I discovered even more of my ignorance the other day. I did not know that we, as a human race, and as a deeply evolved tradition in science, did not have a clear definition of what we humans are. I was taught that we are Homo sapiens sapiens. I assumed this was pretty obvious, and thus well defined. Then I heard a talk by an archaeologist and read a BBC article stating that, “we can’t agree on the defining features of a human…Science has yet to agree on a formal description for our genus, Homo, or our species, sapiens.”
The article goes on to describe how long this has been unclear, “the 18th-century biologist Carl Linnaeus..was the first to standardise the way species and genera are named and defined. He named thousands of species in his seminal 1735 book Systema Naturae, but when it came to our genus, he got a bit metaphysical. When he named each animal genus, Linnaeus carefully noted its defining physical features. But under Homo he simply wrote “nosce te ipsum“: a Latin phrase meaning ‘know thyself’…Clearly, there is no shortage of possible scientific definitions we could legitimately apply to our genus. But there is no consensus about which definition is the right one, and given how strongly opinions vary, it seems unlikely that the issue is going to be resolved in the near future. It might seem surprising that we struggle to define the very thing we are. But perhaps it is exactly because this debate centres on humanity that consensus is so hard to find.”
These observations of the lack of clarity of what we are, as human beings, leads me to wonder whether it is because, like with many things, the answer is hard to see because we have backed ourselves into a corner from which we cannot find the answer. Linnaeus rekindled the ancient Greek aphorism to know thyself, categorizing us as the being who knows him/herself, Homo sapiens. Then we proceeded to try to characterize and differentiate ourselves by our material form, our externally visible biology. Know thyself is inwardly focused. The shape of our forehead and size of our brain is outwardly focused. Maybe we struggle to characterize that which makes us interesting and unique in our contribution to each other and the universe, what I characterize as Homo lumens, because we look more at our physical form than what it is housed in and what is produced creatively from that physical form.