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’
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
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.