Fortean Times, August 2004

So you think you're human?
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Oxford University Press, 2004
Hb, 14.99, pp190, illus, bibl, index, ISBN 0 19 280417 0

What is a human? The answer isn't as simple as many who would claim that status might like to believe. Whether you take the defining factor to be cultural, biological or intellectual, this slim volume shows that the dividing lines are a very grey area.

Several other species display the behaviours that have sometimes been claimed as being uniquely human – language, social structures, rituals, art, or even laughter. Genetic research shows that Homo sapiens is, at the DNA level, almost indistinguishable from chimps. Looking back, were our evolutionary ancestors or Neanderthals human? And looking forward, what about artificial intelligences, or genetically modified people?

The flipside to the question raises even more disturbing issues – what isn't human, and how should we treat those who we judge to be fundamentally different? Post-Darwinian science lent spurious legitimacy to imperial racism and the belief that some were more human than others; while modern philosophers such as Peter Singer argue for the extension of 'human rights' to many species commonly used in medical research.

A gentle introduction to these troubling questions is provided by Fernandez-Armesto, a London-based professor of global history whose highly evolved tones will be familiar to habitual BBC Radio 4 listeners. In this short and very readable book – which could easily be polished off in one sitting, albeit at the risk of some intellectual indigestion – he covers a great deal of ground, including excursions into such fortean topics as shamanism and animal totems; apocryphal monsters and real physiological oddities; wolf children and feral boys; and even the legend of Prester John.

Ultimately, it seems, 'human' is just a label. The concept is not a universal one, and is a recent invention even in the 'humanist' West – perhaps the real question is whether it actually means anything. In the final section, Fernandez-Armesto aligns himself with conservative favourites Brian Appleyard and Francis Fukuyama in worrying about a 'post-human' future brought about by uncontrolled artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. It seems a little silly, if you can't even define what being human means, to worry about not being it any more.