What Is Human



What is special and different about us humans? Why are we the latest and most successful of the system structures to emerge? Whatever it is must have the property of making our species successful, effective, efficient and resilient.

In the past I have had long protracted arguments abut the uniqueness of individuals. Human beings are manifestly individuals but this individuality is built and rests on a vast foundation of similarity.


We share our basic physics, chemistry, biochemistry and biology with the rest of the universe. We share our [*physiology physiology] with all other animals. We share most of our behaviour with our closest living relatives the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutangs). We shared even more with other human species now extinct. Our closest relative of whom was Neanderthal man

Physiologically we are a complex of interacting, cooperating, self-regulating organisms (bacteria and cells), structured and organised into a unitary community that is self-regulating and self-maintaining. No wonder it took four and a half billion years to develop by evolution.

Our human bottom (the pelvis and its associated musculature including the Gluteus Maximus) is in many ways a fundamental characteristic – much maligned, despised and hidden in Victorian culture. It is important because it allows us to stand upright raising the head with its sensory and information processing apparatus high. Uprightness releases the forelimbs with opposable thumbs to manipulate things and use tools. Hand and brain working together is characteristic of human beings. Uprightness and its consequent bipedallism requires a much more sophisticated control apparatus to operate the six hundred and forty skeletal muscles in the human body just to balance upright and then walk and even manipulate a tool while standing or walking.


One important effect of the hand-brain coordination is that rather than just interacting with our environment, eating food and generating waste, we actively and positively change and manipulate our environment. Non-human animals and other organisms also interact with and change their environment, but humans do it deliberately and with consciousness of what we are doing. This was most obvious when Neolithic people settled, started agriculture and changed the landscape and the world for ever. Enter too, concepts that we now recognise as design, planning,
management, control, responsibility and territory.1

As far as I have been able to track it, what today we call craftsmanship emerged during this time and was fully developed by the end of the Neolithic period. Recently a flint chisel was discovered. The earliest surviving fragments of furniture and the earliest records of furniture all show that mortise-and-tenon joints, woven rush seats, stuffed cushions, intricate inlay work, fine realistic carving, fine finishes and cleaver mechanisms were all in use at least for the finest furniture by 3500 BC, (certainly by the end of the third millennium BC in the middle east). Similar things could be said about weapons, basketry, farm tools, jewellery, sculpture and painting.

When applied to people manipulation has strong negative reactions. We generally feel that manipulating people is bad or even evil because we interpret manipulation as unfair, abusive exploitation. In fact babies and children manipulate their parents from birth, parents and teachers manipulate children, pupils and students deliberately. All the time, legitimate social authorities and governments manipulate the public and their electorate. Commercial, businesses and charities manipulate, use and employ people.

What is wrong is not manipulation or the use of people (including children, the disabled, old and otherwise vulnerable) but the abuse of people through surreptitious, unfair or unequal exploitation. Because of this confusion and lack of clarity much of what I have to say later about social skills will be unacceptable or offensive to many people – I’m sorry you are offended but I think it is true and it’s what I believe.


The larger brain, restructured to deal more effectively with more sensory input and control of hands, also had the capability of language, which we have developed to a very high level of sophistication. Language made possible personal communication and hence social group behaviour not seen in earlier species. It has been suggested that the reason modern man survived when other humanoids notably Neanderthal man (who also had tools, stone, wood, lather, rush and similar technologies and a small group social organisation) became extinct was due to the greater flexibility and resilience of our social structures. The communication and social value of language are perhaps obvious and widely recognised.

Equally obvious but much less generally recognised is that all languages are built on the ability to invent and manipulate symbols. Words, sounds, pictures, gestures and so on, the building blocks of language, are symbols, meaningless in themselves but when shared and used with a shared grammar of rules and structures they convey messages from one to another or from one to oneself at a later time. We can’t be sure that the early cave painters 20,000 years ago could speak, though most researchers assume that they could. But the existence of the paintings and abstract signs related to them show the ability to create and use symbols. By the time the earliest cities of the Middle East (Uruk and Ur around 3200 BC) and Egypt were founded we had well developed languages, social structures and manipulative technologies (agriculture, mining, metal working, wood working, weaving, animal husbandry, masonry and building). Written languages, business accounts and political propaganda came into existence. The counting systems developed for business and measurement led eventually to mathematics and so to modern science.


The ability to use symbols opens another fascinating door. With symbols one can see and manipulate patterns, to reason about them, ask questions and solve problems. Not only is intelligent rational behaviour characteristic of humans and highly developed it is unprogrammed and adaptive behaviour - unlike the pre-programmed instinctive behaviour of birds, insects and more primitive mammals.

Lack of pre-programming is critically important. It means that humans must rely on something else to deal with the problems of living and survival. In other words, humans must solve problems – daily as well as in the long term. Solving problems involves several sophisticated abilities each and all of which we have developed to a very high level of skill.

First one must recognise a problem either by asking a question to which one does not know the answer or by recognising a present state that could be improved in some way. Then one must understand both the present situation and the dynamics that enable one to find a solution. Then with a final (desired) state in mind one must devise and execute a strategy of actions to move from the present state to the desired one. Problem solving and design are the opposite sides of the same coin.

Problem solving also depends on the ability to learn. Most animals at least down to the simple planarian worm can learn to some extent and within strict limits. But in humans learning is extensive and sophisticated and characteristic. Putting communication together with learning, enables information, understanding, social and cultural structures to be passed on from person to person. It is no longer necessary for each individual to learn everything from first principles for himself. Thus effective and successful behaviour patterns and social structures can be passed on and made even more effective. Much can be learned by trial and error – as animals learn but a social structure that passes on knowledge is much better.

In early peoples this was done by secret societies and rituals. One classical example is the passing on of steel technology by the Samurai warrior society. Another obvious example is a mother teaching her daughter to cook. But notice that a craftsman teaching an apprentice by example and trial and error is very different from a scientist systematically teaching a student the knowledge and skills of his field.


At some unrecorded stage in the human story, consciousness (knowing that one knows and knowing that one is oneself) emerged. This opens the way not only to have subjective experience but to know that one has subjective experience, to think about it and to talk about it. We don’t and perhaps cannot know whether animals or other beings have subjective experiences. The behaviour of (at least) mammalian species suggests they have feelings, but it seems unlikely that the ‘lower’ orders of animals have subjective experience comparable to our own. In any event they have not developed and used those experiences to the extent and in the way that humans have.


Symbolic language, problem-solving, consciousness and cooperative organisation all depend on the ability to ‘model’ a state of the world that is not the present experienced one.

The ability to create and manipulate mental models is critical to life skills such as planning, working out the consequences of an action, making things and so on.

Balanced human behaviour requires the ability to sense and understand the immediate environment (where am I and what am I doing), imagine a future or desirable state (theory, modelling, design, problem-solving) and then execute the movements (including speech) needed to realise the dream. The wonder is that not only do we do this all the time, we do it effortlessly almost without noticing – even those with various forms of mental or physical handicap. There is evidence that these abilities, known academically as theory of mind, begin to emerge in children as young as three or five and are absent or impaired in autistics.


Certain species of animal form structured cooperating ‘social’ structures. The traditional examples are hives of bees, nest of ants and herds of cattle. To my mind the critical difference of these groups from human societies is that the animal groups are all pre-programmed. The structure and operation of the group are genetically encoded and do not vary over centuries. Human societies are very different. Only the capacity for linguistic communication, organisation and cooperation are genetically encoded. Each human group (now and in the past) is slightly different: the languages vary, the structures vary, the rites and rituals vary, and so on.

People naturally and spontaneously form social groupss for everything from self defence and survival to email news groups. The evolution and development of social groups such as bands, tribes, states and so is a topic of anthropological and scholarly dispute. Three key ideas seem to me to be that:
• Groups are about territory, which it is reasonable to assume is all about survival and control of food and similar resources, together with the defence of these territories. Apparently there is no scientific discipline that is able to validate this common assumption.
• Communication between the members of the group most often through linguistic, verbal and sign languages.
• Dominance and control of the group by some form of authority (religious, political, violent or diplomatic) which leads to leadership and structure within the group. In primitive survival, groups’ decision-making is a matter of life and death. Authority and obedience to it are vital and deeply ingrained.
• I follow the popular notion that human civilization developed from simple, small hunter-gatherer bands that were kinship groups, probably a family. With their success came larger more structured groups that we think of as a tribe or a clan. By the time that the Neolithic agricultural revolution had taken place, settled communities of villages and towns became established under a single political authority, the king. In more recent time the idea of a nation with territory, economics, and distinctive culture emerged. In the last 100 years or so the Nations are giving way to a global grouping of all peoples.

With the collapse of rigid medieval feudalism and the rise of individualism the large complex groups have fragmented into groups whose territory is no longer geographical and an individual can simultaneously belong to many groups, some of which are transitory: peer groups, interest groups (e.g., clubs), political groups (e.g., party member, activist, terrorist, debutant), role groups (e.g., parent, father, boiler-maker), therapy groups and ‘virtual’ groups (e.g., news groups). An individual can be a member of many groups simultaneously: family, work group, social club, business, professional trade and so on.

A society has many different aspects. The business aspect in our modern English society is a vital provider of resources: it depends on agriculture (in all its forms farming, fishing, mining forestry and so on) and manufacturing (also in many forms, from manual crafts to complex constructions like houses, vehicles and computer systems). Far-flung trading organisations are not new to modern society. Flint ploughs were traded across what we now call Europe. Silks and spices have been traded along the Asian Silk Road since antiquity

Human social behaviour depends on speech and cooperation for its existence, development operation and its success. It depends on two other more spiritual concepts: trust and reliability.

Reliability is about confidence in the repeatability of each other’s behaviour under similar conditions. Can I rely on you to do what I would do or to behave as you did yesterday? In a primitive society this is enforced by the demands and consequences of survival. In a rigid society this is enforced through violence and social pressure to conform to the mores of the society. But in an individualistic society the government and the law are the only agencies. The mathematical concept related to this is probability. The practical ideas are risk and its management, uncertainty and variability.
Trust is more difficult. Trusting and the ability to trust begins in childhood and the family. Trust is being vulnerable to someone even though they are trustworthy. It has three key elements, belief in the honesty, benevolence and competence of the trusted person by the trusting person. It does three basic things in the lives of people: it makes social life predictable, it enables a sense of community and it makes it easier for people to work together. Social institutions require trust to function. Faith in some traditions is an extreme trust in God.

Both trust and reliability were compromised by investment banks which led to the present (at the time of writing) banking and global credit crisis. They were also compromised by inappropriate faith in Vulnerable Victim.

Religion provides reasons for things and says what is right and wrong.


For me this box encapsulates and illustrates what it is to be human.

(This image is copyright and cannot be displayed on this page.)

Box when found contained personal items.

The symbols on the top are writing not just decoration. It reads ‘Tutankhammun, Ruler of Thebes’. Some of the pictographic symbols are not just pictograms some of them are phonetic. In other words a picture of a recognisable object is used to denote a sound that, with other sounds, denotes a concept and has meaning to the receiver.

The double meaning of the pictogram is replicated in the box which is not just a simple container but a three- dimensional hieroglyph used to contain personal items. Presumably items belonging to Tutankhammun were kept in it.

The box has a simple but sophisticated closing mechanism. At one end the lid engages with the fixed part of the top but at the other there are two knobs, one on the lid and one on the side. The box can be closed and secured by twisting a rope or rush coil round the knobs and sealing them with wax. This says something about not only the sophisticated technology of the Egyptians but also about their society and the trustworthiness of its people.

The craftsmanship in the box is very fine and uses several different crafts and technologies. The present condition of the box is a testament to the skill and knowledge of the modern restorers as well as to the original craftsmen. Crafts and products of this quality need a sophisticated social organisation to demand them, develop them, make the raw materials available for them and support the craftsmen with food, shelter and recognition while they work.

An aspect of the box so obvious that we overlook it is that the box was made deliberately, intentionally and with design. We know of no other species or inanimate phenomenon that exhibits the same property.

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