Works that reconnect
How to be human – a handbook for beginners
This issue of JHH takes as its theme ‘works that reconnect’. Our leading article is an extended review of John Berger’s newly republished book about a rural GP in the 1960s. According to the book’s foreword John Sassall’s ‘…goal was an appreciation of what it means to be human; medicine was just the vehicle he chose to reach it’.
Curiosity and imagination such as this are surely the deepest (re-) connectors. Scientists tell us that the universe is vast, ancient and evolving; that it behaves as a kind of organism whose very precise birth conditions set in motion a process that allows ever more complex forms to emerge. We can see this as being accidental, but as the cosmologist Fred Hoyle put it ‘the chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein’.
Life, consciousness, what it means to be human: if we don’t have an explanation for something we weave a story that make sense of it, to make sense of ourselves and the world we inhabit. The backrooms of the mind are full of stories. Some of them are shared shadows of how we come into being and wake up in the world of things; dimly felt embodied dreams of life’s ancient processes – Jung’s Collective Unconscious. They interweave with stories we tell ourselves about our own encounters viewed through society’s invisible lenses about love, sex, birth, the meaning of life. Like fish in water we don’t notice what it is we are swimming in. So we rarely question these stories, though we obey their assumptions because they get below our radar: the deep stories, but also stories about identity grown of early formative experiences – attachment or its lack; stories about roles and responsibilities, consumption, glamour, power.
Knowledge starts in the imagination. Before it can be spoken out or written down and organised, someone
has to have been curious about something – a natural phenomenon, a quality of the mind, why we are here.
Our ancestors’ stories worked for them and, whether or not they were true, if they made intuitive sense or had powerful enough backing they could propagate through a nation and around the planet. Eventually a better story or a more powerful regime would overturn and replace them. In our time science is the accepted procedure for generating ‘real’ knowledge. People who are curious about
natural phenomena use its methods to generate questions and test the truth of stories they weave. This approach is enormously potent for creating knowledge about things that can be measured, but less applicable for exploring the mind, and useless for explaining something as intangible as why we are here.
Yet lately we have science’s stories about the intricacy of life and the vastness of the universe and its evolution to fire our imagination. In important ways they illuminate older kinds of unscientific stories about where we come from, what we are and where we are going. These inciting overlaps between inner and outer knowledge throw new light on human nature. Now, more than in any previous age, we know what humans need to create health, to flourish and learn, to care, and live together in accord with one another and in harmony with the other than human world.
Resilience is a much bandied word, but in our turbulent age – lately termed the Anthropocene, so geological in its scale and impact has humankind grown – planetary resilience is ever more bound up with a deep grasp of what it is (and is not) to be human. This grasp of resilience could transform humankind into a species fit to respond to the growing planet-sized challenges we face. Bouncing back is no longer an option. Humanity will have to bounce forward.
Our capacities to think, plan and speak to one another are very new faculties of the human forebrain – recent software still adapting to the body’s ancient mammalian hardware of emotion and self-regulation. Tossed by the ever choppier waters of 21st century life we need science to help us shape reliable maps for navigating through this moment in our evolution. The questions people ask about resilience mostly boil down to core uncertainties about what it is to be human, and what it is that humans actually need. But since the stories we have are what got us here, we need new ones. Science has reached a point where a handbook for us beginners could help us become a sustainable species. For humankind, so long caught between drives for self-protection and belonging, between self and world, must soon resolve these fundamental conflicts. Integrating key discoveries about co-evolution, self-regulating systems, and mind–body holism could reshape humanity’s guiding story. The beginnings of wisdom we need for the journey to becoming homo sapiens may be found where myth and science overlap.