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We, As Humans -- Writer's Poke #447

I’ve been reading student essays for the past fifteen years, and I wish I knew how many times I’ve read students write the following: “We, as humans, ….” Most of the times I just mark out “as humans” and go on reading.

Quite honestly, I probably haven’t given the phrase any deep thought, but the qualification does seem to imply that the “we” the students speak of could be something other than human. What exactly could “we” be, if not human? Perhaps an examination of this question has merit.

Take, gender, for example. One feminist writer described gender as a copy without an original. Essentially, gender is “prescribed” – by culture, or religion, etc. What it means to be “male” or “female” are simply ideas, and all of us pick up on the particular ideas created by the group(s) we belong to.

Assuming this is true, it makes sense to suggest that what it means to be human works the same way. What does it mean to be human? Homo sapiens belong to the animal kingdom, but when people speak of being human, don’t they often imply that being human is different from being animal? To be human, in other words, is to be more than “animal.” Isn’t it interesting that students, perhaps subconsciously, feel the need to clarify the distinction?

Human beings are animals, although I’ve really never had any students focus on this aspect of what it means to be human. To be human means, or so it would seem, trying to escape being animal. When students write “we, as humans,” it’s almost as if they are declaring their commitment to the idea that human beings have the ability – and the obligation – to transcend their animal origins. To be human means not to be supernatural, but natural in a manner generally accepted as being more than animal.

Can you adequately define what it means to be human, or do all attempts at definition fall short?

“No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down the rules of conduct for other people.” – William Howard Taft


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