What defines the human species? Aristotle's suggestion that we are the rational animal has been thoroughly discredited both by an improved understanding of the cognitive capacities of other animals and by the evident tendencies of our species to think and behave irrationally across the last two millennia. Bigger brains we may have, but whether those brains have different basic operating mechanisms has increasingly been put into doubt. The archaeologist's nomination of tool use and the biologist's focus on opposable thumbs, hairlessness, and bipedalism merely reveal the narrowness of disciplinary lenses. A hairless, bipedal monkey with opposable thumbs would be only a dextrous and awkwardly gaited chimpanzee, albeit a cold one.. It would not be much more human.
Human beings are, indeed, animals, and we cannot escape the enablements and constraints of our biological make-up. We are also, however, deft symbol-users, and it is our symbolic capacities that have enabled us to rearrange the planet into a vast, sprawling matrix constituted of our own dynamic life-forms, of the life-forms of most other sizable biological beings, and of deliberately shaped physical constructions. This human matricial flow constitutes a new kind of entity that grows, develops and decays on a scale and according to principles that pertain specifically to this form of being.
Humans can thus be defined as the biological life-form that has created, will create, and could create again from scratch such matricial flows. Humans are thus bipedal, hairless, dextrous, tool-using apes, but most importantly they have big brains heavily devoted to symbol-using. On a broader perspective, however, humanity is best understood not as the biological life form with such characteristics or potential, but rather as a being always particularly situated within these flows of its own making.
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