The Great Conversation:
Man—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

If man is the measure of all things, how are we to understand man? And if not, how are we to understand anything?

Many entries on the list of the great ideas stand, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast with some other idea, or with more than one. Man forms one side of many contrasts; possible oppositions include animal, child, machine, God, woman, nature, elf, and more. Our overview format means we can only delve so deeply into these variegated facets of the topic, but as always, we encourage readers to pick up the suggested reading at the end and to explore our Author Bank for more on this subject. For this series on the Journal, we’ve selected six answers to the question What is man?, each one replying from the perspective of a different set of disciplines.

I. Man is Homo sapiens.

This is the classification used by biology and its subfields, such as medicine. Our illustrious selves fall into the genus* Homo. This genus also includes anatomically archaic humans like Neanderthal men (pronounced nee-an-der-tall), now extinct for about forty thousand years. Neanderthals were shorter and stockier than we are, with jaws and noses that jutted out, and a larger brain; for a long time, they were thought to be a distinct species. However, in 2010, the Neanderthal genome was sequenced and a surprising discovery was made: nearly all modern humans have some admixture of Neanderthal DNA, from a little under 0.5% to a whopping 8%! There is even a (very uncertain) theory that the light skin of European and northern Asian ethnicities originally derives from blending with Neanderthals. Additional members of the genus Homo have also been discovered, some of which may also be sapiens subspecies, like the Denisovans. Others are more definitely distinct, like Homo floresiensis. This species typically reached a height of about three and a half feet—earning them the nickname of “hobbits”!

While there is a general agreement that humans are meaningfully distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom, there is not a universal consensus on what that distinction consists in; and even if there were, most of the candidates for the distinction (self-awareness, language, love of microwaving things, etc.) do not leave traces on the fossil record. The use of tools was long thought to be the distinguishing feature of humanity, a theory which has left traces on both the sciences and the arts. Some scientists have differentiated the earliest species in the human genus as Homo habilis or “handyman,” and the celebrated film 2001: A Space Odyssey opens with scenes in which an extraterrestrial obelisk is implied to mysteriously elevate the intelligence of a group of monkeys and thus prompt them to begin using tools and walking upright. However, it has since been discovered that other animal species use tools as well, including other primates, elephants,** corvids, and otters. Where exactly to draw the line—and what the philosophical and moral implications of the line may be—remains a question that is easy enough to answer, but whose many answers are difficult to prove.

Plato had defined Man as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, "Here is Plato's man." In consequence, there was added to the definition having broad nails.

This discussion of the distinguishing marks of humanity raises topics like self-awareness, abstract thought, and many others that relate to our next answer to the question What is man? This is the answer famously put forth by Aristotle:

II. Man is a rational animal.

The wording here may trip us up slightly. What Aristotle actually says in the Nicomachean Ethics is that man “has logos” (λόγον ἔχον) in addition to the capacities we share with plants and animals; and logos is a notoriously difficult term to translate. “Reason” or “rationality” are by no means bad renderings, but “word,” “narrative,” “explanation,” “topic,” and “cause” are all quite natural too (and in the hands of philosophers and theologians, logos can mean something like “universal structure” or “divine wisdom”). Some people have suggested replacements for rational animal, such as spiritual animal.

In any case, this is the kind of answer given by disciplines like psychology and anthropology—and also by our own sympathies. We need not bow to Pope’s maxim that The proper study of mankind is man, but the study of man is certainly unique, in that it is the only field in which we have “inside information” on our object of research. One sometimes feels that professional anthropologists could stand to reflect on this a little more often, as when a scholar suggested that primitive human societies must have been matriarchal because mothers would have had ample opportunity to dispatch any troublesome male offspring—without, apparently, asking himself whether this way of looking at human behavior was completely barking mad. (Then again, the number of ancient societies that regularly practiced exposure doesn’t bear thinking about.) Since all other disciplines require us to specially avoid anthropomorphizing the topic, it is understandable that anthropologists should so easily slide into bizarre ways of thinking about humanity. But there is, maybe, another curious truth concealed here: namely, how little we understand ourselves. G. K. Chesterton puts the issue well in his 1905 essay collection Heretics:

It may be of course that savages put food with a dead man because they think that a dead man can eat. But personally I do not believe that they think anything of the kind. I believe they put food or weapons on the dead for the same reason that we put flowers, because it is an exceedingly natural and obvious thing to do. We do not understand, it is true, the emotion which makes us think it obvious and natural; but that is because, like all the important emotions of human existence, it is essentially irrational. We do not understand the savage for the same reason that we do not understand ourselves.

The human capacity for, and apparently strong tendency toward, behaviors with no clear “survival value” or biological purpose (such as rituals) is nearly unique** among animals. It seems to be connected with our sense of right and wrong, at least insofar as doing what is wrong frequently has “survival value,” while doing what is right occasionally means the extreme of self-sacrifice. From this perspective, it may be easier to grasp why a small minority of people tend to view religion as a mostly-benign form of insanity. But that way of looking at things seems, as often as not, to be the product of political commitments more than philosophical ones, which takes us in the direction of yet another answer to our series-defining question …

Go here for Part II!

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, On the Soul
Terence, The Self-Tormentor
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Voltaire, An Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Mary Leakey, Disclosing the Past: An Autobiography

*Plural genera; the word was adopted directly from the Latin word for “kind, type.” (It is related to gens, meaning “family, people, clan”; from this we drive terms like “Gentile,” “gentry,” and “gentle”—which originally indicated the behavior that was considered appropriate to the noble classes.)
**Elephants in particular show a startling degree of intelligent behavior, up to and including not only tool use and complex social hierarchies, but—at least to all appearances—mourning their dead.


Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and CLT’s editor-at-large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy our profiles of Blaise Pascal or Toni Morrison, or this discussion of the history of the idea of art. Thank you for reading the Journal, and have a great day!

Published on 9th March, 2023.

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