Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Is a Human Being?

In a class I just gave at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, we were looking at the latest evidence from Africa--mostly from South Africa--to show in detail the single origin of all people, all the people dispersed across the globe now and fighting so unnecessarily. We are all blood kin. It is a beautiful fact. This class, called The Latest Findings from Africa -- What Is a Human Being? looked at the question, what does it mean to be human? When did the evolutionary line from which modern Homo sapiens emerged actually become Homo sapiens, attain humanity?

The current series of issues in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known deals with that, beginning with an anonymous review written in 1850 (Quarterly Review) about which I'll say more another time. The review is written passionately, and insists--at such an early time, 9 years before Darwin published Origin of Species--that all varieties of humanity across the globe evolved from a single source. The opposites of variety and unity, or many and one, are written about with a true egalitarian passion by this reviewer, as a matter of scientific fact. The atmosphere of the time, with attempts to justify slavery in so many quarters, "scientific" and not, is stoutly opposed in the article.

But in the class to which I'm referring, we asked about the first appearance of human beings as we know them: our undoubted direct ancestors in body, mind, and culture. And the oldest clear occurrence is in South Africa--the Blombos Cave and Stillbay region--some 70,000 years before the present. Sophisticated stone tools called bifacial points are there--and delicately made implements of polished bone, 40,000 years or so before they appeared in Europe: a fact that has surprised archaeology.

The people of Europe are direct descendents of those culture-brothers-and-sisters who left Africa and eventually found their way to Europe with the tool kit first observed in Blombos, at the southern tip of South Africa, by the seashore.

And the first "scratchings" of art are there: red ochre oblongs engraved with straight lines in regular geometric patterns! This is the first time in the world such a thing occurred. Even if earlier instances are found, this gathering of artifacts shows that the minds that made them were like our own. Humanity did not have to wait until the flowering of Franco-Cantabrian art for the art instinct to have begun to show itself.

What all this comes to is that a tremendous threshold had been crossed by 70,000 years ago--the threshold into humanity. The relation of person to world, and the relation of person to his or her self, had changed.

So then, what changed? And how do we know these living beings really did change from their ancestors? All of us feel we can be more human. What does that mean?

In the class I pointed to the fact that opposites that are in animals, including our immediate primate ancestors, came to a new, richer and kinder relation in human beings as we became truly human. And they can be in a better relation still. Those I spoke about first were Subjective and Objective. I learned how crucial these were from a lecture by Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism--I'll quote this lecture in a moment. And there will be more about this entire subject later.

The answer to What does it mean to be human?--to be a person? we discussed was in several paragraphs of Mr. Siegel's lecture titled Aesthetic Realism and People. I will reproduce two paragraphs which are crucial both anthropologically and philosophically here, from issue no. 606, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (14 November 1984). I will not attempt to comment now, but I will later. Note that there is humor here along with philosophic strictness:

To know what people are is very necessary, because through knowing what other people are we know about ourselves. There is not a person who has ever lived who can't tell us something about ourselves. For that matter, there isn't a thing. People are simply things, more complete than other things. The difference between a person and a lamp post is that the lamp post is a person who is incomplete because the lamp post is not conscious of itself. In other words, when that which is in the lamp post is in such a form that the reality becomes aware of itself and aware of things that can be called purposes--a certain attitude to everything else--the lamp post would be a person. It is necessary to see that between things and people there is a continuity; between people and ourselves, our very selves, there is also continuity; and at no point is the continuity broken.

People are simply reality when most complete; reality when aware of itself. The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form. Through seeing that reality can be people, we see what reality can do. And so our attitude to plants and animals and to rocks and the skies can become richer.

A person is a living being that can look at itself--look at one's motives, see how justly one is looking at the world--and be a critic of oneself. It is a great fact that out of inanimate reality, billions of years of whirling atoms, arose awareness. We are "reality when aware of itself."

The simple fact that people in Blombos caves decorated their bodies with beads made of shell, perhaps colored themselves with that red ochre, shows in the most elemental way that they were aware of themselves. "How do I look?" is a sentence of self-awareness. And when one looks at one's own motives, and asks, "How to I look to myself? Do I like myself or not, for the way I was angry last night?" it's self-awareness even more grandly. All this came from the evolution of inorganic matter into matter with awareness.

The period of South African prehistory in which awareness of self was emerging, when a new relation of opposites in the human consciousness was coming to be,is one of the highest points of human evolution. And we came from them.

For more about the Aesthetic Realism understanding of Anthropology, see Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology and Sociology.