What is a human, anyways?

When reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, I was disturbed by Crake’s callous view of humanity. In spite of how much he enjoys his own genius, Crake eliminates brilliance and creativity in his own species, the Crakers. In fact, with handy and bizarre traits borrowed from other animals, the Crakers arguably fall into the same sort of grey area as Dr. Moreau’s Beast People. I found the Crakers’ baboon-inspired mating ritual particularly ridiculous. Are these humans? Are they animals? Where do we draw the line?

But then again, the pre-Apocalyptic society of Oryx and Crake does not exactly present humanity as a healthy alternative. Throughout the novel, the world is crumbling thanks to certain selfish indulgences, in particular vanity, greed, and sexual perversion. Is this what it means to be human?

We all have an understanding, I think, of what “human” is, but it’s tricky to put that understanding into words. So I looked up human in the dictionary. While there were many definitions, two of the definitions under adjective stood out as more descriptive than the others:

• Having or showing those positive aspects of nature and character regarded as distinguishing humans from other animals: an act of human kindness.
• Subject to or indicative of the weaknesses, imperfections, and fragility associated with humans: a mistake that shows he’s only human; human frailty.

I find it so interesting that humans are described by both their weaknesses and by their capacity for “good.” These definitions lead to more questions – Is Crake human? Where are his weaknesses or his kindness?

Or is being human just having two arms and two legs, walking upright, and being able to speak? Does it mean having a conscience?

I think that when creating our own hypothetical race of humans, it might be worthwhile knowing what exactly “human” is to know what about us is worth keeping.

-Michelle C.


~ by Michelle Cohen on March 22, 2010.

One Response to “What is a human, anyways?”

  1. You are right. What does it mean to be “human”? I would argue that being “human” is the power of reasoning and the power of free will. To know good and bad and be able to distinguish the two, and having the freedom to choose.

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