What does it mean to be “human”? The question, though it has occupied some of the greatest Western minds of philosophy, science, history, and political theory, could not have been answered with any plausibility until recently, for we have only begin to acquire the scientific knowledge necessary to provide an informed response. At the same time, recent scientific and technological developments have produced radical and vertiginous change. The possibilities of artificial intelligence, robotics, cloning, pharmacology, stem cell research, and genetic modification pose entirely new challenges for attempts to define “human” in fixed and essentialist rather than fluid and plastic terms.
Despite our deep-rooted biological and social evolution, “humanity” is a social construct involving the identity and conception humans have of themselves as members of a species. In its arrogant, alienated, and domineering Western form, human identity reflects a host of problematic assumptions, biases, prejudices, and myths derived from religion, philosophy, science, and culture as a whole. The massive, tangled knot of ideologies involved in the social construction of our species identity need to be critically unraveled, so that we can develop new identities and societies and forge sane, ethical, ecological, and sustainable life ways. To an important degree, the new identities must emerge from an ethic of respect and connectedness to all sentient life – human and nonhuman – and to the Earth as a whole. Ethically progressive and inclusive, new post-humanist identities and values would also be scientifically valid, by accurately representing the true place of Homo sapiens in the social, sentient, and ecological communities in which it finds itself enmeshed.
Science has always been important to the Left, as progressives and radicals proudly wore the mantle of the European Enlightenment and championed the beneficial consequences of scientific advance that brought intellectual, moral, and social progress. In radical traditions from the nineteenth century to the present, Leftists prided themselves on their empiricism, naturalism, evolutionary outlook, skepticism, and agnosticism or atheism. Inseparably related to their support of scientific and Enlightenment values of learning, critical thinking, and autonomy, Leftists have also embraced the moral and political values of the modern revolutionary traditions that emphasized rights, democracy, equality, justice, and autonomy.
While an ecological turn did not take hold in Leftist thought until the 1970s, the Left today seems to be decades or another century away from discerning the moral, political, social, and ecological importance of animal liberation and the critique of speciesism (the belief in the inherent superiority of humans over all other species due to their alleged unique cognitive capacities). With few exceptions, Leftists have systematically devalued or ignored the horrific plight of animals as a trivial issue compared to human suffering, and they have therefore mocked or dismissed the animal liberation movement that emerged in the 1970s to become a global movement more dynamic, powerful, and widespread than virtually any human cause or liberation movement. Despite their affirmation of Darwinian theory, which views human beings as natural beings who co-evolved with other animals in an organic continuum, the humanist elements of Leftist culture ¯ which emphasize the radical uniqueness and singularity of humans as “superior” animals ¯ prevailed over the naturalist elements ¯ which emphasize the continuum of biological evolution, even as it phases into social evolution and cultural development.
Modernity and its Discontinuities
“Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world.”
“The most calamitous and fragile of all creatures is man, and yet the most arrogant. (…) Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as that this pitiful, miserable creature, who is not even master of himself, should call himself master and lord of the universe? It is apparent that it is not by a true judgment, but by foolish pride and stubbornness, that we set ourselves before other animals and sequester ourselves from their condition and society.”
Since the first cosmologies, ancient Greek philosophy, Christian theology, and modern science to Marxist humanism and naturalism, Western culture has struggled, and failed, to attain an adequate understanding of the human species. From religious attempts to define us as immortal souls made in the image of God to philosophical efforts to classify us as disembodied minds, thinkers have approached the question of human nature apart from their bodies, animal past, and evolutionary history. Whereas such fictions vaporize biological realities and exaggerate human uniqueness in relation to other animal species, sociobiology reduces humans to instinct-driven, DNA-bearing organisms devoid of free will and cognitive complexity. Both extremes fail to grasp the tensions and mediations that shape the human animal, a term/being that exists within the tension of culture/nature, of the long biological and social evolutionary journey that shaped Homo sapiens. A deep understanding of human nature has been obscured by vanity, arrogance, error, and pomposity, as well as fear and insecurity of being “merely” animal.
Human identity in Western culture has been formed through the potent combination of agricultural domestication of animals and plants, Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism, Greco-Roman rationalism, medieval theology, Renaissance humanism, and modern mechanistic science. Whether religious or secular, philosophical or scientific, these sources concur in the belief that humans are wholly unique beings, existing in culture rather than nature, alone in having language and reason, and thus humans are ontologically divorced from animals and the Earth. Throughout ancient and medieval societies, during the Greek, Roman, and Christian empires, humans easily imagined themselves to be the most unique and advanced forms of life on Earth, the ends to which all other beings and things were mere means. Whether ancient or modern, religious or secular, there has been an unbroken continuity of human separation, arrogance, and domination over animals and the natural world, such as is inseparable from our domination over one another.