Forty-odd years ago, Desmond Morris brought the study of humans as animals to the common man through his book, The Naked Ape. This work was the first to make me think about what it is to be a human, something which has been exercising many of us in the EDCMOOC this week.
The advancements in our understanding of the physics, chemistry and biology of living things, in particular of DNA, have allowed us to begin to appreciate that the traditional classifications of living things are in need of revision. We have developed in recent centuries the classification, naming and organisational structures which allow us to understand the connectedness of life on this planet. These have been largely derived from observational field- and laboratory-work and have been almost entirely empirical until Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the molecule of complexity common to all known life on Earth. The naming and classification of living things has been subject to the same influences as the naming and classification of non-living things.
…an intellectual scalpel so swift and so sharp you sometimes don’t see it moving. You get the illusion that all those parts are just there and are being named as they exist. But they can be named quite differently depending on how the knife moves. . .
The term Human, then, has no meaning for anyone but those using the term. It’s a general description of a group of things with broadly similar characteristics distinct from another group of another name. How you choose to classify and name is – or should be – entirely up you, appropriate to the purpose. There are areas we dare not yet go, however. It is difficult to describe a black man as “a black man” without somebody wailing and shrieking that you’re a racist.
Education is a Dying Art
Steve Fuller’s Tedx talk considers what it is to be “human”. In it, he throws out the phrase, “Education is a Dying Art” in context of being human in terms of Artifice, as if somehow the thing that distinguishes humans is the notion of being something more than just enough to survive. Becoming human here implies gaining skills, knowledge and awareness of the part of the human in the collective of humanity. This is for me, society: this being the analogue of how the fish is part of the school or the ant is part of the colony. Each has a part to play which must be learned or acquired somehow and for the last few hundred years since the Industrial Revolution has become part of the organisation of society. Education has evolved within the society we are building for the purposes of making humans part of the machine that functions to sustain us all. Those who have learned to play their part function within it.
My thoughts on Fuller’s statement about education being a dying art are that formal, state or society-sponsored preparation of people to play their part in the machine of society is changing. New levels of choice are open to many, not just in the First World of post-Industrialisation, but in the new interconnected world in which access to new roles in the emerging Global Society are possible where they have never been before.
The evolution of our society as a life-form collective which has developed the ability to extend its influence beyond that of any individual’s for purposes beyond mere survival and procreation (which is arguably the limit of DNA-mutation evolution) has reached what might be called a tipping point. There are new realisations that the collective impact of our society is potentially threatening to our survival, but these are incapacitated from mutating survival enhancements by properties of the society itself. We are able to sustain and enhance physical potential beyond what would have been possible without intervention – Steven Hawking, and many more like him – but we do so at a cost we have not yet perhaps become fully aware of in any sense that we can do something about it.
At the individual level, however, things are brighter. Those who would, a hundred years ago, have forever been denied the slightest chance of realising their potential to contribute to the collective, are now finding it possible to participate in opportunities to contribute (and benefit themselves and their families) and make a real difference to the development of all of our health and prosperity. This, through the technologies of infrastructure and communication, increasingly at our fingertips and part of us as the new humans.