Hermits Rock

Go to content Go to navigation

Biology and Humanity

I might should have said there is no necessaryrather than “there is no good”—reason to predicate a definition of humanity on biology, but for all intents and purposes it’s the same thing, and now I’ve been asked to justify it. Of course, if JTB’s writing what she says she’s writing (keeping in mind that dissertations have net negative karma and therefore manage ways of not getting written), that is, defining posthumans and so forth, then she’s also busy defining the humanity, which is why as I write I imagine her laughing—nay, cackling—“I’ll get you, my pretty!”

It’s odd that I stepped into this question anyway given that the last time gender and the incarnation came up, the best I could manage was to exclaim at the size of the Holy Member. J’s point then was approximately JTB’s, though he emphasized the difference between the infant and adult penis:

If the Madonna and naked child paintings unequivocally proclaim that God has taken human form, and every aspect of that…. These paintings, while still making claims about his humanity, speak to something different. The virility and power of Christ. In his death, he is powerful. Though dead, he, like his member, will rise and in his rising he will give life to humans.

While it was paintings of the infant that inspired the initial reflection, my own insistence that humanity can be defined apart from biology has very little to do with art. The difference is that since the subject last came up I’ve spent mornings reading Hannah Arendt. Reading only on the bus, I read slowly, rarely more than a dozen pages a day, which has given me time enough to think about the nature of the world. The definition of humanity I’ve been asked for (as it stands, anyway) follows from The Human Condition.1

Arendt’s thesis in The Human Condition is built on a refusal to dismiss the fact that Aristotle, in cataloging the varieties of human life, filed slaves as animal laborans. Homo he reserved for homo faber, makers of things, and above them all he placed zoon politikon, a class of men who existed only in the polis. It is from that taxonomy that Arendt defines the human condition as labor, work, and action: labor being the maintenance of life, work the creation of the world, and action the expression of plurality. Arendt maintains Aristotle’s taxonomy in principle while defining away (or allowing history to have defined away) problems such as inequality and other pernicious traits of history, and what she’s left with is humanity defined, not by existence nor shape nor power, but by what humans do.

What it comes to is that life by itself is not human: we share the process of living with all other creatures that crawl this earth. To live is to affirm nothing but that we too are animals. Sex is the same as sustenance. It maintains life and perpetuates it. Men and women and everything between them, insofar as they exist are beings, but they are not human beings. (That animal behavior is much more complex than Arendt knew—from the manipulation of sex to uphold the community to the mourning of own and other species—doesn’t change her thesis; it rather shows us how little we’ve known of what it means to be bonobos or elephants.) Animal isn’t a condition of zoology but of ontology. In contrast, what is human is the construction of a world. In and through that world each and every human acts in relation to that world and each other. For that reason there is no necessity for sex in humanity. To be human is to be able to look up past necessity to see others doing the same—returning to the cave, so to speak, not necessarily to unfetter the rest but to act among them. It is in this way that I said there is no good reason to predicate a definition of humanity on biology.

Of course, this not is say that there is no sex in humanity; as sex is to life, love is to the world, and because love makes use of sex, sex becomes infused with the world. Likewise gender, a worldly construction if ever there was one, infuses biology with interpretation long before we are born. But gender and sex complicate and often misinterpret biology; we confuse one for the other and insist that biology might exclude someone from the realm of the human. Such actions are called “dehumanizing” precisely because they substitute symptoms of humanity for humanity itself. Biology requires men, women, hermaphrodites, children, and everyone else to be different. Humanity requires there to be something common that they all share.

For that reason, the great mystery of the incarnation is not that God squeezed godself into a body which fit so well that God’s god juices didn’t leak out. It is rather that God, who by virtue of singularity is wholly Other to humankind, lived in plurality among us. In order to recognize that fact it must be possible to affirm Jesus in his humanity without invoking his biology, else that mystery is lost. Indeed, in many ways Jesus’ recorded life was an illustration of human plurality (even in spite of his teaching). There is value and reason to invoke Jesus’s manhood; at the same time, there is value and reason to invoke his humanity, even if only to show that gender has little to do with what it means to be human.

1 To be clear, however, this is an effort of synthesis and extension; all misreadings, overreachings, and ridiculous claims are mine.



I’m going to think about this for a little while before I comment.

My tangentially related thoughts are here. Short version: gender ≠ humanity—what Greg said.

So biological functions (maintaing and preserving them) relate to our state as animal laborans: child bearing and the nurturing of suckling children.

The thing is, as you hint at, we are also readers. How we read and what we read interact not only with how we understand our place in the universe, but it also determines what we do and how we do what we do. This is where gender, it seems, a fully human construct, comes into play and messes up the gender ≠ humanity equation.

It is good to vary in order that you may frustrate the curious, especially those who envy you.
-Baltasar Gracian

Right. Gender is an hermeneutic exercise through and through.

I want to second Laura’s post, which speaks very well toward the ethics of equating gender with humanity—it’s because of the varieties of human biology and the ethical consequences of our behaviors toward each other that I think it’s necessary to define humanity apart from biology.

right, i did think it quite good and was planning on linking to it in my post, but forgot… :)

Even knowledge has to be in the fashion, and where it is not, it is wise to affect ignorance.
Baltasar Gracian

Wow…thanks. I wasn’t actually cackling when I commented on kb.net but if I had been this certainly would have ended my retributive glee.

I think when I say I’m writing a dissertation I’m going to start putting it in quotes. Yeah, I’m “writing” a dissertation. What I’m really doing is mom-ing and TA’ing, and reading a lot of SF.

So: yes, I think that defining the human via biology (solely) is a reductive mistake. But it is also a mistake to bracket the body altogether: human beings are not naked spirits temporarily clothed in bodies, no matter what our Platonic heritage tells us. “What is human is the construction of a world,” but construction of our human world is affected by what kind of body we are. This is what is so valuable about Laura’s post: it welcomes the possibility of more than one way to be fully human. So the challenge is to forge some understanding of human that includes bodies (plural!), and differences between bodies, without being wholly determined by them: and this is what I think is the key to envisioning the posthuman in a way that is not exploitative and monstrous. “Biology requires men, women, hermaphrodites, children, and everyone else to be different. Humanity requires there to be something common that they all share.”—I think this is what I mean. But I don’t know how to answer the question of just what it is we all share, unless perhaps it’s the collective construction of our human world…?

On a side note, I have a colleague here in theology & science who is working on the implications of bonobo society for the construction of doctrines of sin, at least partially in response to an established tendency to theorize (human) male aggression and violence as “natural” based on studies on chimpanzee society, ignoring that bonobos—equally as relevant to us as fellow primates—exhibit different social structures that include resolution of conflict through sex, female bonding and matriarchy…

What keeps bothering me about this, Greg, are the discoveries of great complexity in animal social behavior, which you mention (a little too) briefly. Does the construction of our world and our subsequent corporate participation in it differ qualitatively from the social worlds that primates construct? In light of these discoveries, is it necessary now to understand both what it means to be bonobo and human? Or might we be better off describing only what it means to be primate (i.e. we are on a continuum with our distant cousins, not in stark separation)?

I guess this would put me more in the biology camp, but I heartily agree with everyone’s comments on the confusion/conflation of sex and gender.

7: Humanity requires there to be something common that they all share.”—I think this is what I mean. But I don’t know how to answer the question of just what it is we all share, unless perhaps it’s the collective construction of our human world…?

With the caveat that I know very little about her biography, it seems to me this is why Arendt turned to political from existential philosophy. That an individual is profoundly singular in his or her existence in the universe bears truth, but it isn’t very descriptive of humanity collectively. It doesn’t very well describe the power of togetherness. (Struggle through Being and Time—well, all of Heidegger—as I did, though, I might of course have forgotten something important… that’s not to say that Camus or Sartre didn’t bury their hatchets crying out against the night.) A concept of “the world,” constructed thing that it is, seems to get at what collective existence is; more than that, what “becoming” means.

8: You’re right. I did brush over the social world of animals, for two reasons: a) brevity—I figured I’d get lost in the nuance; b) I don’t really know what to think about it.

It occurred to me today that my claim, “it rather shows us how little we’ve known of what it means to be bonobos or elephants”—which wasn’t a dismissal so much as a decision not to consider it very carefully—has the potential to be right, though. Isn’t your question, JH, one that takes to task the notion that homo sapiens are the only ones who sapiens? It seems to me possible, even right to be able to say that there are dolphin sapiens and elephant sapiens without needing to invite all sapiens under the umbrella of homo. (That is, inasmuch as homo means human rather than “same”; I recommend you ignore my impoverished attempts to Latin and just understand what I mean without letting my words get in the way. Come to think of it, that’s a good policy all the time.)

In other words, I don’t know why it wouldn’t be wise to try to understand other sapiens on their own terms rather than on ours: the presumption that humanity is dominant because it alone knows, while it has been good for humanity, hasn’t been particularly good for all other creatures on Earth. That it’s presumption of Western taxonomies can’t be overstated, either: I mean, Buddhism’s efforts to be harmless advocate a restraint that is rather extraordinary…