Friday, April 1, 2011

The Enduring Human Race

Culture & Society

In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.
Thurgood Marshall, US Supreme Court Justice


Humanity needs practical men, who get the most out of their work, and, without forgetting the general good, safeguard their own interests. But humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit.
Marie Curie, Nobel laureate in both physics and chemistry

To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it's based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.
Martha Nussbaum, American philosopher at University of Chicago


Humans: Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci's image is often used as an implied symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and by extension, of the universe as a whole.
Photo Source: Vitruvian Man, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
Humans are a fascinating species, who have been around for tens of thousands of years. As one myself, I thought it would be good, chiefly as a reminder and for other reasons that I will share later, to share a few things about us that we have in common, notably those essential qualities that make us human.

Outwardly, there are many differences, in culture, language and religion, to named the bog three. But I am reminded that these outward differences, though important and essential for identity, ought not to be points of dissension but rather points of discussion.

That type of dialogue takes, I suggest, hard and honest work to develop an intimate knowledge and understanding of self. I am reminded of the words of Walter Lippmann, the American writer and cultural thinker, who said: "We forge gradually our greatest instrument for understanding the world— introspection. We discover that humanity may resemble us very considerably— that the best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbors is to know ourselves."

The Big Picture


So, here are a few things about us that I found fascinating in how we have divided ourselves, out of necessity, desire and want:
  • How Many Humans Have Been Born?: Since humans have existed, and if we take 50,000 BCE as the staring point and that figure is certainly arguable, there have been about 106 billion human births (as of 2002.) That represents about 5.8 percent of 2002's population of 6.2 billion people. (The population today is about 6.9 billion: Source: U.S Census Bureau.)
           As the Population Reference Bureau says:
This semi-scientific approach yields an estimate of about 106 billion births since the dawn of the human race. Clearly, the period 8000 B.C. to 1 A.D. is key to the magnitude of our number, but, unfortunately, little is known about that era. Some readers may disagree with some aspects — or perhaps nearly all aspects — of the table, but at least it offers one approach to this elusive issue.

If we were to make any guess at all, it might be that our method underestimates the number of births to some degree. The assumption of constant population growth in the earlier period may underestimate the average population size at the time. And, of course, pushing the date of humanity's arrival on the planet before 50,000 B.C. would also raise the number, although perhaps not by terribly much.

So, our estimate here is that about 5.8 percent of all people ever born are alive today. That's actually a fairly large percentage when you think about it.
  • Our Nations & Tongues: There are 192 member nations of the United Nations. There are an estimated 6,900 official languages in the world [Source: Ethnologue].  It's a bit complicated to classify the number of speakers of a language, since many people speak more than one language.
If we use figures for first languages, so-called mother tongues, the top five languages are: 1. Mandarin Chinese (873 million); 2. English (340 million); 3.Spanish (322 million); 4. Hindi/Urdu (242 million); and 5. Arabic (206 million). One might rightly quibble about the numbers, or about the order, such as whether English is second or third, but these are generally acceptable rankings.
  • Our Religions, Beliefs and Spiritual Practices: There are an estimated 43 major religions and systems of beliefs and practices in the world, with various subsets and denominations increasing the numbers. But these are the major religions.  [Source: Religionfacts.com]: The top five, by number of adherents are: Christianity, Islam, Atheism/Secular Humanism, Hinduism and Chinese Religion. It is interesting to note that the top three faiths historically have been: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
  • Our Races: Humans or homo sapiens (wise man or knowing man) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago and reached its current form about 50,000 years ago. Such is the scientific evidence thus far. Biologically we are one race, homo sapien. There is continued debate in this area, using words like ethnicity, peoples and subspecies, but it's interesting to note that the mapping of the human genome has shown that the genetic variation between individuals of various "races" and ethnic groups is not as great as originally thought. We have more in common than some would like to admit.

Common Humanity

I cite these numbers with a purpose in mind. Bear with me for a moment. I am treading carefully into territory full of minefields. But I go I do, with a purpose in mind. Such variety has often been culturally influences. People who live near each other might eventually adopt similar values and thinking. Some groups become larger, others die off, as have done many cultures throughout the ages. Such greatly explains to many social scientists and political scientists how and why people separate and place themselves into smaller groups called nations and races. 

This is understandable and in many cases admirable, since people prefer to congregate among similar-minded people. It gives comfort. It gives meaning. It gives order to their lives. Yet, despite our outward differences, we have many things in common. We can acknowledge our differences in language, culture and religious and spiritual practices, which are many and varied. 

Certain 'leaders' have used and continue to use such differences for nationalistic or personal gain. It's sadly and tragically true that humans have used the option to fight over the differences, sometimes by bullying, too often by bloodshed. But it has generally accomplished little than promote more hate, more bloodshed. There have been very few true reasons for bloodshed in the last hundred years, the bloodiest in humanity's recorded history.

Spirit of Compassion: A statue at the Epcot center in Florida symbolizes one of the greatest virtues of humanity.
Photo Credit: Neelix, 2007. "In the final analysis, our most common link is that we inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future.And we are all mortal": U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
Source: Wikipedia

Nationalism, Patriotism & Tribalism

Part of the reason can be found in a limited worldview promoted by certain ideologies. Nationalism or blind patriotism, which is making a renaissance in some conservative circles, often leads to the worst for the human race. It is good to remember the words, the warnings in fact of Hannah Arendt, the noted German-Jewish political philosopher, who writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951):
Politically speaking, tribal nationalism [patriotism] always insists that its own people are surrounded by ‘a world of enemies’— ‘one against all’ — and that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.” (227)
It's hard to believe in some ways that these words were written sixty years ago. Yet, they hold true. Hannah Arendt was no stranger to totalitarian regimes, having grown up in Germany during the Nazi occupation and control of the country. Its regime was an example of totalitarianism, as was the regime of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Both were similar in their levels of anti-Semitism, imperialism and xenophobia. In short, tribal nationalism at its peak.

We have seen historically the poor outcomes for humanity when such ideologies take hold. Some have conveniently forgotten, but the scars of humanity are deep and visible. It's not weak to say we ought not to hate one another, that you may love your country, but equally not hate another nation by virtue of its differences. As Charles de Gaule said about the difference: "Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first."

Some hide their hate under the guise of patriotism, which itself has become perverted in the hands of politicians and interest groups, who really want no part of democracy. For them it's political dogma. But in such actions they are missing the point and the connection to greater humanity. More's the pity.


There is no greater virtue than love, I think. but love of one does not necessarily have to become a hatred of another. Many agree with that thought, even the ones who do no want to admit it outwardly, for fear of presenting themselves weak or sentimental. It's hardly the case.  As Orson Welles once said: "Race hate isn't human nature; race hate is the abandonment of human nature."

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