So You Think You’re Human by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

So You Think You’re Human? by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (OUP)
Audacious in his choice of subject matter (Truth, Civilizations, and Millennium are the titles of previous works), Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s books are like Casaubon’s Key to all Mythologies, though without the encyclopaedic thoroughness that made it impossible to complete. It is easy to imagine the question of what makes human beings human becoming someone’s lifework, an opus filled with reams of footnotes and endnotes, displaying prodigious learning in every page. Instead, So You Think You’re Human? is a swift but salutary pleasure, sketching a road map (complete with avenues, crescents, cul-de-sacs and alleyways) for what will undoubtedly be a crucial debate in the 21st Century.

To marshal his evidence and anecdotes, Fernández-Armesto divided the book into six chapters, each representing one aspect of the discussion, thus: 1) homo sapiens relationship to other apes; 2) human beings as animals, the foundation of our dominance; 3) the paleoanthropological debate surrounding the status of Neanderthal and other evolutionary cousins; 4) the realisation that species are fluid not solid concepts; 5) the issues surrounding artificial intelligence, like consciousness and imagination; 6) the potential in the future for genetic hybrids and the implications of such a future.

The story told in the book is one of increased self-consciousness, with thinkers gradually becoming aware of our similarities with other humans (called barbarians and savages until very recently) and, lately, animals. Felipe goes on at surreal length about the fact that every attribute we consider uniquely human is shadowed by some member of the animal kingdom. Speech, fire, agriculture, writing, tools, and large-scale co-operation, all of these things have been performed by apes or other animals. But I think things only really get interesting in the final chapter, where our post-human future is discussed.

Bizarrely, the book is being marketed into the slipstream of the success of John Gray’s Straw Dogs and is puffed on the cover with a quote from the bleak materialist (“Brilliant . . . arrestingly readable”). Not only does this seem disingenuous, but also intellectually indecent, for Gray’s book – despite its occasional outrageous brilliance – is a hotchpotch of credulity. One can hardly imagine Fernandez-Armesto paraphrasing J.G. Ballard’s Crash with a straight face. Indeed, perhaps it would be better to see Fernandez-Armesto as qualifying Gray’s assertions. Gray’s view of humanity is as rapacious parasites who are doomed to extinction by their very nature. Felipe is slightly more optimistic. Slightly:

“Individuality eradicated by computer? Humankind replaced by a race of nerdish sociopaths, living vicariously wired lives? [. . .] It is implicit already in our appetite for self-immersion in ersatz reality. We seem doomed to self-transformation into something unrecognizable as human by present standards. [. . .] Our obsessive desire to prolong our lives seems odd when so many of them are empty or filled only with meretricious comforts or rewards.”

There are some uneasy moments when Felipe – a Catholic – touches upon the subjects of abortion and euthanasia. For those of us who value life insofar as it “worth living” – with Peter Singer’s utilitarian theories perceived as common sense, to read Felipe write “It is impossible to justify the hecatomb of foetuses–the massacre of innocents practise daily in today’s ‘developed’ world–without discarding the notion of humankind we have built up, so painfully and triumphantly, in the course of our history . . .” This is rather disingenuous, for surely the abortion of foetuses corresponds to the rates of child mortality in the past. Or is a woman who has a miscarriage guilty of manslaughter? He says he only uses this example only to illustrate, but then talks about how ‘I would be glad to see stricter abortion laws.’

Fernandez-Armesto’s chief virtue is that he has an almost pathological dislike of loaded words, with cliches deposed on every page. Loaded words are placed in commas automatically, as though holding them between the pincer of thumb and forefinger, not wanting to sully his thought. The effect striven for – and achieved – is that of historical objectivity. Which makes this fascinating book, if not essential, then well worth a look.