What does it mean to be human?

To complete the triangle of thought for my previous questions “what is a landscape?” and “what is nature?” I now hesitantly bring forth the grand question of “what does it mean to be human?” The question is so broad and complex that you may wonder why I even bother to consider it in relation to my interest in landscapes. Moreover, the meaning of being is human is further complicated by the emergence of post-humanist discourse (such as cyborgs and interspecies). However, the question of what is intrinsic to humans has always intrigued philosophers and scientists. To understand what it means to be human, we must understand what our environment means to us. For an evolutionary perspective on what it means to be human, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has an exhibit and website exploring the question, listing the main characteristics of our species as the habit of walking upright, the use of tools for food, having evolving bodies and evolving brains, the development of social life, the use of language and symbols, and the ability to change the world. I will introduce here a few additional points from Neil Evernden’s The Natural Alien: Human Kind and the Environment that I found very interesting and relevant to my studies.

Boundaries: humans, other living beings, and things

Humans mentally place boundaries between everything to create unique identities. The scientific practice of taxonomy is used to categorize the world by setting boundaries. The most basic form of conquest over nature has been the ability to produce knowledge of the natural world through classification. It would seem like the simplest boundary line to determine is the distinction between the living and the non-living. However, this is not the case. Not only are there examples of indistinct boundaries between living and non-living objects (particularly for things we would call organic, such as a banana peel, the shell of a starfish, cotton, corpses, soil, etc.), some organisms are quite difficult to be categorized. Examples of this are symbionts – organisms that depend on other unrelated organism for survival. The human body is ambiguous material-wise, consisting of the symbiotic survival of multiple organisms and a composition of living and non-living elements. For example, our digestive system is dependent on the symbiosis of our intestinal bacteria. The mitochondria that replicate independently of the cells in our bodies also illustrate a symbiotic relationship. Political ecologist Jane Bennett even describes humans as “walking, talking minerals.”1 If we think beyond the shallow surface of bounded categorization, there is always an obscurity of boundaries, a diffusion that extends beyond different organisms to include what we believe as non-living and non-natural entities.

Symbiotic relationship between clownfish and sea anemone: The clownfish eats potential invertebrates, emits a high pitch sound to deter butterfly fish harmful to the sea anemone, and provide nutrients to the anemone by its fecal matter. The anemone protects the clownfish from predators with its stinging cells. Source: Wikipedia

The internal mind and the external world

Because of the ambiguity of the naturalness of the human body, Evernden concludes that the only certainties we have of ourselves are our awareness of our own tangibility and physical presence. Humans’ self-image, however, extends beyond the boundary of the physical body to the external world to include a specific territory or field of self. Evernden suggests that the objective body exists only conceptually because the Cartesian worldview insists that what is objective is outside of human emotions and feelings. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is a deterministic statement that has defined the human-nature binary and the Western worldview of existence. By separating what is inside the mind to what is outside, a boundary between human and nature is created. The thinking mind is the subject while the external world is observed objectively. However, if we always exist through experience with a varying field of self, objectivity is questionable. Pondering over our sense of self, our existence in the material world in opposition to the intangibility of the mind is inevitable as a human being. As an alternative, Evernden suggests that Martin Heidegger’s Dasein (Being), as an awareness of the possibility of non-being re-establishes a field of care to the world. Being aware of existence is unavoidable, but by developing a field of care to what is generally considered mere objects, the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity can be softened.

Humans: aliens in search of place?

One of the most interesting points made in The Natural Alien is Evernden’s suggestion that humans may be biologically inclined to be “aliens” in our natural world. Evernden looks at the biology of “exotics” to present a theory of human biological philosophy. The term exotic is ecologically considered as an organism that lives outside its native environment and often flourishes in the absence of natural predators. To Evernden, humans are in ways exotics because “we did not evolve in any existing habitat.” This is because we have evolved to continuously develop new tools (one of the main characteristics of being human mentioned above by the National Museum of Natural History). By creating a tool, we extend ourselves and transform ourselves as predators:

A person with a tool is capable of a kind of behaviour which was formerly difficult or impossible. A man who invents a spear instantly becomes a new and more dangerous kind of predator. Both his life and that of his new prey are radically transformed. The consequences of technology are subtle but extensive, and one such consequence is that man cannot evolve with any ecosystem anywhere. With every technological change he instantly mutates into a new – and for the ecosystem an exotic – kind of creature.2

This constant mutation is advantageous from a biological perspective against prey but it is also problematic for the predator cognitively. The predator’s self-identity within its environment is constantly in a state of confusion. Evernden asks the reader to imagine a scenario of waking up as another species:

Will you understand how to behave, or why? Will you have a sense of identity at all? Or will you be painfully confused about what you ought to do, forced to set about devising mythologies to instruct yourself and your confreres about how to behave and what destiny to seek?3

Not only are humans potentially exotics from an ecosystem-predatory perspective, according to Evernden, humans also have a unique vertebrate development. Vertebrates generally produce either nidicolous offspring that are immature at birth and nest for long periods, or nidifugous offspring that have open eyes and are aware of the world at birth. Humans are neither one of the two. We require a unique social gestation period and are described as secondary nidicolous. Youthfulness in vertebrates, according to Dutch psychologist Frederik Buytendijk, is characterized by indeterminance, activeness, a pathic mode towards the environment, and an ambiguous “shyness” between home and outside, family and individual.4 In essence, youthful vertebrates exert a sense of placelessness. Humans, in general, relate with this placelessness: “We are . . . indeterminate, always in motion, ambivalent, obsessed with the ‘how’ of the world, and uncommitted to an environmental context.”5 It is this feeling of placelessness and its complementary need to search for place that leads us to particular perspectives towards place, place-making, nature, and landscapes.

Most mammals and many birds are nidicolous. Image source: Altricial young birds, by Qatar&Me, Wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)
Baby turkeys are examples of nidifugous offspring. (Image source)

1. Jane Bennett, “Force of Things: Steps Towards an Ecology of Matter,” Political Theory 32.3 (2004): 359.
2. Neil Evernden, The Natural Alien: Humankind and the Environment (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 109.
3. Ibid, 110.
4. Ibid, 116-117.
5. Ibid, 117.


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