Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is the Professor of Global Environmental History at the University of London. He’s a distinguished author on the largest scale: the titles of ‘Food: A History’, ‘Civilisations’, and ‘Millennium’ suggest their scope. Here is the thesis of his latest work: “I’m a monkey! Ooh! Ooh! Give me some bananas! See me masturbate in public! You’re a monkey too!”
So You Think You’re Human is an odd book. It shares its central question with the PG Tips adverts: if chimps can brew tea, move pianos, and enter the Tour de France, why do we as humans privilege ourselves so? What does it mean to be human, and can we put together a decent ethical framework for getting through life?
Put like that, it sounds a little heavy. However, the book has some serious pleasures. Fern·ndez-Armesto has the great virtue of knowing an awful lot: he knows a lot of interesting facts, and shows no fear in press-ganging them into an argument. So, we get to find out about the ‘Hottentot Venus’ of 1810, Saartje ‘do the’ Baartmann, and where we can see her pickled sexual organs. We’re told what happened when Darwin’s *Beagle* took up three Polynesians – called Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and York Minster – ‘civilised’ them, then dumped them back in Tierra Del Fuego. We also learn about St Guinefort, who was a dog, and Lord Monboddo’s belief that orang-utans can play the flute. Plus, he tells us about the philosophical thoughts of Wang Ch’ung. (This unfortunately, is the Chinese thinker of the first century A.D., rather than the 80s pop-rock outfit.)
It’s a slim book, so you want more on some of these subjects: you wish he’d hang around on totemism for longer, or dig a bit deeper into the origins of racism, and the pseudo-science which has always surrounded it. There are also some bigger problems. He’s at his worst when he’s putting forward an ethical argument. He gnaws away at the idea of humanity, and human specialness, barking down the claims that tools, or language, or culture separate us from the apes; at the same time he wants to believe in something unique to us, rejecting the potential for machine consciousness, and getting himself in tangles over the spiritual aspect of the mind. Felipe may be in trouble once Our Robot Masters enslave humanity.
He’s just a little too conservative to wrassle with the world of now. Genetic modification, or Turing Tests are subjects that make him look a little slow: there’s clearly a good reason he became a historian. The worst example is when he takes a hard-line anti-abortion position, albeit in a tangle of qualifications about the good intentions of those involved. It amounts to saying “No offence, mothers and doctors – don’t take it personal – but you’re murderers committing a second holocaust.” That’s a shame: there’s a sharp contrast in moving passages where Fern·ndez-Armesto describes Neanderthal burial rituals. You feel persuaded by his moral outrage at the academy’s refusal to accept the worth and meaning of that species’ life.
The cover has a quote from John Gray, who calls it “brilliant”, and it has a lot in common with his Straw Dogs from last year. In both cases, you get a sense of learned gentlemen who potter around their institutions, and spend their lives immersed in a dead world – they read through thousands upon thousands of pages of history, economics, and philosophy. One day, looking up from a volume of Voltaire, they notice that the world is a piece of shit riddled with suffering and injustice. They decide it’s time to act. This action takes the form of writing a slim book that compresses a lot of erudition and thought into a melancholic, aphoristic set of meditations on the nature of humanity.
Fern·ndez-Armesto can’t measure up to Gray here. Straw Dogs is a great, despairing book, a miserable vision of humanity which sees every attempt at making a better world as doomed. Gray argues for us being the most hideously evil creatures imaginable, or rather the only evil creatures possible: a jellyfish can’t betray another jellyfish, and most bison are incapable of creating a hell like Stalin’s Russia. It’s a cruel, right-wing argument, at heart: despairing of human nature, finding us rottenly corrupt, and choosing the company of animals over that of men. It gives up on the potential for change, and for hope. Revolution’s just bloodshed, and democracy is pointless. Pass the razor-blades.
So You think You’re Human? is healthier than Gray’s book, but less of a thrill. It hasn’t reached the hysterical level of despair that makes *Straw Dogs*, if you’re in the right mood, a terrifically funny read. It still wants to find something to believe in, and although it’s silly in places, and offensive in others, it’s a collection of incidents, examples and questions that stands a chance of stirring people to thought or action.