Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Human Race

Reflections on Being Human
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, October 26, 2022, p. 6A

Homo sapiens are the only animal species able to talk themselves into difficulties that would not otherwise exist, from divorce to war.

“Is” enables the generalizations of prejudice: “she ‘is’ Black,” “he ‘is’ a Jew” – when they are both so much more.

Although some list three to nine human groupings, there is only one race. The human race. One species. Homo sapiens. Individuals whose DNA is 99.9 percent identical.

“Race,” or species, relations would be how we get along with cats and dogs, wildcats and bears.

An American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut come from different cultures and speak different languages. But they have more in common with each other than either does with their countries’ farmers, or brain surgeons. The same can be said of different countries’ trades workers, hobbyists and athletes.

Like other species, humans vary in height, weight, bone density, eye and skin color -- including comparing “whites” who spend the summer building the perfect tan and those who stay indoors.

But the significant differences between us are matters of culture: customs and norms, language and arts, religion and celebrations, history and mythology.

We trivialize the cognitive ability of plants and other animal species because we believe ourselves to be so much smarter. But the only two cognitive abilities any species requires are survivability and reproduction.

Molly Ivins once said of a Texas legislator, “If his IQ slips any lower we'll have to water him twice a day.” Given what Homo sapiens have been up to recently there are plant species demonstrating more cognitive ability than we have.

There are many advantages of a liberal arts education, however obtained. It’s like going from black and white TV to color TV, or well-seasoned rather than bland stew. Everything you see, hear, read about or do explodes with multifaceted meaning.

Even if one’s goal is great wealth from business, take note: Over one third of Fortune 500 corporate CEOs have liberal arts degrees.

Similarly, the more one values and knows of others’ cultures the more one can borrow and use in their own. Why are Denmark’s citizens so happy? How do matriarchal societies work? Cultural anthropology should be a required course.

When walking my Fitbit steps I greet those I meet. I’ve followed up with some I’ve talked to from India, Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Vietnam in a neighborhood park. For example, our Turkish friend attended our family gatherings. He informed us about, among other things in Turkey, family relationships, history, politics, his military experiences – and the game of reading fortunes from Turkish coffee grounds.

In fact, throughout my life I’ve found everyone I’ve met and talked with, no matter where they’re from or what they do, has had something to tell me I didn’t know. From millionaires to the homeless, they all have their story.

But that can only happen when I see an individual rather than a member of a group; when I approach the conversation with questions rather than assumptions and labels.

Nicholas Johnson is the author of "Test Pattern for Living." Contact


The “is” of identity. See generally, S.I. Hayakawa, ed., Language Meaning and Maturity,” p. 29 (1954) (“4. The ‘is’ of identity. … To be wary of the ‘is’ of identity is to guard against confusing words and things ….”), and Wendell Johnson, People in Quandaries (1946), (“Unconscious projection shows itself rather conspicuously in our use of the verb to be in its various forms is, are, am, etc.”)

Human groupings. Paul Rincon, “Three human-like species lived side-by-side in ancient Africa,” News, BBC, April 2, 2020, (“Two million years ago, three different human-like species were living side-by-side in South Africa, a study shows. The findings underline a growing understanding that the present-day situation, where one human species dominates the globe, may be unusual compared with the evolutionary past.”)

Jasna Hodzic, “Homo sapiens is #9. Who were the eight other human species?” Big Think, April 12, 2022, (“Have you ever wondered why there is not another species like us? One line of reasoning suggests that we would not be so unique had we not killed off some of our relatives.”)

One race. “Ruth Benedict,” Heroes for a Better World, (“The peoples of the earth are one family.” “Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex.”)

DNA 99.9%. “Genetics vs. Genomics Fact Sheet,” National Human Genome Research Institute, National Institutes of Health, undated, (“All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup. Differences in the remaining 0.1 percent hold important clues about the causes of diseases.”)

Culture. “Ruth Benedict,” Heroes for a Better World, (“The life history of the individual is first and foremost an accommodation to the patterns and standards traditionally handed down in his community.” “No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.” “We do not see the lens through which we look.”)

Molly Ivins. “Quotations,” Molly Ivins, Wikipedia, (“On James M. Collins, U.S. Representative, R-Dallas: "If his IQ slips any lower we'll have to water him twice a day.")

Cognitive ability. Paco Calvo, et al, “Plants are Intelligent, Here’s How,” National Library of Medicine, Oct. 20, 2019, (“Intelligent behaviour is usually recognized when individual organisms including plants … change their behaviour to improve their probability of survival. … Intelligent behaviour in single cells and microbes is frequently reported. … There is real biological benefit to regarding plants as intelligent …. The inbuilt driving forces of individual survival and thence to reproduction are fundamental to life of all kinds. In these unpredictable and varying circumstances the aim of intelligence in all individuals is to modify behaviour to improve the probability of survival.”)

Alison N. P. Stevens, et al, “Animal Cognition,” the nature education Knowledge Project, 2021, (“The physical world poses a number of problems for animals to solve. On a daily basis, animals must find food, avoid predators, and seek shelter. Solving these problems requires cognitive capacities. Cognition involves processing information, from sensing the environment to making decisions based on available information. Such cognitive capacities include, among others, the ability to navigate through space, account for the passage of time, determine quantity, and remember events and locations.”)

Homo sapiens have been around for about 300,000 years. “What does it mean to be human? Homo sapiens,” National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, But ferns have been around for 300 million years! Will we be? I doubt it. Jerald Pinson, “About Ferns,” Resources, American Fern Society,

Liberal arts. “Ruth Benedict,” Heroes for a Better World, (“The adequate study of culture, our own and those on the opposite side of the globe, can press on to fulfillment only as we learn today from the humanities as well as from the scientists.”)

“Liberal Arts Education,” Wikipedia, (“Liberal arts education can refer to studies in a liberal arts degree course or to a university education more generally. Such a course of study contrasts with those that are principally vocational, professional, or technical.”)

CEOs. Tim Askew, “Why The Liberal Arts are Necessary for Long-Term Success; The Short-Sightedness of STEM,” Inc., (“In fact, over a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts degrees.”)

Elizabeth Segran, “Why Top Tech CEOs Want Employees With Liberal Arts Degrees,” Fast Company, Aug. 28, 2014, (“Other tech CEOs across the country agree that liberal arts training–with its emphasis on creativity and critical thinking–is vital to the success of their business.”)

Happy Danes. “Why Finland And Denmark Are Happier Than The U.S.,” World Happiness Report,” Jan. 9, 2020, (“Finland and Denmark have consistently topped the World Happiness Report in all six areas of life satisfaction: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.”)

Matriarchal societies. Matriarchy, Wikipedia, (“Matriarchy is a social system in which women hold the primary power positions in roles of authority.”)

Anthropology. “Cultural anthropology,” Oxford Languages, (“the branch of anthropology concerned with the study of human societies and cultures and their development.”)

Note: Two books by Ruth Benedict had a very early impact on my thinking about cultural anthropology that continues in this column: The Races of Mankind (1943) and Patterns of Culture (1934).

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Yankinoz said...

Why do those happy Danes crank out very dark TV series?

Nick said...

Yankinoz: Perhaps to remind themselves of how lucky/wise they really are?

KateGladstone said...

" 'To be wary of the "is" of identity is ... " —
Do you find it ironic (or otherwise interesting) that this statement of Hayakawa's (urging caution about the "is" of identity) relies on that very "is"?

Nick said...

Kate: Yes. I don't know if he did that intentionally or didn't catch it.

A line that was intentional, from a different general semanticist: "'Always' and 'never' are two words we must always remember to never use."

-- Nick