What makes us human?

I recently read a blog post titled “Children of the Wilderness” which described the phenomenon of feral children. There was a belief that these children were brought up by wild animals. As a result from this alternative upbringing, they became animal-like despite being biologically human. Disney’s Tarzan immediately came to mind. Tarzan is a simplified caricature of a feral man who grew up with a troop of gorillas. Although he retained his human morphological features, his mannerisms were those of a gorilla – walking using his feet and knuckles, hunched back and making grunting noises. This is where I pose the question: What makes humans human? Is it our culture, our biology or both?

Culture can be defined as the transmission of ideas and values through relationships (Cronk, 1999). This is a hallmark of humans as we cannot survive alone and thus establish relationships. What might have began as a means of survival eventually lead to the formation of a civilization, which can be considered as the final, and perhaps, finest cultural product of mankind. However, it can be argued that animals have culture too, if culture is considered as socially-transmitted information (Cronk, 1999). An example would be chimpanzees learning how to forage for ants by using a stick from one another. The idea of using a tool is translated into action, which is then observed and mimicked by others. Nonetheless, such behavior does not necessarily equate to culture (Cronk, 1999). The misconception lies in thinking, “all behavior is caused by culture or that behavior reflects the influence of culture” (Cronk, 1999). In reality, animal behavior that is exhibited does not mean a culture exists. In relation to animal behavior, culture is an anthropomorphic term that is conveniently used to explain what we observe. Therefore, the argument that culture is what separates humans from animals is still valid.

The term “culture” has itself been highly contentious in describing human diversity. It reduces a fluid, mosaic model into something static and fixed(Calcagno, 2003). In contrast, animal behavior is usually typical and visually identifiable. As shown in the film “Sight Unseen”, cultural customs and everyday cultural life differ as the latter is subjected to constant changes, as a result of globalization and modernization. Hence, culture, as an ever-changing entity, is an apt reflection of humankind.

On the other hand, biology cannot be discounted either. In Linnaean taxonomy, humans are categorized asHomo sapiens, distinctly different from other species, even feral people, which was categorized assapiens ferus(Stringer & Notton, 2012). Hence, it is important to consider the biology of humans as well. Clearly, humans possess a certain number and combination of genes that resulted in the distinct morphological features of a man or a woman. Generally, it is easy to distinguish a human being from an animal.

Now then, what can we make of feral children? Does the lack of human culture make them non-human regardless of their biology? They may be physically human but mentality, animal. In an article for The Lancet Neurology, a scientific journal, John McCrone posits that perhaps the human mind evolved from an animal mind through language and socialization with other human beings (McCrone, 2003). He goes on to propose an evolutionary theory comprising three aspects: Transformation of the mind through experience, biological influence on the human genome and finally cultural influences through memes(McCrone, 2003). This theory could possibly encompass the essence of being human.

If we were to adopt this theory and apply it to feral children, it could then be concluded that feral children are not fully human. However, such a conclusion would be too simple for a complex being like humans. This is precisely why anthropology exists. There can be no one reason or theory that explains the essence of humans because in reality, there are so many elements such as society, psychology, economy and many more that somehow contributes to what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of feral children reminds us and prevents us from slipping into a convenient definition of what makes us human.

Works Cited:
"Children of the Wilderness" from www.biologyrefugia.blogspot.com. Retrieved September 17, 2012
Calcagno, J. M. (2003). Keeping Biological Anthropology in Anthropology, and Anthropology in Biology.American Anthropologist, 105(1), 6-15.

Cronk, L. (1999). Righting Culture. In L. Cronk,That Complex Whole - Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior(pp. 1-15). Boulder, Colorado, USA: Westview Press.

McCrone, J. (2003). Feral Children.The Lancet Neurology, 2(2), 132.

Stringer, C., & Notton, D. (2012, September 19).Who is the type of Homo sapiens?Retrieved September 19, 2012, from International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature: http://iczn.org/content/who-type-homo-sapiens

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