Hello all! What do lions mercilessly murdering defenseless antelope, a mad alien with a blue box and an android have to do with what it means to be human? All of this to come and more so read on. Warning: Minor spoilers for those who haven’t seen Doctor Who.
This time I’m going to leave my previous quote for my next post in favor of talking about a question that every last human being that has ever lived has lived their lives trying to answer whether or not they know they were doing. Who are we? That is to say, what does it mean to be human? Remember that this is only my opinion and I encourage you to form your own.
We have many sayings that seemingly tell us what it means to be human. “To err is human.” Well this tells us that human beings make mistakes, and I look around at the world and I can believe that. People seem to make mistakes, a lot, but is that all there is to being human? Some people might say so looking at the current political climate in the US, but remember most politicians are people too. Most. Sure human beings mess up a lot, but that’s not all we are no how much we do it. We do get some things right at least some of the time. TV remotes, Lazyboy chairs, hotdogs and the like. Also it seems arrogant to assume that if you make a mistake that makes you human. There are plenty of other animals that make mistakes, but they aren’t human. In fact I don’t know of any perfect beings around my neighborhood, so really the statement should be, “To err is life” because really that’s what life is about: making mistakes.
So what does it actually mean to be human? Well I could take the Aristotelian approach and logically go through all of the traits that the human machine possesses, but I think you know your own body well enough to get along without my help on that. However one trait has often been used to define humanity as apart from animals, and by apart they mean better, which is the ability to reason. But some animals can, at least in my opinion, think and work things out. I’ve seen my dog at it. She will look at you quizzically and wait until the opportune moment to strike, must be the dormant wolf DNA in her surfacing. By the way she’s watching me type this and I swear her eyes flashed red just now and she growled in my computers direction. True humans think critically and we have seen no evidence that animals do that, but is that it?
Technically and biologically, yes. We’re just monkey’s who by a severe stroke of evolutionary luck grew a nice sized brain, started walking on two legs and the rest is history, but that’s not enough for me, and I don’t think it should be enough for anyone else. I like to think that life has meaning. All life has a purpose. Sometimes it’s really difficult to see it, but I truly believe that we each have a purpose. There are those that say life has no meaning for one reason or another. To them I ask, if you believe that life has no purpose then what’s the point in going on? I’m not advocating suicide. I would never do that because I believe that life is precious, though I will not hesitate to kill the fly buzzing around the kitchen when I get the energy to get up. It’s just if there is no meaning in life, even if it is only the meaning and worth we ourselves give to it, then we are squandering our chance to life fully in this world. It just seems silly to me to have an attitude that seems so detrimental to living a purposeful life. It’d be like handing a lactose intolerant person the most delicious, creamy ice cream in existence; a vast waste of ice creamy goodness.
However, people having differing opinions is part of being human. It’s part of the whole being able to think for ourselves, or what others around us think at least, deal. Through childhood indoctrination many ideas are planted in our heads by our parents and teachers, but we all have the ability to choose what our beliefs are. This is what I believe truly separates humans from animals: choice. Have you ever heard of a lion getting up one day and deciding it did not want to cause any more harm to his/her prey so they became a vegetarian? That’d be just ridiculous. Lions eat the antelope because they have to if they want to survive, but that’s the difference. Animals survive, human beings live. Well some of them anyway; the others play WoW, are tolls, or are fangirls/fanboys. A human being can choose to live without the sensation of ripping the meat of the bone of an animal with their teeth if they want to. I have seen them at it, the vegetarians, eating their green meals, and while I think it’s a crime against nature to not like meat, I can understand the desire to boycott the meat industry. Life is beautiful and what they do to animals is disgusting, but I choose to eat meat anyway. Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so.
Here’s another point to think about when considering what it means to be human: sin. Would you say that an animal sins? Let’s say that our hypothetical lioness from before is hunting an antelope and is ready to go in for the kill. She must be a lioness because the male lion is the epitome of a lazy disgusting man, lying around all day sleeping while he waits for the females to bring him food and bear him cubs, and women think human men are terrible? It’s a wonder there aren’t more feminist lionesses to deal with this important issue. Anyway, have you ever watched one of those nature documentaries where a pack of lionesses takes down their prey? They all pounce on it, latch onto it with their claws and teeth, and make it drag them along as it is panicking in its death throes with no hope of ever escaping until it finally collapses from exhaustion and blood loss. Can you imagine the agony that poor antelope must feel as the end nears? That’s about as inhumane as it gets. These lionesses make Jack the Ripper look like an upstanding citizen and they do this every time they get hungry. Surely there must be some kind of hyena based punishment wear all of the evil lions get eaten. Don’t antelope and other animals have rights? Wait no? The Lion King lied to us? Crap.
As sleek and oily as Jeremy Irons’ voice is, there is no such thing as an evil lion or evil animal in general. They cannot sin, no matter how brutal the methods of killing they employ are. A lioness killing an antelope is not murder because, beyond the fact that murder is defined as one human killing another, the lioness has to kill for survival. They are hardwired to hunt and eat other animals. But humans, we’re special, we can sin. We’ve got lots of sins, but we still have a choice. People can choice to do good or do bad. Wait though, you might say, isn’t being human part of being humane since they’re such similar words? No. Being human has little to do with being humane, unless you choose to be humane. I have found that people sometimes people get confused that because you can’t spell humane without human humans must all be good and kind. Not true. It’s basically a pro-human marketing ploy that a word meaning gentle and merciful happens to be the word human with an e on the end. Of course they want you to think people are good. It’s detrimental to human life to think that people are scum just like thinking all life is meaningless. People are who they choose to be. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t get me wrong, environment plays a big part in shaping people and sometimes situations force people to become something that they would not have chosen to become, but for most people choice rules much of our lives from their beliefs to their basest actions.
So now we have two aspects of what it means to be human: the ability to think critically and choice. But here’s where things get messy. To truly learn what it means to be human, we must look at one of the most important traditions in the history of the universe: stories. I would argue that the two most completely human characters in the history of the world are not human at all. Ironic, right? That’s the brilliance of TV. The characters I’m talking about are Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Doctor from a little show in the UK called Doctor Who. For those of you who don’t know much about these two characters, Data is an Android manufactured to look human complete with sentience but lacks for most of his existence the ability to feel any emotions while the Doctor is a 900 year old alien, self-proclaimed protector of the Earth, from the planet Gallifrey who can cheat death by regenerating his form upon his death and become a different being with the same memories. He is now on his 11th regeneration.
But how can these two characters be more human than all the others? Well it starts with the shows they are in. Both shows are science fiction and they are heavily filled with adventure. People love adventure. It might mostly be because their lives are relatively boring so in order to feel like they’re experiencing excitement they watch adventurous shows to be a part of the story, but that’s because it’s human nature to crave excitement and adventure in one form or another. In my last post (seen here https://dmmaster42.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/travel-to-the-stars-in-a-blue-box-or-not/) I talked a bit about why humanity looks up at the stars with wonder, and when you think about it that’s part of what makes both Star Trek and Doctor Who so popular. They take the idea of people traveling to the stars and run with it, literally in the case of Doctor Who a lot of the time, taking viewers to far distant planets and stars and meeting fantastic creatures. Watching these shows gives people a glimpse into who they truly are, adventurers who want more out of life than simply living. How many of us would really say no if a wonderful mad man of fire and ice and rage inside suddenly dropped out of the sky in his blue box would say no if he asked us to journey across time and space with him? Not many I would guess. I would say yes in a heart beat.
On to the characters themselves, who both represent different aspects of what it means to be human through our base traits, desires, and fears. Both are kind and have good hearts. Data may not have a real heart, but the Doctor’s got two so that’s okay, he’s got plenty for the both of them.
Data, the android, symbolizes a child with his curiosity about everything he experiences, and he, like us, seeks to learn more about who he is and what it means to be human. He is superior to humans in every way, and yet he desires to be more human. Data’s thirst for knowledge is also child like and when he eventually is given chances to experience emotions he is able to cherish them more than many people ever will, I know I have often cursed having emotions. In fact Data represents an ideal form of humanity for many people. He has the body of an adult, one that is ten times as strong as a human’s, is immune to the ravages of time, and is extremely intelligent but still manages to have a child’s mind, innocence and curiosity, but without the burden of emotions such as sadness of anger. The truly human part of him recognizes that to be human is to have emotions but not be limited and controlled by them, but be strengthened by them. Emotions are neither good nor bad, so when sadness, fear or anger comes ride them like a wave and then let them pass when they move on. Children are perhaps the most human of us all, in my mind, and Data is the eternal child.
The Doctor represents our curiosity also, but in a different form. He symbolizes the explorer in us all. He’s the ultimate Lewis and Clark, traveling across all of time and space. He’s also the Batman of the universe, protecting it every day of his life without much hope or desire for thanks. The Doctor is what you get when you combine Lewis and Clark with Batman. In America, we have superheroes. In the UK they have the Doctor. I have to say the Doctor wins there.
He also symbolizes our emotions. Many people fear death, whole religions are based on the fact that humans are afraid of death. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just regenerate every time your body died? Yeah, well the Doctor can. Not only is it a brilliant way to keep the show going by casting different actors after the old Doctor dies every few years, but it brings out one of our basest fears: what happens after death. Just as the tenth Doctor is about to die, he has a moment that is beautiful and so wonderfully human. He says, in a scared voice, “I don’t want to go.” He’s sad and scared, not knowing what will happen to him but knowing that he will be alone again. But fear isn’t the only emotion the Doctor represents. Anger, sadness and guilt plague him throughout his life. We all feel these emotions, but the Doctor feels them to the extremes. Rage for all those he has lost and knows he cannot save and for his hated foes who tear loved ones away from him and try to cause the universe harm, guilt for having to destroy his entire race, and sadness for being so lonely, good thing he has his sexy TARDIS to keep him company, but also kindness for being so old and so lonely. He’s humane in the truest sense of the word, but still doles out justice when needed.
Most importantly though, the Doctor represents the single most defining aspect of human life, and life in general. Through his regeneration The Doctor represents change. As the Doctor’s face changes, so do people and nations change. This is one fact in world where so much is murky and unknowable. Everyone is different from everyone one else, has had different experiences leading to different beliefs and opinions. People are not a stagnant pond; they’re a raging river always changing from the day they’re born to the day they die. Why is this so important? It’s important because it is the reason why people will never ever in a hundred trillion years be able to completely and correctly define what it means to be human and at the same time will always be showing what being human means. Hasn’t this blog post been a big waste of time then, you might ask? No because while we can’t say, “This is exactly what it means to be human” we can describe the aspects of people in general and give our opinions on what being human is in order to have discourse about it. My point is that people, societies change all the time, so it would be impossible to define them. It would be like trying to map a maze where the walls never stop changing. But that doesn’t mean you stop trying to get through the maze. No and that’s the wonderful thing about the human spirit; the walls changing would only strengthen our resolve to get through the maze, to the end, the truth, or whatever end purpose you want to believe in. People will always be driven to search for the truth as if the life they live is one big maze; with the one true to rule them all being the cheese at the end if you get to it. They may never find it, likely they won’t because they’re limited imperfect beings, but that won’t stop them from trying their hardest to get to it.
And in the end, that’s what makes a human, human for me. Beyond the ability to think, choose, experience emotion, is the drive to explore and see everything, to have it all (obviously why Pokemon is so popular), to know everything when they realize that it’s impossible. Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, David Hume and all the others over the last few thousand years may proclaim that part of their job description is to find the truth of life, the universe and everything, but they’re wrong. It’s not a philosopher thing to try to find the answer to the ultimate question. It’s a human thing. It’s human nature. We’re doing it all the time and have for thousands of years, and will continue to do it until the end of time. Even if people don’t know they’re doing it, they’re still doing it. It’s why religions exist; they give an answer to the question. Everyone has a different answer because no one knows the true one. Everyone lives their life trying to find an answer that they can life with; an answer that they can die with. Perhaps we’re all a bit mad, but if we are then I think it is a wonderful human madness; one that binds us all together as one species. That’s because the point isn’t to prove that your answer is right because every answer could be, and probably is, more than a little bit wrong. It’s to find your own answer after experiencing the world around you, listening to the opinions of others, reading stories, watching shows and movies, whatever you have to do to gather the information you need, because it all will help, and then making a well-informed decision.
So go find your answer guys. Be human. Tell me what you think in the comments! Until next time have fun and keep being awesome. Next time I’ll deal with the Shakespeare quote I gave you last time. Here it is again, “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts,/His acts being seven ages.”