Podcast S2 E10 | 26 min

What Does It Mean to be Human? Your Questions, Answered

3 Dec 2019
The podcast’s season 2 finale takes on some difficult, and sometimes funny, listener questions.

In this season 2 finale of the SAPIENS podcast, hosts Jen Shannon, Chip Colwell, and Esteban Gómez field questions from listeners on Twitter and at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science about what it means to be human. They address human origins and self-awareness, discrimination, social media, and more!

You can follow all of our expert guests on Twitter: Agustín Fuentes at the University of Notre Dame (@Anthrofuentes), Daniel Miller at the University College London (@DannyAnth), and Barbara King, professor emerita at the College of William & Mary (@bjkingape).

Mark Shriver, professor at Pennsylvania State University, did a study on human nose shape and climate adaptation that also informed our conversation.

Finally, here’s a link to the nose-picking gorilla photos mentioned in this episode.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is a part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Read a transcript of this episode

Chip: What does it mean to be human? Over the past two seasons of this podcast, we’ve picked away at that big question by taking DNA tests …

[clip from season 1, episode 1: “Is Your DNA You?”]

Chip: … four, five, six, seven.

Jen: I’m vigorously swabbing …

Chip: And, Jen, remember the one where we ate insects?

Jen: Ugh, don’t remind me!

[clip from season 2, episode 1: “Eating Insects and the Yuck Factor”]

Mina: I see ants!

Jen: Ooh, I see their antennae!

Chip: Oh, yeah.

Mina: That kind of looks good!

Jen: I’ll take the one at the darker end of the table.

Chip: We’ve asked a lot of questions. And then we tried to find some answers. But for this season’s finale, we wanted to do something different. We wanted to know what kinds of questions you, our listeners, had about what it means to be human.

Jen: We received your questions on Twitter and Facebook, and we went out looking for even more at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.


Esteban: I’ve got a question too. Can we get started?

Chip: Yeah, let’s do it.

Jen: Woohoo! Esteban’s back!

[everyone laughs]

Chip: I’m Chip.

Jen: I’m Jen.

Esteban: And I’m Esteban. And we’re your hosts for this season finale of SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human.

[SAPIENS intro]

[clip from the museum]

Chip: Hi, how are you doing?

Teacher: Hi.

Chip: My name is Chip, and I’m a curator here. And I also do a podcast about anthropology. Could we ask all of you a quick question? Would you be up for it?

Teacher: Do you guys want to answer a question?

Youths: Yes!

Chip: OK, cool. So, the name of the podcast is called SAPIENS. Does anyone know what a sapiens is? What’s a Homo sapiens?

Youths: Nooo.

Chip: A Homo sapiens is us! That’s the scientific name for being human, and so this is a podcast all about being you, about what it is to be human. So, what we want to know is, do you have questions about being human, for example, where did humans come from, or why do we have pets, or when did humans first have language, maybe something like that? You have a question? Yeah?

Youth: What was the first person in the whole world?

Chip: What’s your name?

Youth: Rainey.

Chip: Great question, thank you for that.

[end of clip]


[clip from interview]

Agustín: [laughs] That’s really funny. It’s actually a great question, but it’s the wrong question to ask.

Chip: This is Agustín Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

Agustín: Let me tell you why. The first person in the whole world wasn’t a person, in fact. The first human was probably a collection of individuals. So take it this way: It’s not like all of a sudden, something living in the trees fell to the ground, stood up, and started walking, and that was the first person, and from then on all the descendants of that one creature have become humans. That’s not the way it works. There’s really good evidence that over the last couple million years, especially the last 500,000 [years] or so, that many populations of things that are very close to us but not exactly us mixed, moved, matched, mated, fought, ran away, got together, and through that mess of mixing emerged what we call humans today.

Esteban: OK, so in short, there never was a first person to begin with?

Chip: I guess not. And from our conversation with him, it sounds like this isn’t the first time Agustín has been asked this one.

Agustín: And there’s a couple reasons for that. One of the most important ones is sort of the dominance of the Judeo-Christian origin myth, right? Adam and Eve. So, everyone, even when they’re not religious, if they grow up in this kind of Western context, which much of our science emerges from, they have this sense that there’s a progenitor pair, that there’s two original humans from which we all sprang. And so, people, really, when they say, “Who was the first human?,” they want to know who was Adam and who was Eve, even though they may not recognize that. And as I just said, those didn’t exist. So, the “why” we want to ask that question is part of our cultural heritage. This also, most people don’t understand evolutionary processes, right? Evolution is not creation. So, the other answer to “why do we ask this question?” is that people don’t understand that change over time is in populations, and it’s dynamic and there is not a point zero for humanity. Rather, there’s a 2-million-year history of humanity, and before that, a 4-million-year history of the hominins, and before that is a 12-million-year history of ape-like things. So, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing, and any time you draw a dividing line or pinpoint here is where we’re gonna start, that’s an arbitrary starting point.

[end of clip]


Jen: Well, that’s one question down. This next one actually came through combining a bunch of questions that we got.

Chip: OK, what is it?

Jen: Well, let me start by asking the two of you: What do you think is the effect social media is having on our society? Or, you know, how is it changing your social relations?

Chip: Mmmm. Oh, that’s a tough one. I definitely feel like it’s changing society at large, and for me personally, I was a pretty steady Facebook user way back in the day, and initially it helped me connect with people all around the world that I kind of lost contact with through the years, but now I feel like it’s been this weird substitution for my authentic, like, in-person relations, so I’ve actually tried to step away from Facebook in recent months to try to engage people in more telephone conversations and meeting at cafes and that sort of thing. How about you, Esteban?

Esteban: Yeah, absolutely, same here. I don’t really use Facebook all that much. I mean, I use it for teaching purposes, and, you know, I have students tweet different things here and there, but—

Chip: I am on Twitter, so I should say that. [laughs]

Jen: And what about Instagram?

Esteban: I’m on the IG, yeah, but again, I use that for a lot of research purposes. And so, I don’t necessarily engage with people on social media all that much. But I also see some of the problems with social media, and I think that’s why I don’t spend too much time on it. Just because it makes—at least, I notice that maybe our perspectives have become a little bit more narrow.

Jen: Well, there’s no way it’s not having some kind of effect, right? So that’s why we called up Daniel Miller.

[clip from interview]

Daniel: I’m Danny Miller. I’m a professor of anthropology at University College London. And I’ve been fortunate enough to get grants, which allow us to do extensive, collaborative, team-based work on topics such as social media and smartphones.

Jen: We thought Daniel was appropriate to answer this question because he held a five-year, nine-country study on social media, both its use and its consequences.

Daniel: Well, it started off, actually, with, uh, do you remember the fracas between Kanye West and Taylor Swift at the MTV awards?

[clip from the VMA awards]

Kanye: Yo, Taylor. I’m really happy for you, I’m going to let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!

[end of clip]

Daniel: And I had been working in Trinidad for quite some time. I happened to notice that when that happened, the Trinidadians on my Facebook went wild. It was like, Can you believe what Kanye said?, etc. And the other half of my Facebook were mainly English, and there was absolute silence, not a thing, not a mention. And I suddenly realized that what I thought was one thing—Facebook—actually was entirely different if I turned my attention to Trinidadian uses as opposed to English uses.


Chip: Yeah, I’ve noticed how different circles of friends on social media react and engage with different kinds of content. So, for example, some are really focused on politics; others are focused on kitten pictures, like you, Esteban, right?

Esteban: Yeah, I love kittens. Yeah, I mean, I do this exercise with my students all the time where I have them kind of exchange phones, so they get to see what their Facebook feeds look like and how different they are. Some are more political, others are not. For example, my wife, if you look at her phone, it’s much more design oriented; mine’s all about kittens.

Chip: Yeah, so I guess it is true that different communities have different conversations, that we aren’t really all speaking the same on social media, you know, across different geographies and communities.

[clip from interview]

Daniel: I mean, let me give you an example from that same contrast between England and Trinidad. When an English person becomes a mother and you look at their Facebook profile, almost invariably, what you’ll actually see is not the mother. After a short period of time, you’ll see the infant. The infant actually becomes the profile picture, right? Even though it’s not their Facebook, it’s the mother’s Facebook. And for a very long period, the mother is kind of subsumed under these pictures and attention toward the infant.

When I look at what happens in Trinidad when somebody becomes a mother, you see an instant concern to post pictures of them looking kind of cool, sexy, out there. Basically, they’re saying, Yes, I have become a mother, but don’t you think for one minute I am any less all those things I previously was when I became a mother. And it’s only by making those comparisons and seeing that, sure, there is this thing called Facebook, but actually, as anthropologists have always argued, peoples in different regions have different cosmologies and values and forms of family, etc., and Facebook and other social media will become new places where these differences become expressed.

Jen: OK, so let’s go back to the beginning. Here’s what Daniel had to say about those big questions: What is the effect social media is having on our society, and how is it changing our social relations?

Daniel: I’m going to start with the second one. I think that, you know, you have this grand question of what it is to be human, and the way anthropologists tend to approach this, at least social anthropologists, is to see as the core of a lot of what we study as sociality, basically, how do people relate to each other. And one of the major changes that social media represent is that offline there were always many different kinds of sociality. You could meet somebody and go for a walk with them, the two of you together. You could basically announce yourself to a crowd. You could be in a little meeting—though there are different kind of sizes and different kind of areas. And in effect, what social media has done is expand the possibilities of online sociality to make them more like offline and to add variety.


Daniel: So, before social media, again, you tended either to have, like, telephone calls, which is one to one, or you broadcast things like radio, TV, and that was, like, to mass audiences, whomever was there. But social media kind of filled in the gaps between these two. So, you could have a little group—a WhatsApp group of all those people who really do want to see a picture of this newborn baby every half an hour, or you could have your tennis group. And then you could go on from WhatsApp, maybe, to Facebook, where you have a couple of hundred friends who are deeply interested in the photos you got from your last holiday. And if you go beyond that, you can, let’s say, go on to Instagram, and you might get people you don’t even know at all, somebody from a different country who just thinks that your photography is pretty cool, and they possibly want you to look at their photography because it’s quite similar. And then you go on to Twitter, which is getting a little bit more like broadcasting. You’ve got this new thing that you’ve done, and you want as many people to know about it as possible. So, the point about social media is to see this range of platforms, and that range means that it gives us what we call “scalable sociality.” You can have bigger groups, you can have smaller groups, you can have more private or you could have less private. And I would say that’s really the impact it’s had on social relationships is this scalable sociality, which used to exist offline but now also exists online.


Daniel: We also ought to recognize that you could look at it a different way. You could say, “Well, human beings, you know, you could define a human being as something that can’t fly.” Then come airplanes; we can fly. Similarly, online was not something that existed before, so yes, our interaction was generally, like, face to face, but we always had the capacity for sociality, communication, interaction at a distance. And now social media has come along, I don’t think we’ve become any less human. We have simply realized what you might call a latent capacity in being human to have these distant communications, and we have incorporated into the everyday being human. And within a very short time, will act as though it always was part and parcel and integral to being human. And we’ll start getting anxious about the next technology that comes along and our fears that that one is somehow the loss of humanity.

[end of clip]


Chip: Let’s summarize Daniel’s key points. I think that’d be helpful.

Jen: Sure.

Chris: So, the first is, I have this note here about this kind of jargony phrase, but it’s “scalable sociality.”

Esteban: How about, say that 10 times?

Chip: [laughs] Right. No thanks. But you know, it seems to refer to how online media creates new possibilities of more flexible social groups. You know, you go from big to small, private to public, just spanning this whole spectrum.

Jen: Yeah, but what I was really interested in, too, was that it can be cross-cultural. So, he was able to look at two different cultural groups at different parts of the world reacting to something at the same time.

Chip: Yeah. So, it seems there is some good validity here.

Esteban: Yeah, absolutely. And uh, how about his second point, though? The idea that social media is simply tapping into the latent capacity of humans to build these vast and dispersed communication networks.

Jen: Yeah, I can see that, but I feel like we’ve been building those networks forever. Like, think about big conferences that bring people together from all over the world to think about something together. So, on the one hand, it’s a tool to do things that we’ve already always been doing, but the question is: Is it also transformative? Is it changing us in ways that maybe we still need to question and think about?


Chip: This next question was asked by @JosephGNunez1 on Twitter. “Why do humans discriminate?” Esteban, I know you’ve done extensive multimedia work involving this question with some of your students. We thought it would be appropriate to direct this one to you.

Esteban: So yeah, discrimination. Why do we discriminate? That’s a really interesting question and also a really heavy question. And, you know, one question that always comes up is: How do we learn this? Why do we discriminate? And I think about this all the time with my son, Benjamin, who’s a 2-year-old toddler now. And I think it’s very natural for humans to categorize things that, you know, into things that they like and don’t like. You know, things, objects, food, whatever it may be. I think it’s really natural for people to do that. And so, I see it all the time with my son in terms of: He likes certain foods, he doesn’t like certain foods. On one end, he’s telling me that he doesn’t like something; on the other end of that is a form of control, right? He wants to control that situation. And so, I think this natural process of separating things that you’re familiar with versus things that you’re not familiar with, things that you like and don’t like, as well as exerting some type of agency or control over a situation. You see it today, that same rhetoric and fear being placed on people who are not familiar, people who are different, right? Whether this be Muslim Americans who are trying to gain entry into the country or migrants who are being held in detention centers. You see this hateful rhetoric being used by our leaders today, specifically being used to categorize others and to place a difference between one versus another. So, I think about that a lot when thinking about this idea of discrimination.


Jen: This one is a bit of a mind bender. PetieM, otherwise known as @petie001, asked us on Twitter, “Why do humans have self-awareness?”

Chip: That sounds like a two-part question to me, actually. I mean, first of all: What is self-awareness? And then, secondly, why do humans have it? And then even more interestingly, is being self-aware unique to humans?

Jen: That’s pretty close to how Barbara King responded when we called her up. Barbara is a professor emerita of anthropology at William & Mary. One of her recent books helps to address this question. It’s called How Animals Grieve.

[clip from interview]

Barbara: My work has been largely over the last years in documenting how animals grieve, how do they mourn when a loved one dies, and this to me is a window into self-awareness—because it’s a window into understanding that a wide variety of animals really feel their lives. And in order to see them as individuals, we need to understand that they are aware of their place in the world. So, it’s important to me, again, as an anthropologist who thinks beyond the human, to think about this in a multispecies type of way.

Jen: So, if animals and humans have self-awareness, it seems like this term could mean a few different things. Here’s how Barbara defined it.

Barbara: Well, it’s probably not surprising to anyone that different researchers have very different definitions. So, I’m going to talk about two definitions of self-awareness. In a very basic sense, I think it means that an individual animal, human ancestor, or human recognizes that they’re distinct from that animal over there—that an individual thinks about his or her life and tries to make decisions and carry out behaviors that lead to good outcomes. A more elaborated definition would require that an individual is able to consciously reflect on his or her own thoughts. So, in this case, it’s not enough just to have reasoning, strategy, thoughts, and feelings, but you have to be able to think or feel about them. And so, depending on which definition we take up, we measure behavior differently, and we come to different conclusions.

Jen: And finally … drumroll …

[drumroll sound]

Jen: Here was her answer as to why humans have self-awareness.

Barbara: Our sense of self-awareness, which is to some degree more elaborated than that of other animals, I think comes from selection pressures of our intensely social lives. So, we have to keep straight: Who are our allies, who are our rivals? Our social worlds, both locally and globally, have expanded greatly over the millennia. And being aware of ourselves and where we fit into these social networks is important. It has increased reproductive success for us as we went along in evolution.

Jen: I think what’s interesting here is how Barbara talks about social awareness being such a key part of how we fit into our communities. And the same actually goes for many animal species too.

Barbara: Because again, many animals like us are also deeply social. And we know that they need to think about their place in their groups and how, again, they differ in their desires from that of their matriline members or their rivals in a hierarchy. So, the degree to which they can sharpen that understanding of, you know, where they rank, who their family members are, how they can use resources in the world to increase their own reproductive success or just their own happiness, really, is very advantageous.

[end of clip]


Jen: So, Esteban, when did your son Benjamin first recognize himself in the mirror?

Esteban: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think he first started understanding the concept of “me” at maybe 1 1/2. I first saw this when he said, “I got it.” And I wasn’t entirely sure if he was just kind of repeating a phrase that he’s heard or if there’s something deeper than that. I mean, now he refers to himself as “Ben Ben,” which is—

Chip: Third person? Nice.

Esteban: “Ben Ben does this,” you know, and so—

Jen and Chip: [laughing]

Esteban: So, I’m not sure. I think now he kind of understands some self-awareness, but it’s hard to say.

Chip: Your story and tying back to what Barbara was saying makes me think about community, and how, you know, when Ben said, “I got it,” it was in relation to you, you know, in that we shape our sense of self in communities, and that seems to be a really important part of this story.

Esteban: Yeah, and I’m just kind of curious as to when … he knows mom, he knows dad, he knows “me” to some extent, right?

Chip: That’s the beginning of community.

Esteban: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, it’s putting all those together.


Chip: For our last question, I wanted to play you all this short and sweet clip from one of our listeners who works at the museum: Sean Wenner.

[clip from the museum]

Sean Wenner: Why do all humans pick their noses?

[end of clip]

Jen: [laughs] That is a good—and why do they always do it in the car?

Chip: [laughs] Well, I don’t know if it’s true that all humans do it. I, for one, have never picked my nose.

Jen: Oh, yes, no, me neither. Absolutely not.

Esteban: Never.

Chip: Well, I was not expecting this kind of question when we opened up this possibility, but for me, my mind initially went to this article that an anthropologist wrote with his colleague: Mark Shriver. He’s a professor of anthropology at Penn State, and he looks at the evolutionary forces that shape the size of our noses. And he finds that there’s lots of different reasons for it, but environment and adaptation to local climate is a key thing. It also reminded me of this pretty humorous series of photographs published on Mashable about a nose-picking gorilla.

Jen: Oh, yeah! [laughs]

Chip: Just to briefly describe it, you know, he sticks his finger almost all the way up into his nose. You can see here; Esteban is looking at the picture with me.

Esteban: Yeah.

Chip: And then he pulls it out and studies it, very focused, and then, of course, it goes in the mouth.

Jen: With his eyes closed and utter satisfaction. [laughs]

Chip: Yes, exactly. So, this is supposed to prove that humans and apes really are the same. This really is a universal thing, not just for humans, but it goes much deeper than that. So …

Jen: The question as to why, well, look at the ape’s face. It’s just very satisfying! [laughs]

Chip: [laughs] There you have it.


Chip: And so, I think this draws our episode to a close. I really want to thank all of you for this last episode, for the season, and I really want to thank all of the listeners for listening in. I think one thing, for me, that this episode shows is just how complex humans are and just how many questions there are left to answer, right?

Jen: So many questions. [laughs]

Chip: So, stay tuned, and we’ll bring you another season of SAPIENS, where hopefully we’ll have more answers to these pressing questions about what it means to be human.


Chip: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Cat Jaffee and Paul Karolyi, and mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton. It was hosted by me, Chip Colwell.

Jen: And me, Jen Shannon.

Esteban: And me, Esteban Gómez.

Jen: SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with lovely contributions from intern Lizzie Goldsmith. Meral Agish is our fact-checker, and we have a number of guest experts to thank for their time and knowledge.

Esteban: They are Agustín Fuentes, Daniel Miller, and Barbara King.

Jen: This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support through Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and its staff, board, and advisory council.

Chip: Additional support was provided by the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. Thanks always to Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS.org.

Esteban: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

All Hosts: See you around, fellow sapiens!


You may republish this article, either online and/or in print, under the Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 license. We ask that you follow these simple guidelines to comply with the requirements of the license.

In short, you may not make edits beyond minor stylistic changes, and you must credit the author and note that the article was originally published on SAPIENS.

Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.


We’re glad you enjoyed the article! Want to republish it?

This article is currently copyrighted to SAPIENS and the author. But, we love to spread anthropology around the internet and beyond. Please send your republication request via email to editor•sapiens.org.

Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.