Tough Questions Answered

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What Is the Human Species?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

What is the essence of being human? What makes a human a human? What is the human species?

Philosopher David Oderberg argues that the true essence of being human is captured in two words: rational animal. This is, of course, the classical definition of the human species given to us by Aristotle, but Oderberg thinks it is still the best definition.

There is little disagreement on what an animal is, but what about rationality? Oderberg offers a succinct analysis of what it means to be rational, and therefore what it means to be human:

Being rational, the rational animal has the capacity for such things as: abstract thought, that is, the ability to abstract from particulars to reach general judgments involving concepts; language; knowledge of why it does many of the things it does, what Aristotelians call knowledge of finality; the conscious ordering of ends or objectives; development of and adherence to a life plan; reflection, meditation, puzzlement over, attempts to understand and resolve, matters concerning its own life, the lives of others (be they rational or not), the state of the world, the connections between things and events; and a moral life, with all that is entailed by a grasp of morality as a system of norms for living. We can easily add to the list, of course: humor, irony, aesthetic sensibility, the creation and maintenance of families and political societies . . . we all know the sorts of things we rational animals are capable of.

Oderberg zooms in further to be clear about what rationality entails:

All I claim here is that rationality as the capacity for abstract conceptual thought is explanatorily basic relative to a large number of the sorts of characteristic listed here. Language is the most important case in point.

Abstraction from particulars and ascent to the level of conceptual thought necessarily involves some kind of representational system because it essentially involves the composition and division of concepts: mental elements are put together or divided in order to make judgments, and judgments are put together to make inferences. The elements have to have some kind of meaningful structure, by which I mean a structure involving at least the basic operations of reference, predication, logical operation, and the like, put together in a certain way, such that other ways of combination are excluded. A creature that can do all of this must have language; in fact, language is what I have just described.

And this is what has fascinated every thinking person since the dawn of mankind. Of all the millions of animal species, why is there only one that is rational? Why did human beings win the rationality lottery, going away? Why was there only one winner instead of dozens or even hundreds or thousands? Of course, this question is answered in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. Check it out if you haven’t read it recently.


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Comments

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ants, cockroaches, bacteria – all get along fine without apparently having rational thought. And arguably, other ‘higher primates’ such as chimpanzees can reason, albeit not the degree we can.

    “why is there only one that is rational?”

    About a quarter of the energy we get from our food goes purely on feeding our brains. If we were a car then our brains would be gas-guzzling engines. If an animal can survive on a smaller brain then natural selection will favour the smaller brain. Or to answer the question in another way – why is only one animal as big as a blue whale, why do no other living creatures live as long a tree? One animal had to be the smartest, and obviously that would be the animal that wondered why it was the smartest.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Rationality is not a category that changes linearly over a continuum, like body size and length of life. Rationality is a giant leap that makes human beings profoundly unlike all other animals.

    Therefore, your saying that one animal had to be the smartest, just like one animal had to be the biggest and one plant had to live the longest, just misses the point.

    No animal had to be rational, and in fact, no animals are rational except for humans.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Rationality is not a category that changes linearly over a continuum”

    Why not? Is a baby rational? I’d say not. But an adult is. Is there a ‘bang’ moment when rationality happens? Again, I’d say not. Therefore it seems to me that it must arrive over a continuum.

    “no animals are rational except for humans”

    No other animal is as smart as us, obviously. And we have a power for abstract thought far beyond other animals. But it’s simply false that no other is capable of reasoning. Chimps can reason to a far greater degree than mice, which can reason better than ants. There’s a huge leap between mice and chimps just like there’s another huge leap from chimps to us.

    Reasoning gives an obvious survival advantage, and yet larger brain size also has disadvantages – the aforementioned food cost and also the problems in pregnancy of a larger cranium.

    So I stand by my comparison to some animal being the largest – or other extremes such as bloodhounds having a sense of smell roughly a million times more sensitive to ours.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Comparing a baby to an adult is completely irrelevant to the argument. Baby whales are smaller than full grown whales. So what? We are talking about mature humans vs other mature animals.

    Chimps do not have “abstract thought, that is, the ability to abstract from particulars to reach general judgments involving concepts; language; knowledge of why it does many of the things it does, what Aristotelians call knowledge of finality; the conscious ordering of ends or objectives; development of and adherence to a life plan; reflection, meditation, puzzlement over, attempts to understand and resolve, matters concerning its own life, the lives of others (be they rational or not), the state of the world, the connections between things and events; and a moral life, with all that is entailed by a grasp of morality as a system of norms for living.”

    If anyone really believed that chimps were just a less smart version of humans, we would see laws being passed to protect chimp property, we would see people given the death penalty for murdering chimps, we would see chimps being prosecuted in criminal cases, we would read the rudimentary writings of chimps, we would admire their art. Just watch Planet of the Apes, and then remind yourself it’s fiction.

    Yet we don’t see any of these things. Nobody in their right mind thinks that chimps have legal rights like humans have them. Chimps are not rational animals in any meaningful sense of the word rational. Do they have greater intelligence than other animals? Yes. But intelligence does not equal rationality.

  • Andrew Ryan

    My point about babies and adults was entirely relevant, and wasn’t simply ‘comparing’ them. The point was countering the notion that rationality and abstract thought cannot exist on a continuum. Again, babies don’t have it, we do – so do you believe it happens all of a sudden? In other words, at one moment in our development we don’t have it, and then a second later we do? If so, when does this happen?

  • Andrew Ryan

    When did I say chimps were just ‘a less smart version of us’? I didn’t. That said, our lack of laws protecting them says nothing about them, and more about us. A couple of hundred years ago it was pretty much legal for Caucasian Australians to shoot Aborigines, and it was near-impossible to charge a white American with the murder of a black.

    Given the intelligence of chimps – and that chimps are genetically closer to us than they are to gorillas – some people argue there SHOULD be much greater punishments for mistreating them. Humans have a species bias. Given how recently we allowed the murder of other races, it’s not surprising we allow the mistreatment of other species.

    There are humans with very low ‘rationality’ – the brain damaged, the young, the elderly with dementia – but you don’t argue they can be murdered with impunity, do you? Arguably, a chimp that can be taught basic sign language, that can reason, can mourn its dead, arguably one should treat chimps better than we do.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    It’s funny how we always, always get back to metaphysics. In this blog post, we are talking about what a human is. What is the essence of being human?

    The answer given is “rational animal.”

    Just because there are human beings whose rationality is damaged or incomplete does nothing to impugn this definition. The exceptions do not dislodge the rule.

    Do you see that if there is no essential human nature, then we are left with a purely functional definition of human beings.

    A functional definition would say that this thing is human if it can do A, B, and C. If it cannot do those things, then it is not human.

    That is why pro-euthanasia and pro-abortion supporters love functional definitions for human beings. It helps them to justify the taking of lives because these lives are not “human.”

    It seems like you are wanting to define humans functionally, rather than essentially. In that case, you should absolutely be arguing that chimps can be more valuable than severely mentally retarded people, or newborn infants, or people in a coma. That logic flows naturally from that position. Peter SInger has been saying these things for years.

    Is that really what you think?

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Just because there are human beings whose rationality is damaged or incomplete does nothing to impugn this definition. ”

    Indeed not. I didn’t suggest otherwise.

    “A functional definition would say that this thing is human if it can doA, B, and C. If it cannot do those things, then it is not human.”

    And I was clearly saying that neither of us agree with that idea.

    “It seems like you are wanting to define humans functionally, rather than essentially.”

    I’m not. I presume that you don’t want to either.

    ” In that case, you should absolutely be arguing that chimps can be more valuable than severely mentally retarded people, or newborn infants, or people in a coma.”

    I wasn’t the one making the argument that ‘not being rational’ = not valuable. It seemed to me that you were making that argument about chimps. Were you or weren’t you?

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