that they ‘really are’ humans”.

I, however, look at these examples and think, “our humanness can be taken away, which means that it is contingent, not absolute”.

If you are religious and have some belief in an after-life, an absolute humanness might be a kind of solace for the sufferings of this world: Even if your fellow species-beings treat you as a rat to be exterminated, you will be recognized as human by your god, and granted surcease as a result.

But I hold to no existence beyond this world (maybe there is, maybe there isn’t), so there is no solace in considering our status beyond this world. If I am to live as a human in this world, then I have to be recognized as human by other beings in this world. If I am not so recognized, then I can be abused, enslaved, killed, and justifiably so.

I can protest that I am human, but if you don’t see that in me, then my protests, even my own “absolute” beliefs in my own humanness, mean nothing.

This is the urgency of the point: our humanness can, in fact, be taken away from us. The only way, then, to insure that we are treated as humans is to reinforce our humanness over and over and over again.

It’s like setting down a tent and staking it to the ground: you have to go back round and round and pound those stakes back down to keep the whole tent from flying away.

It is power against power: the force of the hammer, the strength of the stakes, the firmness of the ground, against the wind and the rain and the mischief of those who would pull up those stakes.

If we recognize our fellow species-beings as human beings, if this is a “concrete reality”, it is only because we have made it so, because we have, in fact, poured concrete around those stakes. But even that concrete is not enough.

We have to remember why we poured that concrete in the first place, and be willing to reinforce those stakes over and over and over again.

We’re humans from earth, pt. I

20 01 2014

*Updated* I just noted that the comment TWO referred to earlier as perhaps being stuck in moderation was in fact so stuck. I just noticed it now, so haven’t responded to it in either this post or in pt II (which I’ve already written); if necessary, I’ll make the necessary adjustments to my response in pt III.

A bit late—laziness and fun colluded to prevent a posting before this—but finally, on the instability of the human.

First, the initial claim, and The Wet One’s challenge to the claim and some back and forth (way way down the thread—and ignoring TWO’s snark about ivory towers):

ab: the “human” is a constructed being, so to look for the human in history is to make basic choices about what & how one looks at that history.

two: It’s constructed to a certain extent, yes, but there really is an irreducible humanness that really does exists. It’s visible in electron microscopes and the like if you need to look. It’s common to all of us humans and is about as constructed as is gravity or the sun.

Some back & forth on the biology itself (interesting in its own right, but not the issue in this post), then:

two: Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better? I guess as a genetics student (undergrad only), I find that response kinda wanting. I’m well aware that there are plenty of morphological and genetic aberations that deviate quite widely from the norm, but for our purposes here, I think you and I (perhaps not all, but you and I at any rate) know what the norm is to determine “humanity.” Extra chromosomes, polydactly, other morphological aberations don’t really change this. It still falls within the realm of “human” for all intents and purposes. Don’t abstract away a reasonably concrete reality with ideas out at the 9th or 10th standard deviation from the norm. It just doesn’t seem to me to be terribly pragmatic or useful.

ab: 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.

two: [to paraphrase: examples from past and present, please!]

So there it is, in an ungainly nutshell.

First, to TWO’s contention Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better?

I think it can and often does serve as a foundation, and as I noted in the previous ramble, I ought to have been more explicit about that. There is a certain practicality, today, in going along with the notion that any being borne of those already recognized as human, and who takes a form which is more-or-less similar to those already recognizably human, is herself human. Much of contemporary (bio)ethics and politics is predicated upon this biologically-based recognition.

And I do, in fact, talk about this in my bioethics class. Biology—genetics—matters! As I note, while we share almost all of our genes with chimpanzees and other apes, the fact that we are so morphologically (among other things) distinct suggests that those few genetic differences are powerful.

That said, I hold to my original contention as to the variability of the human, and the fact that while biology may be a necessary condition for recognition as human (tho’ this may change as AI evolves; subject for another post, perhaps), it is not sufficient.

Thus we may—I’ll let TWO speak for him (I think) -self—have arrived at the source of our disagreement: TWO takes biology as having an “is-ness” which is apparent, “pragmatic”, “useful” (to use two terms taking from another part of his comment), which obviousness marks it as having a (near?) absolute quality.

I don’t believe it has an absolute quality (and this is quite apart from our agreed-upon framework of evolution), but instead an historical quality. He thinks it is more or less fixed; I do not.

On a practical level*, our disagreement isn’t so great, as I noted, above. And that I think the human is historically contingent does not mean that the meaning isn’t durable, or stable for long terms.

Still, I think that the mention of embryos and fetuses is apt in highlighting that even at this practical level there is some disagreement as to status of entities which clearly share our biological material.

TWO responded in a comment to my last post

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?

I don’t, at least outside of science-fiction speculations, but note the “would turn into” and of the necessity of “development”. If the biology were dispositive in and of itself, no such development would be necessary—and, in fact, for pro-lifers, no such development is necessary: the embryo is a human person, full stop.

(Side note: there are all kinds of arguments about personhood out there, some of which I’ve discussed previously, but I don’t want to complicated this discussion even further by bringing in questions of the relationship of personhood to humanness.)

In some ways, the emphasis on development seems, well, an over-emphasis, for precisely the reason TWO points out—that conceptus ain’t gonna turn into a kitty. But insofar as we in the US (and elsewhere) are politically preoccupied with embryos and fetuses, and that a big question at the center of that preoccupation is When does the embryo/fetus become a human [person]?, then at a very practical level, it makes sense to look at development.

Now, you will no doubt have observed that, despite my side-note, I used the term “human person” rather than just “human” or “human being”: this is a concession to the way the question is often framed in ordinary discourse; in the debate over abortion or stem cells, it’s not referred to as the “embryo of Homo sapiens“, but “human embryo”.

For my purposes here that ordinary usage is unfortunate: to make my point as clearly as possible, the argument over the status of the embryo/fetus is not whether it is of the material of Homo sapiens (general agreement: yes), but when that biological material becomes human.

TWO argues that the biology answers the question for itself, but I argue that it cannot.

Which brings me to the ontological level—and part II.


*I am harkening back to my epistemological/ontological/practical distinction in calling this level “practical”: it is the level at which we live our daily lives, and at which politics, and ordinary-ethics (or discussions over “the right thing to do”) take place.