The Illusion of Humanity


          In Camino Real, Tennessee Williams said “Humanity is just a work in progress.” He is probably right; humankind seems to grow and change with the passing of each year, each day, each decade, each century, millennia.  But what makes the species known as homo sapiens human?  Millennia of evolution selected and distanced homo sapiens from their ancestors, the ape-like australopithecines, as discovered in places like Oldavai Gorge in Africa.  When discussing humanity, one must decide what distances homo sapiens from the “beasts.”  One cannot argue that the humanity of homo sapiens exists solely on the basis of civilization; the identification of humanity must be on the basis of the construction of cities, establishment of codes of law, the advent of science and literature, and the development of religion.

          Several things define civilization:  social organization, political structure, technology, religion, and culture, among other things.  However, one cannot base the humanity of homo sapiens on civilization as a whole because social structure and technology exist within the animal kingdom.  Social structures are in almost all mammal species, from the big cats to canine species to aquatic mammals.  Bonds within these groups tend to be inbred; most groups are tied by blood in some way or another, whether through the females in the group or by the alpha male, who leads the pack, herd, pod, or one of myriad other terms for a group of animals.  Technology, too, exists within species of mammals.  Documentation exists of many primate species using rocks, reeds, and sticks as tools for various uses, mostly for getting food, although some were weapons.  For these reasons, civilization as a whole cannot be the determination of homo sapiens’ humanity.

          Cities, however, in all their diversity and complexity, are indicators of humanity.  Cities indicate a food surplus vital to civilization.  In addition to this, cities are also prime breeding grounds for law, religion, science, literature, and more specialized or advanced technology.  A city generally becomes the center for a civilization, a source of order from the near-anarchy of the animal kingdom.

          Through law, anarchy is conquered.  Laws, and the political structure that accompanies them, are another symbol of humanity.  Some of the earliest known written laws is Hammarabi’s Code.  The Code, written on columns in Mesopotamia, included laws dealing with bad business, lying, abandonment, violence, and myriad other offenses.  The Code also made distinctions between members of different social classes.  More evidence of strict government and social structures from the early period of history comes from Egypt.  In an anonymous letter from an Egyptian scribe to a young man, the author explains in brief the social structure of the middle to lower class citizens of Egypt, from the lowly peasant farmer to the weary washer man to the scribe who worked in a palace.  Found in the later in the period are more writings on law and politics, authored by Plato and Socrates in the Greco-Roman era.

          Science and literature as well exist in cities and are an indicator of humanity.  Most evidence of literature is from later in the period, by the great poets and writers of Greece and Rome such as Homer and Virgil.  Science, however, one easily finds in Mesopotamia and Egypt.  Fountains and irrigation were common fixtures in Mesopotamia; also possible in the region were magnificent feats of botanical skill with the hanging gardens in Babylon.  Irrigation was also common in the fertile Nile River Valley of Egypt, where farming thrived despite the harsh desert conditions that existed a short distance away.  The best place to look for science in the early period is, in fact, Egypt.  The science of medicine, however tradition-bound as it was in that culture, was there, and was actually quite effective in some cases.  The half science, half art of mummification also arose in Egypt, where the preservation of the body after death was essential for passage into the afterlife.

          The final strong indicator for the humanity of homo sapiens is religion and with it, the ritualistic burial of the dead.  Before the advent of “modern” science, the task of explaining the unknown and answering questions such as “where did we come from?” and “why are we here?” fell to religion.  Through myth, which is a way that a cultural group interacts with “greater powers” or the sacred, such questions find answers and things explained.  Tales such as the creation epic from Mesopotamian mythology where Marduk created the first humans to worship the Gods and the Book of Genesis from the Bible, where God created everything, including Adam and Eve, the first humans, explain where people come from and give them a sense of where they fall in the cosmic scheme of things.  Other myths to explain the unexplained include various flood myths as found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the tale of Noah from Judeo-Christian myth.

          The ritualistic burial of the dead, perhaps the earliest sign of humanity, is also an aspect of religion.  Archaeologists uncovered evidence of ritualistic burial in the homo sapiens subspecies called Neanderthals, a race that disappears rather swiftly in the fossil record.  The Egyptians take this ritualistic burial to an extreme with their mummification of the dead.  It is from the tombs of these dead that archaeologists and historians learn the most about Egyptian society and culture.  An interesting aspect of the rites of burial for Egyptians was the inclusion of a text, the Book of the Dead, in every tomb.  It appeared to be a tome with verses Egyptian dead should recite as the Egyptian pantheon judged them.  Egyptian myth stated that as you recited the verses from the Book of the Dead as your heart the gods weighed your heart against a feather.  If it balanced, you would go on to the afterlife.  If not, you could go to hell or be doomed to walk the world for all eternity, in limbo.

          Civilization, as shown, cannot be the basis for the humanity of homo sapiens.  Humanity can, however, be proven by breaking down the different aspects of civilization and going through them step by step to differentiate humans from the “beasts” of the animal kingdom.  Even though humans share some aspects of civilization with other mammals, it is things like the building of complex and diverse cities, having codes of law and social behavior, science, literature, and religion that make homo sapiens human.