There are a number of different ways this can be answered…..
From a chemist’s point of view, humans are on a simple level 62% water (about 10 gallons) 16% protein, 16% fat (75 candles), 6% minerals and 1% carbohydrate. Or breaking things down a bit more, we are 65% Oxygen, 18% Carbon (900 pencils) 9.5% Hydrogen, 3.2% Nitrogen, 1.5% Calcium, 1.2% Phosphorus (enough to fire a small toy canon!) 0.4% Potassium (2200 matches!), 0.2% Sulphur, 0.2% Sodium, 0.2% Chlorine, 0.1 Magnesium and <1% ‘other’. In summary, we have 24 of the 118 chemicals in the periodic table which is really quite impressive.
From a biological perspective, studies have shown that we share 96% of the DNA of chimpanzees (4% unique DNA) and with regard to chromosomes chimpanzees have 23, but we have one more at 24. I wasn’t sure about what DNA, Genes and Chromosomes really are, so I looked up some definitions where I found out that Chromosomes are the tight ‘coils’ of genes, genes are the ‘containers’ of DNA and DNA is ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’, which together contains our unique genetic material that determines us being human and our specific hereditary characteristics. I don’t really fully understand all of this, but I am going to ask my daughter who is studying Chemistry and Biology at A level, who I am sure will explain it all a lot more clearly!
So what does this tell us? Well compared to the animal kingdom we do share a lot of chemicals and Chromosomes/Genes/DNA, however, the 4% DNA and 1 Chromosome differential makes a massive difference between us and the next most developed form of animal life. So, are we just animals because of what is the same, or, are we something much more because of the parts which are different?
From a scientific point of view, we can say that the Chromosome/Gene/DNA differences makes us very special: our larynx is unique giving us unparalleled ability to speak and communicate; our shoulder has an amazing range of movement to do many tasks; we have opposite thumbs and fingers, and of a size and position, that give us unique motor skills and ability for precision work; we can stand upright with all the advantages that brings (except for a bad back!); we have an ability to show unique emotions for social interaction e.g., blushing; our brain is extraordinarily powerful for its size with 86 billion neurons (chimpanzees have 16 billion); we have unique abilities for imagination, creativity and forethought; we have unique memories that want to remember and tell stories; and finally, we have a unique awareness of life and mortality – our life now and the question of what life might there be after death.
To me all of this scientific evidence is amazing it in itself and points to the fact that we have been created in our makers image which has made us not just animals, but rather people who are loved by God and that we are made to love him and love others in return.
So, to answer my own question, what does it mean to be human? It means being a body and it means being a mind, but most importantly it means being a soul/spirit. To be truly and wholly human, means we need to live in our body, mind and spirit…….to be fully alive to our maker, ourselves and others in a loving community.
Why mention all this? Well I believe, as the bible also says, that when we know what it truly means to be human is when we can truly flourish in life, but not when we reduce ourselves to just a body of vibrating molecules or a brain that is just a sophisticated computer that evolved ahead of its time.
In our society today we have a very ‘reductionist’ view of who we are, focused on just the material of the body and the mind of ourselves and the things around us. In theory we should be the happiest animals who have ever lived, but we are not because we have forgotten what it really means to be human where it is only there that we find fullness of life as God created us to know and experience.
Where can we find this truth about being human? It is there throughout the bible, but most clearly in the greatest commandment which says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart (will) and with all your soul (spirit) and with all your strength (body) and with all your mind (brain) and, Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” Luke 10v27
With my prayers for March that you can love yourself as human and so then also love God and others
Revd James – Rector St Peter’s Bishop’s Waltham with Blessed Mary, Upham
5th February 2020