Corporate grit. That’s how I think of the myriad little things that used to irritate me when I worked in corporate world.
One of those bits of grit was the term, ‘human resources’. And in that I had an unlikely ally – the Duke of Edinburgh.
I was at an event for developing young Commonwealth leaders – as a mere observer – when he railed against this reduction of human beings to the status of nuts and bolts. Components in the great, grinding machines of industry and commerce.
I’m not sure he’d agree with most of my other views, but we are as one on that – humans are not mere ‘resources’.
It’s surely the simplest way to dehumanise humans, to deny them any agency or will. To regard them as mere tools. To ‘other’ them, to use a more recent piece of grit-speak.
Ask any dictator. The masses when homogenous are more easily controlled. An ocean of creatures, ebbing and flowing as one, lured by their great moon, their leader.
Kept in line by fear of a carefully cultivated ‘other’, a focus for aggression, grievances and hate. A stimulus to action.
In my last post I declared that the terrorist who bombed the Manchester Arena wasn’t human – and was rightly pulled up for my wishful inaccuracy.
Since then I’ve been thinking about what makes us human.
In the next few hundred words I can’t begin to reach a conclusion. Philosophers, scientists, anthropologists and – yes – archaeologists, have written volumes on the subject.
But I’d still like to ponder that basic question: what is it, to be human?
What makes us different from other animals?
Or are we?
Wandering down the alleyways of our species and all its works is a complicated undertaking. No maps are adequate, no path ever seems to lead to a concrete destination.
And I warn you, this isn’t my usual style. It’s rambling, somewhat incoherent, long – and yet… I have to do it. Otherwise, these thoughts will keep on rumbling round my head. So I’m inflicting them on you.
Starting close to home, with the work of my in-house archaeologist.
Investigating the Deep Root of Human Behaviour is the title of his new five-year project, researching a change in stone tool technology that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago.
A change that was only possible because humans had evolved brains that could imagine. Its practical application being the ability to invent.
We often debate ‘what is human behaviour’ as we eat our evening meal. Sad, but true. And over the years the change to the answers has been dramatic.
First the criterion was tool use.
Humans alone use tools.
Except that other creatures do use tools.
Chimps use stones to break open nuts.
Dolphins put sponges on their beaks to protect them when fishing on rocky seabeds.
So the goal posts moved …
Humans are unique because they don’t just use tools, they make them, requiring forward planning. The ability to envisage something that doesn’t yet exist.
So what’s unique about that? Lots of creatures make tools.
Like the Mandrill at Chester Zoo who stripped a twig and used it to clean its toenails.
OK, so humans live in society, they cooperate.
Well, guess what, plenty of animals cooperate.
Right. Well, what about symbols? Humans, uniquely, use symbols.
Apes – and even pigeons – have been taught symbols and can use them too.
What about rituals – non-practical routine behaviour? Finally, a truly human…
Nope. Take a look at this:
And so it goes on.
The gist of this is, there aren’t many basic functions, in terms of what our brains can do, that separate us from other animals. It’s more a matter of degree than kind.
But what about our physiology?
Well, that’s different.
Perhaps it’s simply a stroke of luck (or misfortune, depending on your viewpoint) that by evolving opposable thumbs (and having voice boxes that enabled complex sound-making) we became top species. For the time being…
Some believe we have a soul, a spirit independent of our biology. That’s what makes us different.
I wanted to believe that one, but recently heard an interview with an eminent scientist. She took LSD as a college student, had an out-of-body experience. Ever since, she’s been trying to find out if such an experience was ‘real’. She’s no longer young – and as yet the results are negative.
But what about emotions? Aren’t they uniquely human?
Erm, no. Animals apparently feel fear and even, arguably, happiness.
What about abstract thought, then?
No, I’m sorry, this is getting beyond me.
I want to take a break from rational thought.
Turn to that man.
That human being.
What made him able to do what he did?
Most people will agree if I say it was an evil act.
Today I read a very clear analysis, by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, of what’s behind this kind of act. At the risk of wearing out your tolerance, here are some key extracts:
… Salafi jihadism, the core beliefs of Isis and al-Qaeda, developed out of Wahhabism, and has carried out its prejudices to what it sees as a logical and violent conclusion. Shia and Yazidis were not just heretics in the eyes of this movement, which was a sort of Islamic Khmer Rouge, but sub-humans who should be massacred or enslaved. Any woman who transgressed against repressive social mores should be savagely punished. Faith should be demonstrated by a public death of the believer, slaughtering the unbelievers, be they the 86 Shia children being evacuated by bus from their homes in Syria on 15 April or the butchery of young fans at a pop concert in Manchester on Monday night.
One of the great cultural changes in the world over the last 50 years is the way in which Wahhabism, once an isolated splinter group, has become an increasingly dominant influence over mainstream Sunni Islam, thanks to Saudi financial support.
[Western] Leaders want to have a political and commercial alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil states. They have never held them to account for supporting a repressive and sectarian ideology which is likely to have inspired Salman Abedi. Details of his motivation may be lacking, but the target of his attack and the method of his death is classic al-Qaeda and Isis in its mode of operating.
The reason these two demonic organisations were able to survive and expand despite the billions – perhaps trillions – of dollars spent on “the war on terror” after 9/11 is that those responsible for stopping them deliberately missed the target and have gone on doing so. After 9/11, President Bush portrayed Iraq not Saudi Arabia as the enemy; in a re-run of history President Trump is ludicrously accusing Iran of being the source of most terrorism in the Middle East. This is the real 9/11 conspiracy, beloved of crackpots worldwide, but there is nothing secret about the deliberate blindness of British and American governments to the source of the beliefs that has inspired the massacres of which Manchester is only the latest – and certainly not the last – horrible example
Well, that’s how – but ‘why’, on an individual level, is still the question I can’t answer.
Why is this branch of Islam – why are these men – so intolerant? Why do they need to control and repress in this joyless, savage way?
Illogical, un-natural – it doesn’t seem to have an evolutionary benefit.
And I see it as evil.
Is evil a truly defining human trait? One that really distinguishes us from other animals?
And if so, why are we capable of it?
I wanted to do more with this post. Too much, I know.
To ponder why so many humans are manipulated – or managed, if you prefer the less emotive term – by so few. In business, in politics, in religion.
And radicalised by zealots.
I wanted to talk about artificial intelligence and the ‘evolution’ of robots. The machines we are told look set to assume our human role in this world.
But who don’t – yet – have emotions. Who don’t – cannot? – have souls.
Watching the clip in this report, of a robot approaching the Provisional IRA bombing that destroyed Manchester’s Arndale Centre in 1996, my husband said he felt fearful on behalf of the robot and sad it blew up.
I want to ask, do we, as humans, feel too much? Or not enough?
Are we too empathetic or too apathetic? Too hate-filled, too evil? Too blind?
Are those our existence-threatening weaknesses, our truly human qualities?
Some won’t notice the insidious usurping of the human role by robots. They will welcome the convenient, efficient, calmly-caring pseudo-humans that look after them or do their housework.
But what happens when humans – as a species – become redundant?
Or, to put it more coldly, what happens when we humans cease to be – resources?
Will we as a species, survive?
And, ultimately, what does it matter?
And to whom?
I’m heading for the hills.
The great question has been solved again, I am told. Now the behaviour that is uniquely human (for how long?) is the ability to make tools with tools. Though crows come close with string and twigs. Don’t watch Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ after thinking about this.