What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, many thousands of people have replied to a question encountered in the Hall of Human Origins: What does it mean to be human?

Rick Potts  (Courtesy Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)

Public events and initiatives too many to name have introduced this question as a way of stimulating conversation about the meaning we assign to our ancient past. The discoveries of evolutionary biology and anthropology provide a framework for contemplating the characteristics of our species. I have found, however, that nearly everyone engaged by this question is more interested in the character of themselves as individuals, and of their families and communities.

When we consider our origins story, our minds gravitate toward certain fundamental concerns, such as how we circumscribe our social identity, the things that stimulate and draw our attention, and the security we expect from the world. (Here I reference the dramatist and student of the human condition, Robert Ardrey, whose first book on human evolution—African Genesis [1961, Atheneum, New York]—proposed this three-part essence of human psychological needs: security, identity, and stimulation.)

What does it mean to be human? The answers we’ve received are nearly as diverse as the number of people who have responded:

  • To be full of self-doubt.
  • To live in community and seek to be heard.
  • To experience joy—and be aware of it.
  • A search to understand our inner voice.
  • Having relationships based on love and hate, sacrifice and anger.
  • We can annihilate others.
  • Love.
  • We possess an enormous brain, but don’t really know what to do with it.
  • Being capable of great things and terrible things.
  • To imagine both the likely and the impossible.
  • To strive for a life beyond mere survival and food.
  • To create a future heaven or a future hell.
  • To adapt or go extinct.
  • We set the world on fire.
  • To live in mystery . . .

I continue to be amazed by such thought-provoking insights, both humorous and dire, matters of dreams and nightmares, visions hopeful and dystopian.

The intriguing thing, to my mind, is that these answers—mostly related to human aspirations, emotions, social connections, cognition, technology, and our impact on the world—were elicited in a place devoted to the presentation of scientific discoveries on human evolution.

Becoming human a little at a time

Over a period of at least six million years, starting with a now-extinct common ancestor our species shared with African apes, we can investigate fossilized clues relevant to walking upright; eating new types of food; using tools to make other tools; overcoming the dangers of an enlarged brain prone to overheating and making birth perilous; communicating vocally (as all primates do); and eventually combining symbols that create multiverses of meaning and the networking of minds.

These developments did not occur all at once; the complexity of human accumulated a bit at a time. In fact, these are not merely the evolved characteristics of Homo sapiens; they are an inheritance from ancestral forms of life that no longer exist on Earth. We are the benefactors—and we have added complexity, diversity, and a reshaping of the planet, all played out in the runaway dramas of recent history.

For many thousands of years, people have contemplated their origins. Their thoughts on this subject, and our thoughts today, shape our understandings about who we are as humans. These understandings define who we care about—in fact, why we should care about one another and the world around us. We are a story-telling animal, and the stories we convey about human origins help, among other things, to mold the extent of inclusiveness and kinship that we feel toward people and other forms of life on the planet.

In my teenage years, I found in myself a powerful fascination with human origins as I became aware that curiosity can uncover things never known before about how humanity was born. This fascination is an affliction that has never left me. Odd to some of my colleagues, this quest to understand our evolved nature has also led me to the inspired stories of creation first told by people millennia ago.

Seeking the essence of our origins

Why creation stories? Whatever their original intent, all such narratives translate a series of events into cultural codes. Social codes of identity and distinction. Environmental codes about privilege and hubris, humility and care. Moral codes that define justice and injustice. Many other types of codes, laws, judgments, and powerful condensations of culture are also conveyed by accounts of creation. All of them seek to define the essence of the world in its original condition.

In her book Why Religion? (2018, HarperCollins), Elaine Pagels writes, “Creation stories claim to tell how the world was meant to be, or how it should be—how it was in the beginning.” (A number of scholars have echoed this point about how creation accounts help shape cultural identity.)

This form of history is mentally and socially real in that it embeds into culture basic observations and explanations for relationships believed to reside at the heart of human life. The history is also metaphoric and mythic, creating an authentic power that guides and offers guardrails in people’s lives, thus enabling society to exist as it is known and understood by the narrators.

My interest in creation stories—including study of Genesis 1 through 3:24, Job 38-41, Psalm 104, and beliefs about origins besides the biblical (see William P. Brown’s The Seven Pillars of Creation [2010, Oxford University Press])—has led me to wonder about my own life’s work, engrossed in scientific pursuits that seek to accumulate new clues, develop novel ideas, revise my own thinking, and perhaps ultimately alter how we may comprehend our species’ immense journey.

A search for meaning

It all presents a challenging question, perhaps even a forbidden query for some of my colleagues: What meanings about our lives can be drawn from the current body of discoveries concerning the human past? In other words, what lessons might the investigation of human origins imply—ramifications that could, potentially, inspire revisions of our cultural landscape?

Here are some things to think about:

  • Humanity—Homo sapiens—is part of an immense genealogy of species, a tree of kinship, not the end of a straight line of progress.
  • We are also part of a rambunctious realm of ecological connections and exchanges that extend to all other forms of life.
  • The evolutionary emergence of ourselves and other forms of life has been contingent on particular events, forces and coincidences of Earth’s climate, tectonic, and biotic history, all of which affected the outcomes.
  • We belong to an intimately related diversity of humanlike species: All of these evolutionary cousins and ancestors of ours possessed some union of the features that distinguish humans today—a high degree of sociality, intelligence, and emotion, a deft ability to manipulate things, and to communicate, among other defining elements that we typically restrict to ourselves.
  • Humanity today is the only one left of this evolved diversity of species: We are the last biped standing; all the other ways of life in our evolutionary group have become extinct.
  • All people on the planet today share a 6-million-year-long heritage of becoming human, a commonality immensely deeper than the time in which ethnic division, suspicion based on physical appearance, and warfare among nations have developed. The universals of the human condition thus make pale in comparison the recent history, typically hundreds of years and sometimes only decades, during which our differences have arisen.
  • Many things at the heart of the human experience emerged well before our own species came to be. Our timeline of origins suggests far deeper roots than we had imagined, for example, concerning the sharing of food with one another, showing care for the elderly and infirm, and the slowing pace of growth in infants and children that called upon constant parental energies and devotion. (The roots of these behaviors, all of which are fundamental aspects of present human life, have been discovered as far back as 2 million years ago [food sharing], 1.8 million years ago [care for the infirm], and as developments over the past 1 million years [the most rapid period of brain expansion, ultimately associated with slow rates of development in infants and children]. For a summary, see R. Potts and C. Sloan’s book What Does It Mean to Be Human? [2010, National Geographic, Washington, DC] and this website.]

Some other findings potentially rife with meaning: Life initially arose from the ground up; new creatures emerged from previously evolved elements of the living world; nature is ever-changing, and never has it been perfect; life has endured extinction from the outset; we are one species among an astonishing multitude—these are just some of the elements in our new and emerging creation story. Study of how the processes of nature have impinged on humanity need not detract from our search for meaning. Rather, discovering the twists and turns of prehistoric life never ceases to add new waves of awe and wonder about the fact that we live. Scientific detective work does indeed purposefully limit itself to empirical nature, its entombed traces, and testing ideas solely focused on natural processes. Still, the wonders of evolution—its diversity, universal kinship of all living things, its dramas and even ubiquitous extinctions—can inspire meaning-making that is essential to the cultural imagination and thus to human life as we know it. It remains to be seen how these perceptions might, if ever, fuel new cultural codes that inform our beliefs about ourselves.

These central findings of biology are almost always assumed to be toxic to creation narratives first told millennia ago. Yet, if considered with care as a basis for humane conversation, the significance of evolutionary history can offer opportunities for discussion with family, friends, and strangers who are invested in creation as fostered by longer-standing accounts.

This is a difficult project, but it is worth pursuing. One might ask, why bother? The public understanding of science begins, in this view, with the public understanding of one another. It requires a shared grasp not just of what evolution is, but also of what evolution represents to people who are not scientists.

In this view, forging respectful conversation may gradually begin to translate the most meaningful scientific implications about our origins into a growing cultural awareness of what it means to be human.

Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts heads the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and holds the Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. Since joining the Smithsonian in 1985, Potts has dedicated his research to piecing together the record of Earth’s environmental change and human adaptation. Potts, who co-authored the book, What Does It Mean to Be Human?, is pictured at the top of this story at a research site in Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Jason Nichols.)