Does Being Human mean Being Imhumane?

By Amanda Rees – Reader in Sociology at University of York - UK

JULY 10, 2021

How does trying to define ‘humanity’ lead to inhumanity?

Lots of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it means to be human – and in the West at least, a big part of the debate about ‘what is human’ has focused overwhelmingly on ‘what is not human?’. Just under two millennia ago, in a book called Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius told the story of what happened when Plato defined ‘man’ (apologies for gender specific terminology here)

as ‘a featherless biped’. Plato’s nemesis, Diogenes the Cynic, held up in response a plucked chicken, and asked if this was Plato’s man. So, Plato had to add a qualifier to his definition, deciding that ‘man’ was a ‘featherless biped with broad flat nails’. It wasn’t enough to define what humanity was – that definition had to be exclusionary – that is, it had to be couched in such a way as to reflect human uniqueness.

A structurally similar problem was posed by Jane Goodall’s pioneering observations among the chimpanzees of Gombe in the 1960s. Very early on in her work there, she saw one chimpanzee, David Greybeard, doing something odd – he was picking up a piece of grass and seemed to be poking at a termite mound. As a good participant-observing anthropologist, Goodall copied Greybeard’s actions – and found that the termites inside the mound would bite onto the grass stem, meaning that they could, as a result, be pulled out and eaten – a tasty treat for a chimp, and for an entomophagous human. Goodall realised that Greybeard was ‘fishing’ for termites – using a tool to manipulate the natural world to his advantage, a characteristic hitherto thought to be human-specific. As Goodall’s mentor, Louis Leakey, said on hearing of Goodall’s observation, ‘Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans’. Unsurprisingly, it was the first two options that were chosen – far better to rethink the relationship between humanity and tool use than turn Pan troglodytes into Homo troglodytes.

So – two examples of defining humanity by exclusion, rather than inclusion – both of which explicitly aim at drawing a very clear line between humans on the one hand, and animals on the other. But this focus on exclusion, on distinguishing primarily between humans and animals (why not god/s?) has some clear – and deeply troubling – consequences. It’s a line that both reflects and justifies a sense of human superiority – humans are more rational, more sophisticated, more spiritual than animals. We have a theory of mind, we invented quantum physics, we control fire – as the pre-eminent tool users, we are justified in treating the rest of the world either as material to be manipulated or as tools with which to do the manipulating.


In other words, and more simply put, it makes it easier for humans to be inhuman. This has critical consequences for humans, for non-human animals and for the ecologies and landscapes we all inhabit. Most broadly, creating this exclusively unique category for humans to inhabit makes it harder for some humans to attend to, and care for, the needs of a more-than-human world – and this is a position that is only going to get more dangerous in the age of the Anthropocene. But it also makes it possible for powerful groups to define particular individuals and communities as ‘less-than-human’ – or even, ‘not-really-human’ – and to treat them accordingly.

The history of science – both in relation to the study of sex difference and racial science – demonstrates this very clearly. Consistently, the figure of the white male was used as the quintessential human, with people of colour and white women described and defined as examples of less advanced stages of human evolution. In some cases – especially in relation to race – this was done explicitly in relation to the species evolution of Homo sapiens. 19th century scientists created evolutionary ladders in which Black peoples were placed closer to the apes, their supposedly closer relationship to the animals demonstrated by careful measurements of their skulls. Later on, 20th century anthropologists treated the San peoples of Botswana as living fossils, frozen in an earlier period of cultural development. In other examples, the comparison was to individual development and growth, as when women were depicted as having more in common (behaviourally, biologically) with children than with adult males. In both, the consequence was that the white adult male was considered to define humanity in its fullest sense: other members of the species Homo sapiens qualified only insofar as they resembled this figure. Any discrepancies could be – and were – grounds for excluding those individuals or communities from human status.

Some of the results of this ‘hierarchy of the human’ can be seen in some of the worst moments of 20th and 21st century history. People of colour were displayed alongside animals in in zoos and exhibitions. Antisemitic propaganda portrayed the Jews as locusts and leeches. Hutu broadcasters told their audiences to kill the Tutsi cockroaches. Facebook posters condemn the Rohingya as dogs. Immigrants swarm over borders to infest cities. Criminals prey on law-abiding citizens, petty thieves act like scavenging hyenas, while benefit scroungers live parasitically on the state. Those who don’t look – or act – in a sufficiently civilised manner can be defined as animal, as savages, as non-humans, to whom the normal rules of civilised behaviour (or the rule of law) do not apply.


But ironically, despite these examples of inter-community conflict, two of the things we’re best at, as a species, are migrating and making friends. The entire history of our species, from the very first emergence of Homo sapiens, has been one of movement, of travel, of cultures colliding and combining. And if we really want to pick a characteristic that differentiates us from the apes, it’s our 

capacity to cooperate. The anthropologist Sarah Hardy once drew a comparison between a planeload of humans and a planeload of chimpanzees. Packed in equal close quarters for a sustained period of time, the humans would be uncomfortable, but everyone would come through largely physically intact: the chimps would deplane covered in blood with digits missing. We are very good at collaborating, at building communities that, while based around kin, are capable of including more than kin.


They can, in fact, even include the non-human. Increasingly over the last two decades or so, Western countries in particular have been willing to recognise pets – companion animals? – as members of the family. These animals are often regarded and treated as people, individuals whose preferences are known and taken into account, who help celebrate birthdays and special occasions, and who are grieved for when they die. And – notably – it’s relations with these animals that have often played a critical role in maintaining the mental health of their humans during the current pandemic. This willingness to assign quasi-human status to (some) non-humans sits oddly with the habit of denying it to actual fellow-members of our own species – but it does, perhaps, give us some suggestions as to how we might start thinking about humanity in a more-than-human way.


We haven’t experienced multi-species humanity since the last of the Neanderthals died out. But the persistence of Neanderthal DNA within our genes does suggest that some prehistoric humans were – as with 21st century pet-owners – quite happy to recognise individuals as people regardless of species. What if it’s this capacity – the capacity to recognise the humanity, the personhood of others – that’s the real defining characteristic of Homo sapiens? What if being human wasn’t something that you were, but found in the act of recognition that you gave to others? This is the question that Charlotte Sleigh and I ask in our book Human (Reaktion Press, 2020). We called this act of recognition inhumanism, deliberately referencing the concept of immanence (whereby the divine becomes part of the material world). Humanity, on this reading, is not a quality that can be possessed, but only something that can be given away, that exists within a relationship.  Crucially, you can’t affect the humanity of others by recognising (or not) their humanity, but only affirm (or not) your own in so doing.


So – rather than worrying about on how humanity is defined, or what differentiates individual humans from all other animals, maybe we should focus on our capacity for recognising kinship in the stranger, and the capacity for building strength and resilience through diversity. The Anthropocene is already changing, and challenging, some deeply held assumptions about the relationship between nature and culture: radically shifting our understanding of humanity may represent one of the best tools we have to build our future.