What makes Homo sapiens human?


Is this a human?

The debate continues in the Bigfoot community over the as yet revealed unrevealed results of Dr. Melba Ketchum’s DNA study. Most of the participants in the debate have no idea what Dr. K’s paper will reveal, yet through various fruitful and fruitless sleuthing techniques they believe they have uncovered what the study will conclude, Bigfoot is almost human. They, of course, have come up with more precise scientific jargon to express what that means in the world of lab coats and test tubes, but for those of us that don’t have letters after our names that is essentially what they are saying; Bigfoot differs from Homo sapiens in only the slightest way, genetically speaking.

Whether or not Dr. K’s study will stand up to scientific scrutiny remains to be seen. In fact, whether or not Dr. K’s study concludes the above even remains to be seen. The quality and conclusion of the paper can’t be debated with any degree of intelligence because no one outside of a handful of people has seen it. But that doesn’t mean this discussion has been all for naught. On the contrary, I think something very important has come out of the guessing and wishing surrounding Dr. K’s unpublished paper. What does being human really mean?

Not everyone is buying into the “almost human” moniker. Old schoolers insist we are dealing with a bipedal ape. They argue that we are simply looking at a highly intelligent animal that walks like us. Nothing more. That is where we find ourselves today on the issue of Bigfoot. There are three fairly reasonable sides to consider.

    • Bigfoot does not exist
    • Bigfoot is human
    • Bigfoot is an ape

Discounting the “Bigfoot does not exist” crowd for a moment, the divide between the two latter sides is so slim it’s hard to see. Let’s forget the DNA study for this discussion. From a moral perspective, we have to decide amongst ourselves what being human means before we can decide whether something is human or not.

As a society, we have decided that medical testing on Chimpanzees is morally acceptable because they are so genetically similar to us we can save our species  by sacrificing members of theirs. Think about it. We are knowingly killing and causing harm to something we’ve deemed an animal because its genetic structure is dissimilar to ours in the smallest degrees. Why aren’t Chimps, Gorillas and Orangutans considered human? Because they aren’t Homo sapiens? What if Neanderthals had survived and lived in our mountainous regions today? Would they be humans? Their scientific identification is Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis depending on who you ask. They are almost like us. More similar to us than our great ape brethren. Would it be morally acceptable to conduct medical testing on Neanderthals if they lived today?

What is it that strips something of its rights? Is it lack of language? It can’t be stated with any kind of scientific certainty that Neanderthals had language. Some of the genetic markers for speech have been discovered, so the scientific community is leaning towards the use of language by Neanderthals. So let’s pretend that language is where we draw the line in the sand. Whales and dolphins demonstrate a highly sophisticated form of sounds that some have interpreted as language. Yet, we allow countries like Japan to hunt whales for food. Koko the gorilla has demonstrated the capacity to learn and use American Sign Language, but she is not considered human. Legally, the argument could be made that we could conduct medical experiments on her despite her ability to communicate outside of her species. In fact, some would even say that teaching research apes sign language could be beneficial because they could actually describe how they are feeling. The mental state of the animal could be more accurately monitored and as a result we Homo sapiens could avoid the same kind of mental anguish.

Clearly language is not enough to consider something human. Is it culture? Is it intelligence? Is it tool us? Is it belief in a higher being? I submit that none of these are factors in determining if something is human or not. There are animals that demonstrate a cultural structure. There are highly intelligent animals. There are animals that use tools on a regular basis. And, there are Homo sapiens who do not believe in a higher being. I would even go further and say that we do not use genetics to determine if something is human or not. We decided Homo sapiens were human long before the field of genetic study even existed.

As far as I can tell, as a society we decide if something is human or not purely based on physical attributes alone. If something isn’t bipedal, it’s not human. If something is covered in hair or fur or feathers or scales, it’s not human. There are anomalies within our species that are exceptions to those rules, but overall that’s the way we’ve come to the moral determination that something is human or not. Based on those two criteria, Bigfoot puts us in a tough spot being a hairy biped.

I’ve said all that to say this. I believe debating whether Bigfoot is ape or human is putting the cart before the horse. We have to first determine what makes something human and leave genetics out of the discussion. Does something that doesn’t quite look like us deserve the same rights as we do? We may find that Bigfoot is governed by their own set of laws. They may have a language. They may even have little inside jokes about the hairless creatures that roam their forests with guns and cameras. It’s not even outside of the realm of possibility that they believe in a higher being and have communal rituals they perform in observance of their higher being. We don’t know enough to know what we don’t know.

Now you may be one of those on the third side of this issue and can’t believe for a second that Bigfoot exists. In which case, you are probably having a good chuckle right about now. Consider this. Something left behind DNA samples to be included in that study. The study revealed something that merits publication in a scientific journal. There is something out there. What it is may bring Homo sapiens to a cross roads. We may have to decide if something outside our species or something that is defined as a Homo sapiens subspecies can be considered human.

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4 thoughts on “What makes Homo sapiens human?

  1. The ability to crossbreed also defines the species barrier. Donkeys and asses make mules, but cats and dogs, not so much. Check out Paulides’ book, ‘The Hoopa Project,’ wherein there is the strong suggestion that humans and Sas have mated.

    Brrrrrrr.

  2. This is a well-written article, but you’ll want to fix a glaring error in your opening sentence. “The debate continues in the Bigfoot community over the as yet revealed results of Dr. Melba Ketchum’s DNA study.” This needs to be either “yet to be revealed” or “as yet unrevealed.”

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