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Defining our humanity

By Stephen Cheleda - posted Wednesday, 29 July 2009

On May 25 there was an article in On Line Opinion, titled “On being human” by Peter Sellick. It was an opinion based on purely intuitive thought rather than being the result of research following normally accepted logical thought processes. Intuitive opinions are not necessarily wrong. Combined with learning and humility it can be a source of wisdom. Intuitive thought served our cave dwelling ancestors exceedingly well when they had to instantly identify and respond to danger or opportunity. People who had roughly similar experiences only, can readily accept intuitive opinions.

For some time, intuitive thought was gradually being supplemented by analysis and synthesis, based along logic associated with mathematics or geometry. Even Thomas Aquinas made the distinction between intuitive or revealed truth and deductive thoughts. Crucially, people are trying to look for evidence from a variety of different sources, no matter how well thought of that single source may have been in the past.

Looking at various sources for information became the de rigueur in academic circles. The aim is to form a coherent and systematic structure. Things that remained outside logical analysis (for an individual or for a larger group of people) were left to inspired guess or myth.


One such guesswork was the motion of the stars, the Sun and the Moon relative to our Earth. To the ancients it did look as though the Earth was at the centre, and everything moved round it. They were no worse off for believing that, because it did not affect their lives in any way. A whole system of myth was built based on that perception. It was only later, when accurate calculations were needed for timing, for navigation, and for the understanding of weather patterns, that the old intuitive idea about the Earth’s position was replaced by the heliocentric view of our planetary system.

So let us return to defining a human being.

Like Euclid, we have to start somewhere. We ought to go a little further back than Peter Sellick - which was about 2,000 years ago. Let us start about 16,000 years ago when prehistoric individuals lived in the caves at Lascaux, in the Dordogne area of France. They can be identified as being truly humans, making elaborate pictures, (probably associated with hunting rituals), making tools and weapons, and being able to make fire.

How can their humanity be defined?

Humans are social beings, capable of perceiving and communicating concepts, which they do not or cannot directly observe, and are capable of creating and controlling energy.

Our ancestors living in the caves at Lascaux exhibited all these characteristics. They were not only social for hunting or defensive purposes, but they also expressed their creativity, - as the paintings themselves show. All mammals can be social for hunting, grooming or for defensive reasons. Young mammals can be observed honing their hunting skills, or gaining strength, in a playful way. However, when hunting, eating, grooming, or play exhaust them, they totally relax and slumber. Only humans spend their leisure time in a creative way.

What about the ability to perceive and to communicate concepts, that they did not or cannot directly observe?


As the paintings show, they became prepared for hunting at a future time, animals they did not see, that were in the area around somewhere. They could visualise things without actually seeing. It is also possible that their rituals were accompanied by some kind of rhythmic music making. Only recently, a flute-like instrument was found in a cave near Ulm, in Germany, which is about 35,000 years old, strongly suggesting a musical awareness among Stone Age inhabitants in that area. (Ulm is about 40 miles southeast of Stuttgart.)

What about creating and controlling energy?

The people living in the caves at that time, had the ability to make and to control fire not just to keep warm, but they had to extract the dyes used in the paintings, by the process of heating some colour containing stones.

Now let us fast forward to our modern age. How can the definition of the human being seem looked at afresh?

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About the Author

Stephen Cheleda was born in Budapest in 1938 and has lived in the UK since December 1956. After working in industry, he became a teacher of Mathematics in 1971. Stephen did an MA in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. He retired in 2003.

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