What does it mean to be human?
It’s a question that will come with a different answer for every person you ask. Some lean toward the scientific, pointing out what biological differences make Homo sapiens different from every other species on the planet. Others lean toward the spiritual or philosophical, talking about souls or the capacity for abstract thought. It’s an endlessly ongoing conversation, one which may never have a solid answer, or at least not one that satisfies everyone.
For Saltarelli, true humanity is something we either have lost or are gradually losing. His lyrical argument is that we were at our most human during the time of hunter-gatherers, living in small nomadic groups, mythologizing the world around us because that was the most logical way to make sense of it at the time. By embracing agriculture and the various societal changes that came along with it, he says, we have lost the part of ourselves most connected to nature. We are now split from ourselves, and neither half can thrive.
His book is not exactly a paean to a lost golden age where all was well, and humanity lived at peace with the natural world and with each other. Saltarelli does address the dangers and hardships of the hunger-gatherer life, though he insists they are not as horrendous as they are made out to be. (The real horrors, it seems, stem from the Agricultural Revolution.) Still, he does wax poetic about a mythologized time millennia past often enough and for long enough it can be difficult to tell when he is sharing his personal beliefs or borrowing the illusions of others in order to debunk them. It’s also important to note that he is a man and presumably an able-bodied one. His own experience of the world – possibly his own experience of humanity – will be different from people in marginalized groups, people whose existence we have less information on the further back in time we go.
As someone who belongs to some of those groups (a woman attracted primarily to other women, with eyesight needing intense correction) I must take Saltarelli’s rosy-eyed view of the past with a grain of salt. All the same, I must confess his writing struck something in me, reminding me of my own hunger for natural settings, my own desire for something more than the progression of school to work to the grave. I won’t take his book as the end-all-be-all of the discussion of humanity, nor would I recommend it as such, but I would still recommend it as an important part of that discussion.
I still don’t know what it means to be human. Maybe I never will. I do think I understand humanity a little bit more now.
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