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What is it to be human?

What is it to be a human being? As individual members of the species the vast majority of us are small, weak and fearful creatures faced by an apparently uncaring universe and an uncertain future. Most of us simply want to get through the life apparently allotted to us with sufficient security to keep out the threatening demons of chaos; the demons of hunger, isolation and poverty. This, I believe, is true of everyone, except perhaps the most thoroughgoing psychopath (if such a person truly exists) for whom the world is simply a playground for externalising their own private demons. But such exceptions apart, even amongst the very successful one can detect the same fears that trouble the least successful. Nevertheless we are apparently the Earth’s dominant species (at least in our own estimation), which might suggest that we have banished our fears, transcended our limitations and learned to stride the stage like gods. No. The human race is still on its knees supplicating the great universe to protect us. Our apparent dominance, I believe, is not a transcendence of our fears, but a symptom of them.

Contemplating the nature of humanity in general terms, three things emerge which seem to me to be self-evidently true. First, uncertainty terrifies us. Second, and partially as a result of the first, we are a congenitally gregarious species. Third, we are symbol users, equipped with one of the most magnificent of nature’s ‘inventions’, a big brain capable of creating, manipulating and communicating abstract symbols which in turn provide us with the capacity for imagining what does not exist and then creating it.


In general all of us are averse to uncertainty. The big wide world, although apparently made safer for us and our’s by our modern form of living, still contains enough threats to make even the bravest of us shudder when we are alone at night with only our own thoughts to keep us company. If you doubt the veracity of this claim, and you are more than welcome to disagree if you think I am talking hooey, consider the continuing popularity of astrology, the Tarot, the I Ching, and other techniques for scrying the future. And these are not limited to the ‘lunatic’ New Age fringe (as some of my more ‘rationalistic’ friends might call it); there are many so-called management techniques for doing the very same thing, often masquerading as ‘science’ just like the New Age techniques, and promising results that are not too dissimilar, albeit more often heavily disguised under numbers, pie-charts, graphs and statistical projections (just like astrology!). I am not decrying any of these methods, however, I merely want to draw attention to them as evidence of a continuing fear of the future which, as I said before, we are all prone to at times, some of us permanently. But the problem with the future is that it is inherently unpredictable in any precise sense, it is therefore inherently uncertain. As Neils Bohr once observed ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. More prosaically we are all aware that tomorrow we might get run down by a bus (unlikely in my case since I try to avoid them, but still possible). Nevertheless, we are a clever species, and like other animals with whom we share the planet, we are able to make short term predictions based on observation and pattern recognition. But these fall far short of what we would like in terms of the BIG picture of uncertainty. We may predict fairly accurately the trajectory of a fly we wish to eradicate, but we are helpless to say whether our decision to change jobs will result in a happier and more fulfilling life. In the case of the fly the range of variables is relatively small; in the case of a new job they are likely to infinite or at least for all practical purposes they may as well be. It doesn’t stop us trying, though, because not knowing what comes next drives us crazy with anxiety.

Of course different people have different tolerances for uncertainty, and our tolerance will vary from time-to-time and place-to-place. When within the bosom of our family most of us find our fears less threatening, or at least we are able to put them aside for a while. This is true if our family has some passing affinity with the loving, caring, sharing open and close knit fantasy offered up by adverts and disney. But it is also true even if our family more resembles the Simpson’s or the Munsters. Actually I suspect it is more true of the latter than the former since it is likely to be more authentic. I use ‘family’ here in a very loose sense to include our friends and acquaintances, or indeed any familiar people from our social networks. Familiarity is important. Even if we don’t like them very much, these people form part of a more predictable pattern in our lives than strangers. A bad tempered boss, who is known to be bad tempered, is less scary than a stranger, who might turn out to be a monster. These people form a more or less protective cushion against the scary universe, and they are part of the human species’ gregarious nature, which I will consider later on. We could, of course, get into arguments here about ‘dysfunctional’ families, predatory humans just waiting to use and abuse others, poverty, isolation and so on, and argue about how these circumstances make life difficult and threatening, especially for children. Yes, but it misses the point. Familiarity itself, even if sometimes terrible, lessens some of the terror of uncertainty. What makes uncertainty worse is inconsistency, which is another word for uncertainty. A bad but consistent parent, for example, is better than a ‘loving’ parent who is inconsistent, at least in terms of nascent skills for dealing with an uncertain future. This is true also of bosses, priests, therapists, teachers and others into whose hands we are often placed.

In general, when faced with uncertainty all of us will attempt to minimise it to comfortable (that is non-threatening) levels. Some of us are clearly better at this than others, and much depends on how tolerant we are of the uncertain in the first place. Amongst the most common strategies is the attempt to control that which is seen as a threat. Totalitarian dictators and tidy-minded congenital bureaucrats use this strategy. When we study people like Adolf Hitler or ‘Uncle’ Joseph Stalin from the outside, the image is of goliaths strutting about the world stage. But the truth is rather less flattering; these men were amongst the most frightened members of the human race, more like children frightened of the bogeyman than confident adults. Why do I say this? Because only a scared child could try to control so much of its environment, and try to eradicate the bits it couldn’t. They exemplify an old myth: power equals safety, which of course it doesn’t. Even if Hitler and Stalin hadn’t been paranoid (which they were), people definitely learned that it might be in their best interests to ‘get rid of them’ (unsuccessfully in both cases, however). I would categorise everyone who chases power in the same way – frightened children desperate to make a safe world for themselves. The so-called ‘Need for Power’, which you will inevitably come across if you read management books, especially the trasheir ones, while often described as a necessary stimulus to achievement, is little more than a paean of praise for crippled egos. The chase for material goods and wealth falls into the same category, because it promises a panacea for basic unease which it seldom delivers (mind you, I think I’d prefer to be rich (which I’m not) and scared than poor (which I am) and scared, so let me not appear to be criticising from some elevated plain of otherworldy contentment).

Bureaucracy is another example of trying to control the uncontrollable, thereby to make it safer and more predictable. I need to be careful here. I do not intend to impugn the character of everyone who finds themselves working in a bureaucracy; often they find themselves caught in the maw of an apparently rationalistic system which in practice is actually rather more chaotic and fearful than it pretends. Bureaucracy represents a futile attempt to repeal the second law of thermodynamics, especially in its attempts to shore up its boundaries against the encroachment of entropy. But entropy wins all the same. As a consequence all bureaucracy is inherently chaotic, because as the world itself makes mockery of its pathetic SOPs and forms and imprecise categories of living, the standard response is to concentrate on making more rules to control the newly discovered unruly. So more energy is wasted trying to shore up the system than actually doing anything useful and positive. This, I think, accounts for ‘bureaucratic creep’ in which bureaucracies inevitably get bigger … and bigger, and bigger, and bi… as they recruit more sacrificial victims into the maelstrom of chaos in order to try and quiet it down. It is a project doomed to failure, but it wreaks havoc wherever it’s cold dead hand reaches. Nevertheless there are some who love it; some for whom uncertainty is so intolerable that the certainty and safety of bureaucracy, no matter how illusory, is the only context in which they feel safe. These I call the ‘congenital bureaucrats’ and they represent the failure of child rearing in that our culture and educational practices have produced not strong confident people but weak and fearful individuals who are afraid to sneeze without permission. They are living proof that somewhere along the way we have forgotten that a child’s wilfullness is to be applauded as the bourgeoning of a sovereign individual and opted instead to squash it for our own comfort. Like the dictators mentioned earlier, with whom they are often in collusion, congenital bureaucrats are amongst the most frightened of the human family. Sadly in many cases they are not content to feel safe themselves in their artificial womb of (apparent) certainty, but use their fear to rule everyone else by imposing rules and regulations on every possible aspect of life. That way, they can feel safe (they think) because the uncontrolled chaos of everyday life is tamed (they think). This is one of the least lovely of all the faces of fear of uncertainty, because it corrodes much that is admirable about the human species, including creativity which is inherently chaotic and uncertain.

Human beings are gregarious. We form social groups and networks wherever we go. I think this is partly accounted for in terms of two things: first the fear of uncertainty discussed above and second, the evident fact that human beings are relatively weak when compared with other members of the animal kingdom. If we examine the average human being, and compare it with, say, an average Bengal Tiger, we will note the near total absence of natural weapons. Our teeth, evolved to eat meat, are not very impressive if we consider them as a tool for ripping out the throat of  food that is trying to run away. Our nails, whatever they are for, are really quite pathetic when compared with the average tiger’s claws, or even those of the average domestic moggy if you think about it. And our stamina and speed are off the bottom end of the scale, except perhaps when compared to a three-toed sloth. These are not good attributes for a predator, which is, in fact, what we are. And it doesn’t help that our young are born weak and helpless and unable to live independently for an extended period of several years (as many as 40 in some cases it seems), unlike other animals. This is on account of our marvellous big brain (considered later) which takes a long time to mature. Family groups, the most basic form of gregariousness, therefore make sense as a means of survival in the face of whatever is sharing the savannah with us, especially if it wants to eat us. Of course if this were all that we had going for us, we would have become extinct a long time ago. More important is that we are not only gregarious, we are also a co-operative species. Without this aspect of our shared humanity we would most surely have perished shortly after we climbed down from the trees. This is still true. I am not trying to make a moral or political point here, although it certainly does have moral and political implications. I want to offer it as a general observation of the way people are. Co-operation is the natural style for humanity. Neither am I dismissing the competitive element of humanity; we compete with other species for space and other resources (although it appears we might have ‘won’ that race), and we regularly engage in intraspecies competition for the same reason. It is a matter of survival. Even when waging war on one another, we remain co-operative; rules of engagement, rules covering treatment of prisoners, tacit rules about scope. Even the IRA issued warnings about their bombs. Some may break the rules of co-operation in these circumstances, and I hardly need elaborate some of the ‘outrages’ that have occurred in recent wars to demonstrate it, but the very label ‘outrage’ conveys a sense of impropriety. Fundamentally social the norm. Nature, at least for humans, is only red in tooth and claw some of the time; it is not a permanent state. Even lions will lie down and ignore prey animals if they have been well fed. For humans the rule is that when faced with large predators (or nippy food) we must co-operate or perish. This is still true of society as a whole, co-operate or perish, whatever the ideologues of the new secular religion of the free market proclaim with their endless witterings and specious commitment to ‘competitive edge’ and other pseudo-darwinian borrowings and manglings. Ironically even business is at heart a co-operative undertaking; if it were not there would be far fewer businesses around than there are.

We share social gregariousness and co-operativeness with many other predators on the planet. I guess eagles don’t need either because they have the element of airborne surprise (I am open to persuasion on the point), but lions, dogs, even dolphins seem to have evolved similar traits. What all predators share, however, is intelligence. What this is like in lions and dogs and dolphins and eagles I hesitate to comment upon; for all I know their’s is a ‘superior’ intelligence (actually I think trees are probably the most intelligent of life because they have evolved to stay quiet and still and gather appropriate nutrition without causing too much mayhem, but I can be persuaded otherwise). The problem with comparing intelligence across species is that we have not yet resolved the question of intelligence within our own species. So I’ll leave it aside, with the proviso that new understandings may well emerge within both spheres which render everything I am about to say moribund.

Setting aside questions of superiority, what seems to distinguish us from other animals on the planet is our remarkable brain. And it is utterly remarkable, as well as deeply mysterious. Amongst the mysteries is the question of consciousness. We are self aware in a way that makes the mind boggle when trying to get to grips with it. Other animals may well be self aware in the same or a similar way; we don’t really know. Actually we don’t really know, which is to say we have no reliable criteria for identifying, whether other people are self aware. Sometimes one wonders, but that’s for another time. In the meantime we may safely speculate that the overall experience of self awareness and consciousness from the one example we know (ourselves) is not too dissimilar from the experience that other people have. So, we are conscious (most of the time) and self aware (ditto). But our marvellous big brain gives us so much more. Just as mysterious is our ability to create and manipulate symbols. This is so important because it has given us the ability to create abstract symbols for communication, both direct communication and communication through time. The symbols take many forms, but the most obvious (and I believe most fundamental) are language and the means to record language – writing. Furthermore, the ability to reason abstractly gives us the ability to plan in the absence of concrete examples. For example, we can plan a hunting trip without having to be on the hunting ground and without having an actual animal in front of us. In other words we can imagine what is not there, and then make it happen. FANTASTIC! What a skill. And we all have it to some significant degree.

There is so much that follows from our fantastic big brain that it inevitably becomes very complex, so I will restrict what follows to a few brief points. The ability to imagine goes with the ability to reason. The ability to reason goes with the ability to evaluate. And the ability to evaluate gives us the ability to predict (within limited boundaries) what may happen next. So we have come full circle from the first section. I am sceptical about our abilities to predict very far into the future (take weather forecasts and Tomorrow’s World for example), but we are undoubtedly able to make limited predictions once we have discerned patterns in our surroundings. We do this all time, as, for example, when we see dragons or bunny rabbits in the clouds. Sometimes it can lead us astray (it is, for example, the basis of most stage magic) but mostly it is part of our overall ability to survive uncertainty. But let’s not get too carried away in our superiority over other animals, however; there is a wealth of evidence that other animals can make accurate predictions, or that they have at least a rudimentary sense of causal relations, otherwise your average domestic moggy wouldn’t be able to catch small furry things in the garden or pester you for food by sitting on your keyboard. These are clear examples of an ability to predict based on pattern recognition. Whether moggies, or other animals, see dragons and bunny rabbits in the clouds, I don’t know. Where there is a difference it lies in our ability to symbolise, to abstract patterns from apparent chaos, record them and then communicate them. As far as I know no other animal is capable of recording abstract messages in this way. Other animals communicate, certainly. A mother cat will teach her kittens how to hunt by showing them, ostensive learning. We, however, can communicate in absentia through the various symbolic media we are able to deploy. For example we are able to teach our own young by boring them witless with instruction manuals or textbooks, and we don’t even need to be there to put up with the ensuing moaning. But to reiterate a point, all of these skills confer on us, if on no other species, the ability to imagine what is not there and then plan to make it happen. It is the ability to dream (in the sense of having aspirations for future not yet come, rather than the ability to lie on your back and twitch your legs while dreaming of chasing a small furry animal in your sleep.

Whatever else, our marvellous brain has enabled us to survive as a species, indeed to survive far beyond our natural span of life in some cases. It seems apparent that it may yet lead to our extinction, but that is a different topic.

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