What is a human?

What’s a human? Well, you are one, so you ought to know. What makes us what we are?

It would seem that we’re animals, we have to eat and breathe and have sex to reproduce. We shit. We die. But relative to other living creatures on Earth we’re unique. We have very complicated social behaviors. We have an inborn ability to acquire language and create symbols. We are ready to go to war and kill each other over intangible ideas and principles. What is this something extra that allows us to exceed the cognitive capacities of all the other animals?

Anthropologists have an answer for this: culture. More than any other animal, Homo sapiens relies upon learned behaviors to adapt to an manipulate our natural and social environments. In this class we will study what it means to be human by exploring the borderlands between human nature and human culture. We’ll begin by looking at cultures around the world, touching on the importance of language and the human need to lead meaningful lives. We’ll talk about how different people manage to put food on their table and question how it is that the we got to be where we are today.

In the second half of the semester we’ll turn our attention to human evolution. We’ll cover natural selection and some basic genetics before looking at what the fossil record can tell us about the humans who were here before us.

Welcome aboard. It’s going to be quite a journey.

Required texts:
Understanding Humans, 10th ed.
Additional required readings will also be posted to Blackboard

Recommended texts:
Evolution: The Human Story (extra credit assignments will come out of this book)

Helpful hints:
Sometimes anthropology acts like a science, sometimes its more like history. At other times it seems like we’re a branch of sociology or psychology. It’s also very philosophical. To get all these perspectives you’ll have to be a incisive and critical reader. There is a lot of reading assigned! For more reading tips see my post, How to Read a Book.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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One Response to What is a human?

  1. clunymac says:

    This reminds me of the the bodies exhibit that I visited in Tampa FL. Its amazing that our bodies are so fragile from the make up, however our skeleton is so strong, that some bones come close to the tensile strength of steel. Our bones which is according to American Physiological Society they did a test on human bones and found that. “The average ultimate tensile strength, loaded in the direction of the long axis, of the compact bone of 15 specimens taken from the parietal bone of adult human embalmed cadavers was 10,230 lb/in.2 (6,030–15,800)”. Now that is so amazing that a human bone can with stand 10,230 lb/in. This alone does not make us superior, what makes us different and able to survive however is our ability to adapit and learn. I think that if we as humans, could not adapt to our environment as well as we are able to, we would not exist anymore. This being said I also think we are so strong from centuries of trial and error. Case in point, weaker ancestors gave way to the newer and stronger generation, and eventually died off. So in the future what we think and consider as a “strong” human today, might just be a weak and fragile version of the humans in the future.


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