Defining Humanity #edcmooc

Day 16

Block 2 of the E-learning and Digital Cultures course asks the question: ‘What does it mean to be human within a digital culture, and what does that mean for education?’

Given the brief, I decided not to jump straight into this week’s films as I have done in previous weeks. Instead, I am opening with the core content, a lecture from Professor Steve Fuller from University of Warwick entitled ‘Humanity 2.0: defining humanity’.


Professor Fuller speaks very engagingly on historical notions of humanity, although I felt that specific definitions are (perhaps intentionally) alluded to rather than spelled out; giving credence to the idea that “genuine humanity is precious and elusive”.

Picking the meat from the bones (a nod to another of this week’s films), I might conclude from Fuller’s lecture that it is the activities of man that cannot be explained by Darwinian theory that make us human. Fuller lists these as education, universitas (society) and engineering. He also goes on to discuss how the pursuit of humanity should not be allowed to overshadow the role of mass education, health care and more general presumptions of welfare entitlement in raising the ‘human potential’ of all.

In defining what is human, I personally lean towards Foucault’s assertion that [according to Marx, Nietzsche and Freud] mankind is little more than a species of exotic ape with a ‘God delusion’. We seem to have a very arrogant view of the other creatures on this earth and ascribe all ‘higher’ functions – intelligence, altrusim, empathy… exclusively to ourselves.

Tool use, for example, was once thought to be unique to humans, though we now know that a wide range of mammals, birds, fish, cephalopods and even insects use tools, while primates who craft tools to perform specific purposes are now well documented [1]. Similarly, humans were believed to be unique in our ability to develop and use complex language and yet chimpanzees have been taught to communicate using American Sign Language [2] and researchers have even demonstrated that prairie dogs use a highly sophisticated language to warn the colony about approaching predators. According to US-based academic Professor Con Slobodchikoff: “Prairie dogs have the most complex natural language that has been decoded so far. They have words for different predators, they have descriptive words for describing the individual features of different predators, so it’s a pretty complex language that has a lot of elements.” [3]

The cleverer we get at studying our animal neighbours, the more ‘human’ the animals seem to become. Even ‘merciless’ killer whales have been observed feeding and protecting disabled individuals who are unable to hunt and find food for themselves – even when the individual is not directly related to the pod [4]. You might reason that the thing that truly sets up apart from the animals is our creativity, but a quick google search on ‘animals and creativity’ brings up an article in Psychology Today about Imo the macaque who researchers observed demonstrating ‘ideas and insights’ and ‘innovating’ [5]. So what remains to distinguish us from the beasts?

I’m betting that whatever quality you can think of, one day we’ll find a way to improve upon the “dumb experiments” of the past so that we can observe it being demonstrated by animals, which is what I believe Professor Fuller meant when he said that: “…the idea of there being a distinction between human and non-human has always been problematic and is certainly problematic today.” Perhaps ironically, though, the advances we have already made in our understanding of animals demonstrates the evolution of our ability to inhabit the right mental space to move beyond the perspective of “I feel it, therefore it is true”, to adopt a larger perspective that takes account of another’s point of view – even if that other person is really an animal.

So perhaps the Ancient Greeks had it right all along. Humanity means having the discipline to “become a certain kind of being you might otherwise not be” so as to gain a better understanding of someone else. Or perhaps its something more mysterious than that… like perhaps the number 42.


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