The Essence of Being HumanEvery living creature has a birthday. However, only humans are capable of remembering and celebrating this occasion. They are also capable of forgetting it as years pass or having no idea about it at all like plants and animals. Birthdays though are just an iota of a person’s total life experience.
Biology teaches that all living things are (1) made up of cells that go through various chemical processes and reactions, and (2) can move, grow, reproduce, adapt to the environment, and die. Though there are animals like chimpanzees and gorillas that can learn and perform a few behavioral tricks, only human beings can build a web of relationships that essentially characterize different cultures and societies in the form of socio-cultural institutions, languages, norms, traditions, laws, beliefs, and morals, among others. Moreover, only people can exercise ingenuity that has fueled the evolution and continuing development of technologies. Such creativity and innovation have influenced human survival, economic progress, and social change.
The Imperfect Human BeingNevertheless, in spite of the favorable attributes, human beings have also created several paths toward destruction as reflected by incidents of domestic abuse, global and local wars, poverty, environmental degradation, and all kinds of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, age, political beliefs, religion, and ethnicity. Said destruction then is combination of various factors from intolerance, government suppression, technology, lack of education, and poor economy, among others.
The late Michael Crichton, through his book The Lost World (1997), described human beings as “stubborn, self-destructive conformists. Any other view of our species is just a self-congratulatory delusion.” Noting that fear of mortality is behind human interest in apocalyptic tales, Michael Moyer (2010) identified economists, scientists, and climatologists as among “the most fervent and convincing doomsayers”. This group includes:
- Thomas Malthus and Paul Erhlich who identified increased global population as the culprit behind widespread drought and disaster
- Technology expert Bill Joy with his “out-of-control nanobots” and
- Martin Rees who predicted that “a biological catastrophe—accidental or intentional—will kill at least one million people by 2020…”
Additionally, Gernot Wagner, through his “Going Green but Getting Nowhere” (2011), warned that a dying environment would ultimately result in human extinction. He proposed then that governments should advance and implement a cap and trade regulatory policy which was instrumental in effecting positive environmental changes like lead gasoline phase out during the 1980s and decreased acid rain and carbon pollution in Europe.
Hans Moravec’s Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (1988) provides another means towards human extinction. Though the human mind is behind technology, Moravec seemed certain life would rely more on artificial intelligence and that machines like computers and robots would rule the world in decades to come, replacing human workers across industries (Leslie 1999 and Platt n.d.).
Given the above cited scenarios, which between the positive and negative qualities substantiates the essence of being human? This paper supports the idea that despite self-inflicted human-made sordid conditions that add to the challenges of the natural environment, human beings are more capable of overcoming their imperfect nature than succumbing to their destructive streak.
The following section on how early and modern humans adapted to environmental changes will attempt to prove said premise. A discussion about socio-cultural processes, including rights and responsibilities that have helped humans protect themselves and have contributed to creating and strengthening their conditions, is also presented.
Survival in a Changing Environment – Human Adaptability And CultureIn What Does It Mean To Be Human? (2010), Rick Potts asked which between survival and change influences or defines human beings. He noted that survival needs, such as subsistence, protection against predators and illness, shelter, and sexual urges compel organisms, including human species, to adapt (46). Together with co-author Christopher Sloan, Potts further explained that such “…adaptations for survival—an appetite for a varied diet, making tools to gather food, caring for each other, and using fire for heat and cooking…” that “…make up the foundation of our modern survival mechanisms and are among the defining characteristics of our species” could be traced to earlier hominins (46). Furthermore, the use of stones, other weapons, and fire to helped humans to defend themselves defend themselves from predators (48).
In addition, Potts and Sloan (2010) emphasized that human survival during ancient times was effectively aided by vocal and social mechanisms through language and call signals, as well as community gatherings like burial rites, respectively (48). The former involved an effective communication process involving warning calls between and among primates (48). On the other hand, death ceremonies helped forge social ties and had served as a coping strategy that enabled humans to grieve the loss of a loved one. They likewise believed that such ceremony proved that human ancestors “were able to conceive of something other than the immediacy and harsh realities of their daily lives…imagined an afterlife…Or perhaps a better future for themselves” (49).
Such deaths, according to the authors, could be attributed not only to the challenge of dealing with predators and weak health, but as well as to “the uncertainties of climate change” (49). In their view, such instability or fluctuation of temperature had an impact on “the evolved characteristics of human beings” as they deal with the dictates of the environment (50). This situation requires a great deal of adaptability that involves “keeping certain options open and adjusting to whatever trials or opportunities occur as things change…or the capacity to adjust to novel situations…offering resilience and an ability to recover from difficult times ” (49).
Kathleen Galvin (2006) identified three levels of response vis-à-vis human adaptability: behavioral and/or cultural responses, biological/plasticity responses, and genetic responses. In the context of the environment, the effects of climatic shifts on people are likewise influenced “by culture and behavior as well as other components of the environment” (9). The different climates across geographical locations have shaped particular responses and behaviors among residents. For instance, areas with hot dry arid climates (e.g., Africa’s Sahara region, Mexico, and Australia) are more prone to have solar radiation and water scarcity issues. People who live in these places would often prefer to create and/or move to places with shades, wear loose clothing, and construct well-ventilated houses.
With regard to biological responses to climatic oscillation, Galvin (2006) labeled this phase as acclimation where the body adjusts to the stress caused by climate change. This is coupled with plasticity or “the built-in flexibility of an individual to adjust to a variety of conditions including rapidly changing conditions” like temperature and altitude (10).
The third response level to environmental change, as Galvin (2006) cited, involves genetic adaptations that have been adopted by many generations. The author used animal body morphology to illustrate her point. Using Allen’s rule and Bergmann’s rule, Galvin explained that people living in cold climates have shorter extremities and the larger the body size, and that a tall and lean person is best to live in hot areas. In both cases, a person’s body indicates its ability to store and use up heat (10). Humans who live in cold territories usually live in insulated houses, use thick clothing, engage in more activities, and stay near fireplaces. Those who reside in hot areas, on the other hand, prefer not to work during high temperatures. Galvin noted that most adaptation to climate is socio-cultural in nature.
Human Rights and Responsibilities – Caring for Self, Others, and the EnvironmentAs the main thesis of this paper implies, the positive side and strengths of human beings weigh more than the other extreme. Laland et al. (2000) identified kin selection and reciprocity as the main reasons for human cooperation. The first one involves family members or significant others, while the latter only caters to a small group of people not more than 10. The authors noted that the larger the group size, the less reciprocal exchanges are bound to emerge. However, they recognized that there could be other factors that affect such cooperation (131).
In spite of less reciprocity though, human beings have succeeded in building institutions, countries, and global and local economies, among others. They are also able to forge alliances and partnerships resulting in organizations like the United Nations (UN). The UN requires its member-states to conform with its standards that are designed to create humane and just living conditions for all people.
The first six human rights cited in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 include: (1) the right to be born free and equal in dignity and rights; (2) entitlement of rights and freedoms for everyone sans any distinction; (3) the right to life, liberty and security of person; (4) prohibition of slavery and slave trade; (5) protection from torture, cruelty, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and (6) the right to recognition as a person.
Corollary to these rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities promulgated in 1997. These include, among others: (1) treating all people in a humane way; (2) setting ethical standards and promoting good and avoiding evil; (3) treating others the way one wants to be treated; (4) protecting the environment for present and future generations; (5) promoting sustainable development and helping the marginalized; and (6) using property and wealth responsibly, justly, and for the advancement of the human race; exercising economic and political power to serve economic justice and social order.
Being Human: A CelebrationUndeniably, the journey of towards survival had been tough for human ancestors. Yet, the same challenge holds true for the modern times. Advances in technology have made it possible for human beings to sow greater violence and to aspire for expanded power and more wealth. Some say it is human nature to be greedy and cruel. But, history also shows that people are capable of being kind and compassionate, able to promote change without bloodshed.
Others perceive collective human weakness as a cause for human extinction, particularly when it comes to taking care of oneself, other people, and the environment. However, the same weakness may also end up as the cause for human redemption – i.e., the opportunity to realize the need to choose and to do the right thing to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected and that everyone would see themselves as responsible for other people’s welfare. This is the essence of being human.
Works CitedCrichton, Michael. The Lost World. Boxtree, 1997. Print.
Galvin, Kathleen A. Human-Environment Interactions: New Directions in Human Ecology. Colorado State University, 2006. Print.
Laland, Kevin N., John Odling-Smee, and Marcus W. Feldman. “Niche Constructio, Biological Evolution, and Cultural Change.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. USA: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
Leslie, John. “Risking Human Extinction”. 1999. Web. November 13, 2011.
Lynch, Philip. “Business, Human Rights and Responsibilities.” Human Rights Law Resource Centre, n.d. Print.
Moravec, Hans. Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.
Moyer, Michael. “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We're Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise.” Scientific American. 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 14 November 2011.
Platt, Charles. “Superhumanism.” Primitivism. n.d. Web. 13 November 2011
Potts, Rick and Christopher Sloan. “Chapter 3 - What Does It Mean To Be Human?” What Does It Mean To Be Human? National Geographic Society, 2010. Print.
United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1948. Web. 14 November 2011.
Wagner, Gernot. “Going Green but Getting Nowhere.” The New York Times. 07 Sept. 2011. Web. 14 November 2011.
Written by Leann Zarah (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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