Before we look at our history, let us ask ourselves some basic questions. You know how we describe ourselves, right? We say that we are humans or human beings. Or we say we are men and women. Of course, we also say we are people. Scientists say we are Homo sapiens or just Sapiens. Do all those terms point to the same specie?
Who Are We Actually?
Who are humans? Who are Sapiens? Do we, actually know, who we are? What does it mean to be human? For centuries, philosophers, poets, and other thinkers tried to answer this question. In most cases, that question was about that sublime creature, which has a conscience, morality, spirituality, and able to create philosophy and sciences. There is a short article by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings site about that approach, Here, however, we are talking about a literal sense of the word human. In this post, I look into what does it mean to be human from a zoological and classification viewpoint.
If we want to look at the history of humanity we have to know who are members of humankind. Humankind is a big congregation of humans. That is clear, but it begs for a question. How do we know that we are humans or Sapiens? There are two ways. The first way is to look at the definition of the term human and compare it with yourself and the people around you. Second, by comparison to some specie, who is not human or Sapiens.
Does it look easy? It is not.
Meaning of Humans, Men and Homo
What is the meaning of the term man and human? The English word human is rooted in the Latin humanus. It is thought that the humanus is a relative to the word homo. The latter one, in turn, means man.
The spelling of humans became usual in the 18th century. The term man appeared from the Proto-Germanic language. This term refers to the species or to humanity as a whole. Later we named ourselves as humans. In other words, human and man terms interlink. We could say that in 18th-century humans, men and homo described the same species – us.
Do you wonder why the word woman is excluded from our consideration so far? Well, it was a long-standing tradition. Women emancipation was not in place when the link between man and human words was established.
The name human is in common usage. Common name, or we could call it a specific name, for species is like your first name. You know yourself, and you do not need to name yourself with both first name, which is your specific name, and second name all the time.
What if you have a lot of siblings? Then people outside your family may call all of your siblings by first and last name together. All kids of your parents carry the same second name. That is your family name.
Humans Are Living Things
Humans are animals. Of course, we would say that we have something which other animals do not. Yet, we still are animals. Let us not forget what an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist William Tecumseh Fitch reminded us in his speech at the 2017 International Convention of Psychological Science in Vienna. ‘Every living thing from bacteria to daffodils shares our basic genetic code‘. As a species, we have our place in the zoological classification. The place is Sapiens in genus Homo.
That place differentiates us from all other living things on this planet. This is why we should name ourselves by our scientific name – Homo sapiens. That is our fundamentals. All other names should be compared with the meaning of Homo sapiens name.
Based on which facts the above classification was drawn? Which facts support it nowadays? We may look into it later.
Move Second One to a First Place
Scientific names include two different types of name.
One of them is a specific one, like your first name. The other one is generic, like your second name. In your personal name, your first name comes first, and the second name comes second. The opposite is true for zoological names.
In scientific name, scholars put family name first, and specific name last. In Homo sapiens, a name Sapiens describes one specific specie. The name Homo represents the “family” to which Sapiens belongs. In this case, such a “family” is called the genus. Sapiens and Neanderthals are siblings in the genus Homo. Such schema was designed to make a naming for any animal species a unique one.
It looks like that, without a big mistake, we could interchangeably use the words history of humankind, mankind, or humanity. I will use all of those words in my blog posts.
The scientific name for us – Homo sapiens – was coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Sapiens means ‘wisdom, understanding’, and was, probably derived from old French sapient, which means ‘wise’. From our scientific name came a shortcut – Sapiens. All members of nowadays mankind population are Sapiens.
History Is Not Carved in Stone
History is a science. In sciences, not everything is carved in stone. Like you, sciences have a life, especially if they started as a non-science.As it appears, the zoological classification, created by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, was not based on scientific evidence.
There are different kinds of definitions used in history. Some of them are very hard to change. We already know that the current meaning of the beginning of mankind history is that kind. Some definitions adapt to newly available knowledge and will adjust accordingly. The term human is that kind of term.
At Carl Linnaeus time, no other than Homo sapiens members of genus Homo were known. That implies that humans, genus Homo, and Homo sapiens were associated with the same species.
Unlike Carl Linnaeus, we aware that there were several human species in the genus Homo. Respectfully, a modern definition of what is human looks like this. ‘Human is any individual of the genus Homo, especially a member of the species Homo sapiens.’ By the count done in 2019, there were, at least, seven species in the genus Homo.
You could see a reconstruction of several members of the genus Homo along with Homo Sapiens in a video ‘Is human evolution over?’ by Smithsonian magazine. This image appeared at 17 sec in the video. It is courtesy of the Human Origins Program of Smithsonian Institute and made by John Gurche, reconstruction artist.
We are still the same species, Homo sapiens. We know that humans, as well as men, are associated with homo or Homo. In other words, based on current knowledge, the term human includes all species under the genus Home umbrella – Sapiens, Neanderthals, and many more.
What have we now when the dust settles? We could look at the history of all humans since the first appearance of humans on Earth around 2 million years ago. In that case, we have to include in that history not only Homo sapiens but Homo neanderthalensis and many others. Alternatively, we could look only at the history of Homo sapiens. Then we should carefully consider how to define the beginning of that history. Go to Comments on this blog post.
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5 replies on “To Be Sapiens and Human”
Even just sticking to Homo sapiens is far from simple. The beginnings of Sapiens is a long and blurry one. There were Sapiens prior to 100,000 years ago, but while they had the same sized brain case as us, they had some morphological differences, and are often referred to as “archaic Homo sapiens”. And signs of symbolic thought are scarce prior to about 60-70k years ago, but really seem to proliferate afterwards.
And there’s evidence of interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, which seems to indicate Neanderthals weren’t as alien to our ancestors as they seem to us now. Not that it stopped us (most likely) from wiping them out.
Thank you, Mike. Yes. There is a lot of evidence of interbreeding between different human species (including Homo Sapiens) at different times. That includes mating between Sapiens, Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other humans during multiple waves of Sapiens migrations from Africa. The relevant output for our consideration is a top percentage of non-Sapiens DNA in modern Sapiens humans. That percentage is well below 10% for both Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Nobody so far provided a definition of which specie we should talk about if that specie DNA is a hybrid DNA with other species. We could introduce it now using a common logic. By that logic, we should define that some specie, like Homo Sapiens, should be named as such if, for that specie, the total percentage of all DNA from other species is less than 50 %. With such a definition, the current human population is a population of Homo Sapiens.
Of course, there are other ways to measure a “purity” of a specific species. That is not important when we compare Sapiens with Neanderthals or Denisovans because we all represent an organic form of life, which is based on DNA.
However, the process of merging between Sapiens and non-organic parts is already on the way. Those parts currently include, for example, implants, hips, pacemakers, and various kinds of chips. Pacemakers and chips consist of both hardware and software. There are no restrictions on why this software inside our bodies could not be controlled by artificial intelligence (AI or AGI) in the future.
When this happen, we would have some human Sapiens merged with non-organic form of life, AI. Then a question on which metric to use to separate Sapiens from post-Sapiens will become really important. I discuss this problem in my upcoming book “Subsurface History of Humanity”.
I find this all very interesting. I, however, am not well-versed in this subject, so I don’t have anything to offer. Still, I am enjoying reading your posts. 🙂 I don’t have any questions, but will continue to read and share your posts.
Thank you, Jill
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