The word humanity is a noun, defined thusly:
- a collective name for all human beings;
- the state of being human; and
- the quality of benevolence, kind-heartedness, or magnanimity.
The first may be illustrated by the sentence, That invention will benefit all humanity; the second by, We are united in our common humanity; and the third by, The good Samaritan showed such humanity through his actions.
In the first definition above, humanity—of which you and I as human beings are a part—had its origins in the dim recesses of time past, perhaps 200,000 years ago, when archaeological studies posit the emergence of Homo sapiens. These studies have demonstrated that several precursors to that species existed, including Homo habilis and Homo erectus, all of which displayed characteristics quite distinct from apelike creatures. But human beings as we know us today (referred to now as Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved distinctly and irrevocably away from our earliest ancestors, perhaps 50,000 years ago.
It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that more than 108 billion such ‘people’ have lived on our planet since then. The PRB, founded in 1929, is a non-profit organization that studies issues related to population, health, and the environment. Its work pegs the number of people living today at something greater than seven billion, which constitutes approximately 6.5% of the total of every human who has ever lived.
Two major demarcations, among many others, distinguish us from the earlier versions of Homo species. One is the growth of brain size, the other the shrinking of some physical attributes, including brow prominence, mid-face projection, and skeletal structure. Both eventually enabled the acquisition and refinement of speech, and thus the possibility of sharing thoughts and feelings among each other—the earliest manifestation of humanity in its second definition.
It would be possible, I imagine, to express affinity, empathy, or insight with respect to the emotional or physical well-being of another, even if we were unable to communicate them verbally. Possible, too, I think, to convey anger, resentment, or disappointment to someone. Body language and non-verbal gestures could convey such messages adequately. But it is through speech that we can most accurately articulate our feelings, be they positive or negative, without resorting to physical demonstrations.
The ability to speak depends on both physical and neural capabilities, which we, alone among animals, possess. And language, which developed from this unique ability, is what has made possible every significant intellectual accomplishment along the path of our development as a species—including both the ability to save lives and prolong them beyond the wildest expectations of a century ago; and the ability to wage war unto death on those we fear or loathe, to the point of wiping them from the face of the earth.
So, at the dawn of another year, the two-thousand-and-seventeenth of the modern era (and maybe the fifty-two-thousand-and-seventeenth of our existence as a modern species), I ask this question: Whither humanity?
We have a good idea whence we came, thanks to the innumerable studies of our history and development. The state of humanity all humanity enjoys is well and truly established. But where are we going? And what of our inner humanity—our benevolence, kind-heartedness, magnanimity—toward our co-habitants of the planet? Could it be that our brains are indeed dualistic—in the sense that we want to create and destroy, build up and tear down, co-exist and dominate—at one and the same time? If so, that is an horrific equation, one that is perhaps the result of centuries of struggle to survive as a species, in order to perpetuate humanity.
But now, we live in an age where the baser half of that equation can have disastrous results, not just for those we choose to see as our enemies, but for us all. And if we allow fear to draw us back into protective enclaves of our own kind—those who look, think, and act like us—to the exclusion of those who don’t, we risk diminishing our fundamental humanity. At a time of great peril to our entire race, surely it is better to reach out, to join hands, than it is to lash out and smash humanity asunder.
We belong to numerous nations inhabiting this long-suffering planet, each of which harbours its own patriotic aspirations. But every one of those nations depends upon the same planetary host, and all humanity is travelling on the same interstellar vessel. Will we collectively steer our ship to safe harbour, or scuttle it with all hands on board?
I have long admired these words from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, which I excerpt here—
With malice toward none, with charity for all, [let us] achieve and cherish a
just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Happy New Year—free of malice, full of charity—to all humanity!