On What it Means to be Human
Published April 2017 in Bilkent News.
I am a human being, genus Homo species subspecies sapiens sapiens; I have a large brain and swollen eyelids and want to change the world. Lately my hair’s been looking quite wild, ancestral enough to feel like I’ve baked in the sun. My skin is tender. All of this seems familiar to me, the way I smell from shoulder to elbow, the way I walk with legs thrust forward, the tilt of my neck and nostrils. I have a gracile frame. And all of this is biological, it is nothing but physical; I don’t believe my body makes me human. I think human is a dead language – we have to define things better. Human is a concept, and it lives in the sun; I can find better ways to describe humanity than this. Human is more than a dying body, and it’s more than parallel processing; it is the large creative impulse that stretches forward in evolution. This creativity is what natural selection has given us as a final act, enabling us to form from rudimentary stone tools the technology of the present day; it is what has rendered nature all but obsolete, as its social products have replaced biology as the determining factor in the transmission of the genome. Thus the overarching argument becomes clear: Human is the final frontier, the last level to which nature can carry a species before it breaks with its origins through a creative impulse, and either self-destructs or establishes itself as the implacable, ultimate predator. This predator is no longer quite so focused on prey; it has moved apart from its mother planet, perhaps become content with its environment and evolved past its lizardlike destructive tendencies. It is not a definition limited to Homo sapiens sapiens. It is not a definition limited to biology. It is a definition that extends to God.
This last assertion isn’t just idle poetry. Taken unemotionally, our diverse sets of gods all have some common characteristics. They are powerful and knowledgeable, more so than we perceive ourselves to be, and can interfere in our lives to meet their own ends. These are inflations of qualities we, as self-defined humans, commonly possess. What has set our species apart is our curiosity and our creativity; these are the qualities that have led to our advancement beyond all life on Earth. Our gods are therefore ideal humans, having taken to an extreme the two most basic characteristics of man. They are exorbitant images of wish fulfillment, conceptual reflections of what we aspire to be, and we have created them in our image. They are our most human quality in action, an intent to create another human; the creation of gods is, then, to birth something abiological and superbly self-contained. God is a demonstration of the strength of the human creative impulse, and is more human than all the many members of the genus Homo in terrestrial history.
Terrestrial history is again no limit to the definition of “human.” If my diagnosis is accurate, any civilization capable of contacting the Earth would possess the same fundamental traits we do; all socially and technologically advanced extraterrestrial species should be as human as we are, or even more so. The importance of biology then wanes with each year that passes – its complex mechanics mattered most at the beginning, when we were fighting through the thick underbrush of primordial wilderness. Now it doesn’t make any difference whether other instances of humanity throughout the universe function the same way we do, with our skulls and bodies and dexterous thumbs, or whether they’re unrecognizably alien. Now human has become more conceptual than anything else.
My final suggestion will again be intimately tied to human creativity; just as we have fashioned ourselves a Father, so do we construct progeny that have as little to do with biology as divinity, and might one day become just as human. I dealt with the issue of bodily mechanization in a previous column, I lamented the end of humanity through its digital children; what I overlooked then was that artificial intelligence, if it can take over the world, will have acquired the ability to learn and create: it will have become by definition human. The emergence of creative computers could signal destruction for Homo sapiens sapiens, but it will by no means eradicate humanity itself; human encapsulates the past, present and future of life on Earth, with past going as far back as the more gregarious hominids, and future holding in a dire palm our glowing possible sons. I’ve spoken in such a piece as this about people who are comfortable with the AI takeover, who are desirous of it; the trouble then is that if my definition is in any way correct, AI will treat the world no better than we have. But perhaps I’m being unfair – perhaps I should be reminded of my previous prediction: If humanity does not die out it will eclipse itself, become something at peace with existence, however severe and transformed that thing may be. Perhaps that’s exactly what artificial intelligence is: the next step in evolution, handcrafted by humans to resemble – and replace – themselves.