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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What makes us really human?

Sent by Zita Perera Subasinghe

What makes us really human?

As the years pass by I have experienced a range of human emotions. Having shared them with family and friends, and with my patients and their families in my professional life as a doctor, it seems natural for me to reflect on the question I have posed above. I have also been influenced by World events in my life time which have moved me to tears of joy as well as tears of sorrow.  Acts of incredible human kindness against huge odds as well as acts of inhumanity beyond imagination have had a deep effect on me and the way I think.

I have asked a few of our batch mates and other friends their views on this subject.

Some made contributions, which I incorporated into the text. I hope we can have a good discussion on this.

     1.  Imagination: Man can perceive images and thoughts in his mind. Composing music, writing poetry, making a blank canvas come alive with portraits and landscapes are a great tribute to human imagination.
     2.Idealism: Man can attach himself to exalted ideas not necessarily of material value or personal gain. Sometimes these can be self-sacrificing ideas to help others less fortunate.  
     3.   Invention: This is man’s ability to create new items, stories out of basic ideas available or even not immediately so, in order that the resulting story or idea is new, interesting and useful to the rest of the world. Man seems to have a fundamental need for stories.
     4.   Forgiveness: When he is wronged against, man has the ability to make allowances, empathise and forgive the offender with no thought of material gain. This quality is not an inherent one of man but it may have more to do with religious teachings.
     5. Sacrifice: This is man’s ability to give up something, place or idea he values in order to profit another being, project or organisation. He does it in the interests of being resourceful. This is not often found in the animal kingdom. Human history is dotted with instances of human sacrifice e.g. the contribution of soldiers in wartime to protect us with no thought of personal loss.
     6.Weakness: Not all qualities of man are positive. He can be unable to achieve a goal through weakness and lack of strength of mind and body.
     7.Tendency to lean towards evil: Man may have full knowledge and awareness of the possible outcome but he may still lean towards what’s evil through attachment to pleasure. Man is taught in childhood to be just, thoughtful and truthful but he can have tendency to just disregard this.
     8.  Self-control: This is the ability to curb one’s desires even to give up what one likes in the interests of higher aspiration. This is an acquired trait as a result of parental upbringing, religious teaching, and man’s own experience that one must have boundaries.
     9.   Productivity and destructivity: It is clear from history that man has both these characteristics greatly developed. Think of Ancient Egypt and Rome and the development in India. In the same way, think of wars, wanton damage for no reason and man’s rebellion against himself for no rhyme or reason. Man has built the world and at the same time wants to destroy the planet. He wants to clear forests, pollute waterways and cause Global warming.
     10.Death is common to all living things and man has not been able to overcome the occurrence of the natural law with all his intelligence and cleverness. He still succumbs to the final demise. He has managed to prolong life to some extent but he has not succeeded in improving the quality of life especially to stop dementia, which makes the person not aware of even his existence. So man seems to be bound to obey the natural law.
Deaths of others in his family are stark reminders of man’s own mortality. Religions provide explanation in some ways, but no one has come back to tell man what is on the other side.
     11. Envy, Jealousy and Rivalry. Envy is definitely negative. Discontent about another’s good fortune can only be good if it spurs the person to do better. Jealousy of another is even a further degree of envy and is a negative emotion and can make the person do unfair things.Jealousy is ‘normal’ and ‘tolerable’ when say; one hears one’s neighbour won the lottery. But it should be momentary and not followed by any detrimental action. 
     12.  Rivalry: There is healthy rivalry in sport and games in general but it is negative if it is, trying to outdo others for the sake of getting the upper hand. Rivalry in sport is a healthy way of getting rid of human frustrations and channelling the boundless energy of young people into productive ways. If not for competitive sport there is likely to be more anger, fights and wars in the world. So bring on Cricket, bring on football, bring on Olympics! 
     13. Propensity to Gossip.This could be a negative way of describing a person. But it could be made positive by sharing what is good about the person. But one could say something negative if it is say, to warn the listener about the person. E.g. ‘Don’t tell her anything as she is likely to repeat it to others’. But we do find that talking about others is a pastime, which is neither good nor bad, but it’s what humans do when they get together socially.

Then there is the Big Question of “What is Consciousness?” This in itself is a huge topic of great interest to Philosophers, Neuroscientists, Religious Leaders and Great Thinkers such as one of the greatest scientists and thinkers who ever lived, Albert Einstein who said:

 “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.”

Finally to be Human is to belong to the race of Homo sapiens which inhabited Planet Earth for possibly 200,000 years or more and who has a characteristic number of chromosome pairs, which determine his features. He is the resulting offspring of the union of a male and female gamete.

Is that all that we are?
Do tell us what you think!

This picture complements Einstein’s thoughts about our place in the Universe. It was taken by the Voyager Satellite and shows our beautiful Blue planet and the surface of the moon. The Earth itself is so tiny in this vast Cosmos and us?....

Finally, a thought about other “lesser” animals. Have they got a ‘consciousness’? Can they imagine? Do they have self-control? Are they capable of love? How is their social behaviour different to that of humans? What made Man alone evolve to be such a complex being compared to all other animals?

                              Who says animals have no feelings?

Do tell us what you think and let us have a lively discussion.

From: Zita with the help of Nihal (ND), Mahendra (Speedy) and a few others.


  1. Zita
    I admire enormously your piece on a topic which is relevant to us all. Our cultural background makes us less materialistic but often we have drifted into areas which we should have avoided. That again is a common human failing. Due to my recent house move I could not contribute much to your wonderful effort. Thank you.

    1. Being materialistic, now that's another characteristic of man, Nihal, so let's mark that. It's not always positive but it has to go hand in hand with the spiritual side, man being man. Thanks for all your ideas on this subject given to me over the past months, in spite of your house move.
      from Zita

  2. The Dalai Lama believes that Humans are innately good, i.e. that is the default position. Whether this is true or not, it is a helpful and positive position to take. It reminds me of my mother saying to me "don't be upset, it is for the best", whenever misfortune befell me.

    Morality is another concept which is inextricable from the discussion of what is Human. I am of the opinion that Religion is not the basis for our moral behaviour. There are a host of studies showing that people who completely reject religion and are diehard materialists who believe that once you die, that is it, who display high moral standards. This is of course good news for the Dalai Lama! One could argue that although they don't accept religion, they grew up in Societies which had developed moral standards associated with Religion. A Swedish study matched moral behaviour of a large population against their religious behaviour and quite surprisingly found that there was a highly significant association of moral behaviour with non-religosity.
    Other examples include studies of people who perform instant heroic acts such as walk into a blazing house to save a person (both person and house are unknown to the man) or leap into a stream to save a drowning child. When asked why they did it, the most common response is that they have no idea, just did it, may be because they wanted to save a life, but not thinking like that at the time - innate morality. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that Religion has no contribution towards moral behaviour in Society. On the contrary, it has a huge contribution but this is not to say that we are moral only because we are religious.

    To me, morality is the natural consequence of evolution. We all struggle for perpetuation of the species. Animals formed groups because they had a better chance of survival. When they formed groups it is natural that they get better results if they cooperate and cooperation means adopting moral behaviour.

    There is evidence that it is not just Man who exhibits this type of "Human behaviour". Many animals do and not just higher species such as Apes and Chimps. Even rats and mice in laboratory experiments display amazing "socially responsible behaviour" sometimes at a cost to themselves in considering the needs of fellow animals.

    These are just a few thoughts to stimulate my colleagues to have a say!

    1. Thank you for that, Mahendra. To me the finding that morality is independent of religion is a relief. Religion has not reached the ends of the earth but man is even in outer space. So bring on Morality! And our sharing this quality with animals shows it is common to higher living organisms. I suppose you can call it instinct. I welcome that.

  3. Hi All,
    It was a great piece of work by Zita with input from ND & Mahen.
    To me all this have been spotlighted from time immemorial by the likes of Abraham. Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed ...etc to steer people away from hatred, bad behaviour and bad action by "dangling" the 'carrot of Heaven and Nibana',.... and Elysium by the Greeks. For those who did not conform --- a terrible fate awaits it seems!!! Jesus and Mohammed it seems have been to 'Heaven' and back!!! However, I am not aware anyone who has been to 'Hell' and back except in the American movies!!
    Being a "Barley Water drinking" lapsed Muslim I am not sure what awaits me. One thing I am sure of is that if I go to heaven or hell.. sure to meet up with some of my Batch-mates, neighbours, friends and relations--- will have company. Certainly there will be no "70 virgins awaiting" me. At the rate martyrs are generated the world over now & from time immemorial -- heaven would have run out of virgins!!!Nevertheless, till I go to my final destination, even it just happens to be only my grave.... I shall carry on as I am (or as I did)to my fellow man (of course woman) and environment around me and NOT worry about the next stage.---- without tearing my hair out.


    1. Thanks for that Razaque. As usual you manage to combine good humour and hilarity with a serious discussion about this life and after and include all religious leaders. I am always amazed how you do it. I like to think that religion does us good but I also like the idea of innate goodness. Your humorous take on 70 virgins you doubt, will be waiting makes me hope more people will view things with a bit of humour. We shall not have the serious things that happen in the world if more thought like you do. Many thanks Razarque, from Zita

    2. Thank you Zita for those encouraging words.
      I have always used humour as part of my clinical management all my life.
      I vehemently refused to accept money from the poor folk, as my predecessors did, in my days as DMO in SL, but never refused a token gift of appreciation from the heart, but NEVER one that affected one's pocket.
      When in London during treatment of a young Haemophlilliac of about 8 yrs, a old, he named one of his Wombles after me... probably as an endearment as he had nothing else to offer than to re-name one of his precious toys. I was honoured by this act. So much so when we used to go to Wimbledon Park (living close to it), I unconsciously look around for this character... silly me??
      Then, on my "early" retirement from Ninewells Hospital, one of my patients, Jim ---- I used to treat his cold-induced paraprotien using Cell-Separator Technology, 'gate-crashed' my Farewell-Do & presented me with the best of "Barley Waters"..... adding that he would not 'shop me' to the Mosque!!! He too had humour in him .. I suppose one provokes another!!. I told him " Jim,You should not have done this" knowing the cost of the gift very well.
      His reply was "Raz (I was on first name terms with my patients) it is not WHAT you did, it was HOW you did it" This rings in my ears to this day despite Jim having passed-on a few years ago.
      I suppose that was "HOW" I always carried on my professional duties all those years... only to be told ... 'a bit late in the day' though.... at my Retirement-Do!!!
      It is never too late to be reminded & to know.
      Those were only some of the great moments of humanity in my career that I look back with some emotion.

  4. Zita, Such a vast topic- it is creditable that you've taken the time even to ponder this.
    However, as Socrates said-"The unexamined life is not worth living"-sounds rather drastic! but in its original context very likely also encompassed morality.
    -Great effort Zita+(Mahen and ND)-Thanks.

    1. Rohini, I always expect some unique thought from you. And now about this Socrates statement, it endorses examination of things like 'life' which are hard to understand but also makes it mandatory that we do. Thanks for that contribution. Zita