“Human is as Human Does:” Reflections on Human Nature


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Mythology, Legends, Cartoons, and Science Fiction: Imagining the “Impossible”

Conventional views of a human being envision a body separated by skin from its surroundings with internal skeletal structures, vital organs and fluids, and a central nervous system capable of (1) responding to forces and events with inherent behavioral patterns of flight, fight, or freeze, (2) acquiring “ways of knowing” and (3) constructing the realities in which we live. However, mythology, legends, cartoons, and science fiction views have created views of “human” nature life that go far beyond our conventional views offering visions of creative combinations of parts and wholes that redefine human nature, even as we smile and admire the audacity of their creations that challenge normal reason and logic.

Consider for example, mythological creatures that merge human and animal forms including the minotaur (i.e., half man and half bull), centaur (i.e., half human and half horse), Goddess Isis (i.e., bird-head and human body), Goddess Shiva (i.e., multiple arms), and gods and goddesses of all sizes, purposes, and capacities that exceed human limitations in body and mind (e.g., Zeus, Athena, Neptune).

Cartoon figures have built upon imaginative mythology to give us super-heroes and super– villains who possess virtually every conceivable special ability (e.g., strength, flying, wisdom, moral or immoral code), played out in a constant struggle between good and evil.  These cartoon figures (e.g., Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Hornet, Road Runner) come to the fore addressing or calling attention to our human needs, insecurities, and limitations.  We mere mortals are envious of their abilities, skills and roles.  Think how often as children we played these figures, dressing in capes, halloween costumes, and masks and painted faces. And let us no forget those individuals who are human but somehow have amassed special powers (e.g., The Shadow, Sherlock Holmes)

Science fiction, not to be undone, has given us scores of variations on human form and capacity often in the form of man-made monsters and villains (e.g., Frankenstein, Vampires, Zombies), and more recently, robots and automatons of with of both appealing and nefarious forms and capabilities (e.g., IBM’s Watson, R2D2, the bionic man). Indeed, Mary Shelley’s classic 19th century book, Frankenstein, loomed as a prophetic recognition of the unlimited possibilities of humans crossing known thresholds in the creation of alternative human forms and processes. Shelley, like many others, saw the unfolding of not only industries and technologies, but also the human impulse to push the limits of imagination and creation.  What could be imagined (e.g., flying), could be pursued with unknown and untold consequences.

Rethinking Human Nature

What has captured my imagination at the moment is less the mythological, cartoon figures, or science fiction creations, but the actual forms of human life and function (i.e., nature) emerging at this very moment via technological, scientific, and medical developments.  I am even hesitant to call them “developments” because of the profound changes they have for altering conventional views of human beings and human nature. I am certain many of these changes are advances that serve to heal and to revise human hope an possibilities, I find myself wondering about the trajectory of our paths. Are we prepared for the pace and consequences of the changes occurring?

Where can I begin in describing the scientific, technological, and medical “developments” of our Age?  They must be spoken of with awe and reverence, almost as miracles, as we witness changes that exceed our imagination, and yet are becoming so commonplace and routine that we actually come to expect their growth more and more. Yet, in doing so, we seem unaware of the very way they have come to enter our lives, changing in subtle but dramatic ways, the very views of human nature that we hold.

We are pushing the farther natures of human existence as we rebuild, rehabilitate, improve, and heal.  What exciting “developments” for improving, extending, and healing life!  There can be no doubt that we must be grateful for all of these developments.  They have advanced our horizons and more. I must pause here, because as my mind scans the “developments” I am aware of via popular media, I find myself asking “Yes, yes, fantastic, unbelievable!” But I also ask myself is there an endpoint?  If so, what is it?

I cannot provide a complete listing of these “developments,” but I do wish to point out their prophetic implications as they grow in number, complexity, and convergence into new levels of possibility. Let me list some in a general order from widespread medical advances to growing technological possibilities.

1.  Organ Transplants – Today we have been able to transplant virtually every organ in the human body with the exception of the brain, but brain transplant may not be far off since we have kept human brains alive outside of the body. And given the new developments in brain mapping and reconstruction, it is very likely it will be possible to re-program brains and to heal neural disorders.

2.  Limb Attachments – We have all seen the “miracles” of attached limbs   (hands, arms, legs) that have given amputees movement and function.  To some extent, the old TV program, The Bionic Man, emphasized the extraordinary powers of the mechanical limbs.

3.  Mechanical Hearts – These have proven life saving, and up to the demands of rigorous life for many victims of heart failure.  The Wizard of Oz was produced before mechanical hearts were developed or the Tin Man would not have had the make that trip down the Yellow Brick Road.

4. Animal Parts – The use of animal parts, especially in heart operations in which heart valves are transplanted (e.g., pigs) has proven very successful.

5. Stem Cells – Repairing and re-growing organs and damaged human body parts.  It is notable that stem cell research was considered illegal on the basis of moral concerns, even as governments engaged in wars and torture.  Morality is more relative than we thought.  It depends on who has the power, wealth, and position.  That is an interesting thought for human nature!

6. 3-D Printers – Given a skeletal foundation and related cells, we can build organs and parts from scratch via a 3-D printer.

 7. Robots – Ahhh, robots?   Robots of every form and function. Robots wjho can perform every act we associate with humans, except at this point in time, human creative intelligence.  But with artificial intelligence, that day is not far off.  And will we have robotic partners who can care and love us?  We already have erotic robotic partners whose body textures and appearance is approaching reality. “Honey, take out the garbage!”  “By the way, get a new after shave lotion.  “Don’t like that one,” said the robot to her partner.  “My last partner used: _____________.”

8. Chimera – Perhaps the mythological creatures of the past may become a reality as we learn to inter-breed gene pools or to make beings via surgery. What would you choose?  And what will it mean for us? The Island of Dr. ___________.

9. Cloning – Cloning of animals is now commonplace.  Cloning of humans may be illegal, although I am certain I that wealthy individuals have been able to purchase the technology and the are proceeding to “clone” them self in anticipation of “eternal” life.  I am reminded here of the dying words of the British cynic, Oscar Wilde, who is reputedly to have been asked on his death bed:  “Would you like to live your live again?”  He replied.  “No!  Once is enough.”  Are those engaged in cloning asking the best questions?

10. Mechanical Additions – I once told a student that a some point we could have a nano-technology brain implant that would give us immediate access to any question we wanted to answer. A Google or a Library of Congress placed in our skull, and accessed by a thought or process. The student laughed and thought me insane – that was ten years ago.

11. Mass Surveillance, Monitoring, and Collection of All Personal Data (e.g., genetic code, finger prints, corneal identity) – What will it mean to have all of our identity captured, contained, and stored by a government and by private commercial interests?  Every shopping mall has its own security system that stores and shares all information/data about you.  What does this mean for human nature?  Have we become fish in a bowl,   and a crowded bowl at that?  Our privacy is lost!  It can retrieved from the new government storage building in Utah, but only if you give your social security number.

Some Closing Thoughts

This is not a scientific article replete with details and references that support each of the points I have made.  That is not the article’s intent.  I wanted to call attention to the fact that conventional views of human nature we hold are gradually and rapidly becoming obsolete in the face of scientific, technological, and medical developments.  These developments are of such proportion and consequence that they are altering human nature as we one knew it – or thought we knew it?  The changes build on one another, each extending the other and opening new possibilities.  Do we get that?  Should we get that?  Can we talk about that?  “Human is as human does!”     


Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a  member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at marsella@hawaii.edu.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Jan 2014.

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