Too much monkey business in the search for humanity


Felipe Fernndez-Armesto

Oxford University Press, 14.99

PHILOSOPHERS worry endlessly about concepts. When the problem is as complex as deciding whether or not an organism is human, the issue can literally be a matter of life and death.

As Felipe Fernndez-Armesto argues in this thought-provoking book, we need to be right about these things.

If we could list the essential characteristics that set us apart from other animals, then we might have a basis for deciding who should and should not join our ranks. The problem is that species-ism is as dangerous a form of prejudice as racism.

Chimps and humans are so similar they could easily be considered members of the same genus. Our hominid ancestors painted their bodies, venerated their dead and lived in complex social groups. Excluding chimps and extinct hominids from humankind requires us to ask what special features they lack. As any language-trained chimp will tell you, answers to that are hard to find.

This book urges us to face up to this problem by taking a long, hard look at what we count as human. Fernndez-Armesto demonstrates how the concept has changed across time and cultures, often to serve the political goals of those in power. From primitive totemism to modern reactions to the discovery of feral children, members of the human club have played fast and loose with their own membership rules. The treatment of this historical material is excellent, and I wished there had been more of it.

Closer to our own time, the author asks what the enhancements offered by genetic engineering and man-machine interfaces will do to our ideas about who we are. If being human means possessing a certain genome, then our genetically modified descendants will have to be excluded. If, on the other hand, we are to define human-ness purely in terms of behavioural characteristics, we would have to include chimps and cyborgs, and exclude the comatose and the unborn.

Fernndez-Armesto’s point is not that we are not different to other animal groups, but that we are not different in any special way. In fact, modern genetics gives us a reason for resisting this conclusion. There is less genetic variation in the entire human species than there is in a typical wild population of chimpanzees.

How, then, to explain Homo sapiens’ extraordinary heterogeneity?

The critical difference cannot be as simple as the possession of language or culture, as chimps can arguably demonstrate both. Rather, it may be that other cognitive capacities, such as an understanding of the mental states that determine behaviour, can account for the differences among individuals, cultures and peoples.

Fernndez-Armesto gives up too easily on the search for such capacities. It seems we are, somehow, uniquely unique: the richness of human cultural diversity is testament to that.

The concept of humankind is a fragile, elusive one. Fernndez-Armesto’s contribution is not just his elegant demonstration of this mutability, but his demand that we take it more seriously. It is time we started living up to the myth we have made of ourselves, by being more careful about how we wield this dangerous concept.

Charles Fernyhough is a novelist and psychologist