This question, and its variants, might be the most common question asked in literature, storytelling, laws, history and philosophy (less so in daily conversations!). This question defies an answer not because it is too complicated or out of our reach. There is no such thing as Man (with a capital “M”), so the question is non-sense.
There is man – in the Linnaean taxonomy sense – you know, man is the creature with two hands, two feet, a biggish brain, two eyes and so on. Though if we push hard enough on that – trace the evolutionary line back a couple of million years or push it forward a bit – we’ll find that pin pointing the precise animal known as “man” gets increasing hard to pin point.
This is definitely not a new idea or clever statement on my part. I call attention to this in attempting to synthesize the impact of improving technology to augment our biological weaknesses, confusion over shifts in religious beliefs, global warming concerns, health care reform and other big things going on in our world that call into question some universal sense of Man. My thesis is that clinging to a belief in Human Nature gets in the way of knowledge and impedes the progress of society on many fronts. It is also can have grave consequences for each individual.
Cultures, societies, governments and various other collections of humans struggle to integrate big shifts within their lifetimes because learning is a long term exercise (some patterns of behavior take a lifetime to integrate). The schedules we grow into throughout a lifetime are incredibly hard to change and sometimes require dramatic changes to the environment and/or our relation to it (body changes, for example). It’s made every more difficult for most humans because our “blank slate” is so quickly filled with bad data, false assumptions, false positive patterns (aka superstition, religious dogma, good vs. evil, old wives tales, urban legends, irrational fears). All of these things get associated with more and more behavior patterns very early and throughout life so much so that we all spend a life time UNLEARNING and DISASSOCIATING the falsehoods, inefficient behavior, and counter productive patterns.
The biggest false positive belief humans have is that there is Human Nature and definitive ideal of Man. Our cultural narratives and norms claim that there is some Platonic form, some universal concept of Man and if we look hard enough, think deep enough, and/or believe enough we will understand Man and figure out how to really live. This false positive concept of Man isn’t confined to religion or fading cultures – it pervades every modern institution too! Top universities teach it (“liberal arts”). Science chases it (google for scientific papers’ references to human nature). Art celebrates it (the thinker!). Churches preach it (man was made in the image of God). Governments and courts enforce it (e.g. all men are created equal). This belief is maintained over generations because it mostly “works” to keep people alive and procreating (at least, I think it does). A useful fiction, perhaps. Truth, no.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
If we give up on Man what changes? what contingencies go away? what schedules are no longer maintained?
Does stem cell research pick up? Do we march ever more quickly towards machine enhanced bodies and brains? Do robots really start to pervade our workplaces? Would we really continue to worry so much about global warming destroying the sensitive environment we require?
How much does this false belief really change our behavior or is it just “exhaust” we spew out when trying to synthesize all the behavior around us? That is, does a well defined and earnest belief in Man actually contribute to what we do or don’t do?
It’s an important discussion.
- Health care reform tend to fall into two camps: health care is a human right (Man is real and necessary) or health care is essentially an economic issue (Man is not relevant)
- The penal system are built on a concept of perhaps not Universal Morality, but certainly a very strong concept of Character.
- The debate on global warming rides on whether people believe the we should keep the earth at a stable temp for our current species biology (if we’re machines or just digitized versions or in space, global warming isn’t as concerning???)
- Abortion rights are obviously about whether you think a bundle of cells in a woman’s body constitutes Man
- End of Life decisions – is the life supported body still a Man when the lights have gone out?
Beyond these big issues consider many of the plots of recent pop culture smashes (all are about What is Man?):
- Harry Potter
- The Secret
- Eckhart Tolle
If we lose the belief in Man (the soul, autonomous man, in God’s image, human nature) is there a negative impact personally and in society? Do we all just become nihilists? Do we stop passionately pursuing things? do we devalue our relationships?