What Makes Us Human?

For all the immense achievements of mankind I cannot help but think that a definitive answer to the question ‘what makes us human?’ eludes us. There is no concise thing we can point to, no simple ‘this’ or ‘that’, without more questions being raised. The whole matter is so enormous that it ties my brain in knots! Perhaps the fact that I am able to think about the question at all is what makes me human. In the words of Descartes: cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am.

As a species we continually explore the complexities of our own neurology and the mechanics of our human bodies. We learn more every day about the amazing and surprising ways we exist under both favourable and adverse conditions. For instance, we are coming to realizing that our senses constitute many layers of sub-senses, as I can personally testify. Human life, as a biological and a social phenomenon, is a difficult subject to tackle all in one go, not least because our individuality is a big part of who we are. There are few traits that everybody exhibits, few parameters that we can use to define all human beings equally and universally.

This year I have been starkly reminded of the extremes humanity can reach; from the horrific death of fellow drummer Lee Rigby to the heart-wrenching situation endured by the parents and community of April Jones. Finding an answer to the question ‘what makes us human?’ seems particularly hard when viewed in the context of humanity’s extreme behaviour.

On a global level I am aware that large groups of people are traumatised by the atrocities of others. In some territories, the use of force and oppression appears to be the favoured method of resolving conflict. Such ‘resolution by force’ requires somebody – a government, a military body, a judicial system, individuals or whoever – to justify that use of force. What does this say about us a humans? Clearly some people abuse the system, judging and acting in a way that deprives affected people of their influence, their ability to defend themselves and sometimes their basic human rights. Such control comes in many guises, justified in the name of anything from democracy to dictatorial power.

On the other hand we often turn to debate in order to resolve our differences. We can debate anything from deciding what to have for lunch to deliberations over major international crises. For example, world leaders at the G8 attempt to find solutions to global problems such as starvation, the lack basic infrastructure for millions of people (in places like Africa) and the vast number of resources wasted elsewhere in the world. Our ability to debate these topics says something about our humanity, too, but so does the fact that we allow such terrible things to happen in the first place, not to mention our expectation that there will always be someone else around to solve the problems we create.

I ask myself, therefore, if the answer to my question ‘what makes us human?’ is compassion. Our capacity for substantial levels of compassion is perhaps easiest to see in the charity sector where people work tirelessly to fund improvement, offer hope and provide mechanisms to end all manner of misery, all for the benefit of others. Perhaps prayer is the answer; our long legacy of turning to omnipresent, super-human beings to guide us to resolutions we cannot find ourselves and to provide us with spiritual sanctuary from our suffering. Or maybe it is patience that defines us. After all, this is the trait I find myself turning to extremely frequently, whether I am waiting in queues at airports or striving to perfect a piece of music.

Perhaps the answer is simpler than that. I am human and I have feelings. Do my feelings make me human? If they are I face a conundrum. I know from personal experience that other species such as cats and dogs clearly have feelings too. Having empathy and sensitivity towards others is essential and can make a huge difference to our perception and treatment of others. Such traits are most notably evident in hospitals, hospices and other such caring environments. But there are issues with some organisations, individual care homes and hospitals, where there appears to be a lack of empathy and sensitivity with devastating effect.

Curiosity also plays a large part in what defines us as human. Our curiosity has been directed inward as much as outward. Research into the development and working of the human body has grown to a discipline of unimaginable scale. With every discovery about our humanity we are faced with the question of whether or not we should revise the way we envisage ourselves as human beings. The science of modern medicine has allowed us to overcome challenges that would once have killed us or left us permanently disabled. We have developed cures and prosthetics, we are able to regenerate cells from living tissue and perform countless other procedures that bring, not just the prospect of recovery, but also hope and continued quality of life. Some medical advances raise moral questions, too. For instance, our ability to manipulate human embryos brings joy to families the world over while also raising concerns about the ethical implications of our actions.

This very human sense of curiosity is my mainstay. I have found ways to feel and sense sound that do not rely on the usual physiological methods. My innate curiosity led to the discovery that I could use my body as a resonating chamber and sense sound using the whole of myself rather than only using my ears. I was then able to fulfil my hopes and dreams of becoming a musician. I have learned to understand speech by lip reading and I have learned to feel sound as if though my body were a giant ear.

So are our hopes and dreams the essence of what makes us human? Or perhaps the key is strength of character and determination. Personally, I have certainly needed all of these traits throughout the journey of my life. But I also feel being open-minded is important. Open-mindedness leads us to information that allows us to make choices and decisions we might not otherwise have made. It also brings about flexibility and adaptability. When I lost my hearing I chose to adapt and integrate myself into a mainstream school. From my perspective the choice was either to be pigeonholed as disabled or to find a way open up a new career as the world’s first full time solo percussionist. I have never regretted my ability to make my own choices!

What makes us human? Clearly the answer is complicated. I am reminded of another question that I am frequently asked: would I be better musician if I had not lost my hearing? I have no idea. But I do know life begins and ends with listening. Perhaps the fact that I have opened my body and my mind to a different way of listening enables me to be more sensitive. If other people learned to engage their bodies as a huge ear perhaps their idea of what makes us human would be affected too.

In conclusion, I feel that compassion, patience, inclusion, individuality and cultural awareness are all forms of social listening. To me, social listening is predominantly what makes us human.

© Evelyn Glennie, 2015

Image: Judit Klein (licence: CC-BY-ND 2.0 )