What does it mean to be human?

By Jon Farrar

What does it mean to be human? It’s a simple question, just a few short words, but it unwraps the bundle of complexity, contradictions, and mystery that is a human life.

It’s a question we have been asking for thousands of years. Priests and poets, philosophers and politicians, scientists and artists have all sought to answer this ultimate puzzle, but all fell short, never able to fully capture the vastness of the human experience.

Origin of Species book by Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin changed thousands of years' of thought at the stroke of a pen. © Duncan1890 | Getty
Article continues below

More on Science

Some have come closer than others.

Charles Darwin had one of the greatest insights into the human condition that any of our species has had, changing thousands of years' of thought at the stroke of a pen, yet he had nothing to say about how we actually experience being human.

It would be another 50 years before an Austrian doctor began to talk about the hidden forces of the subconscious mind, but even Sigmund Freud couldn’t provide an adequate explanation for consciousness. In fact, to date, no-one has come close to describing the sheer magnificent wonder of being alive. The electric surge we feel when we kiss a lover, the deep stirring of the soul when we listen to Mozart’s Requiem, and the full flowing joy of laughing uncontrollably with our closest friends as we share a joke.

Being Human is a major new season launching on BBC Earth that aims to take us as closer to understanding who we are. Why do we behave the way we do? How do we live better? How did we get to now? What is our future?

Over the course of a year, we will take you by the hand and dive into these questions, exploring all corners of humanity with wide-eyed curiosity. We will look deep into the mind at what drives our behaviour, meet extraordinary humans who have unlocked the secrets of a long and healthy life, take a trip through 2000 years of civilisation, journey into the human body on our path to adulthood as we go from baby to baby-maker, experience the drama of extraordinary human rituals that hope to cheat death, and watch happens to our bodies in the hours, days, and months after we die.

We have brilliant series from world class programme makers coming up, full of incredible ideas at the leading edge of scientific thought. We want to make you think, but we also want to make you feel. Being Human will be a celebration of the human race. We want to make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up at the improbable good fortune of our own existence. 

So what is our story? Let’s start with the facts. We are one species of primate that emerged from the dry savannahs of East Africa just over 100,000 years ago and began a migration that continues to today.

We weren’t the strongest animal, but we had an unusually large brain and held ourselves upright, giving us a high vantage to scan the distant horizon for enemies, and the freedom to use our hands for other purposes. Over time we began to fashion tools. These were primitive, but could tear through skin and muscle and gave us an advantage as we prowled our wild habitat for prey.

We might have continued our short life of hunting, savagery, and brutishness right through to today, but for one important development - language. Other animals could communicate, but we evolved astonishing vocal ability, able to create sounds that represented not just objects, but also concepts. We learned how to express ideas. We could speak of danger, hope, and love. We became storytellers, able to weave together common narratives about who we are and how we should live. From this point on the pace of change was electrifying.

Twelve thousand years ago, we learned how to domesticate plants and other animals for food, and were able to settle in one place. We became a social animal, building complex communities that become kingdoms, learning to trade with each other using a concept called money.

By 2500 years ago, a small group of humans in Southern Europe and the Middle East started to ask big questions about who we were. What is the best way to live? What is a good life? What does it mean to be human? How we responded to these questions is how we built our civilisation, art, and philosophy. Five hundred years ago, the scientific revolution began, allowing us to harness the resources of our planet to live longer and more productive lives.

Woman using voice assistant on smartphone in the rain
We may be the last of our species to be fully human as bio-technology and artificial intelligence take over. © Oscar Wong | Getty

When the digital revolution began only 50 years ago, the world shrank. We became a global village, our hopes and dreams converted into an infinite stream of ones and zeroes echoing throughout cyberspace. Today, we stand astride the world as a god, with both the power to destroy our own planet and to create life.

We may even be the last of our species to be fully human as bio-technology and artificial intelligence begin to rip apart the very core of who we are. Indeed, our Being Human campaign is led by Sophia, an incredible lifelike robot who is developing her own intelligence. She looks human, she sounds human, but she cannot yet think or feel like a human. How many years until she is truly one of us? Or we are one of them?

Our story is remarkable. The greatest story ever told. And while it is the story of astonishing development for our species, it is also the tale of billions of individual lives echoing down the millennia, all of them full of hope and promise, fear and disappointment. As we discover more about reality, we continue our ascent into insignificance, becoming a vanishing footnote in space and time, a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe. But to be human is to be at the centre of our own universe, to experience life in all its colours and all its potential. This is what we want to celebrate with Being Human - the awe of being alive and the thrill of discovering what it means to be us, the greatest wonder in the world.