Most people who wish to assert global brotherhood in the face of ideas that divide us into communities — like nations and religions — claim that only one definition matters. We are all just human beings.
But what exactly is a human being?
There is certainly something called the modern human being. This is the likeness of you and I, the biped that wanders about on this planet these days practicing disciplines like art and science. The creature that reads and writes and tells stories. But is this description distinctive enough? Or is a human being as fleeting a construct as a horse or a bacterium or a dining table — merely a certain arrangement of molecules?
Even a single one of us is not one being throughout his or her life. I was a four-year-old child once. Now I am a 35-year-old man. The two constructs have very little in common. Science tells me that every single cell in my body has been replaced many times over in the years that separate the two constructs. Am I still me despite clearly not being me anymore?
Take for example, the “human being” of five million years ago. He looked nothing like us. So different from us was this being that we have taken to calling him our ancestor. This is odd because we would have no problem calling our great grandfather a human being. But as we travel farther back in time we become strangers to ourselves and the label “human being” does not seem to apply to us anymore.
And then we ask where humanity is going. Are we going to colonise the galaxy? Are we heading towards a nuclear winter? Will an asteroid wipe us off the face of this planet?
I personally think that a more interesting question is this — If / when any of these things happen, will we still be referring to ourselves as “human beings”?
According to even the most liberal estimates, it will take us a couple of centuries to become a space-faring race, and at least a millennium to become capable of activities on a galactic scale. The rate of our scientific progress has certainly increased and it is likely that we will look and feel pretty human when these things happen. But what about another 50 million years — when we become something that looks back at what we are today and labels us “ancestors”?