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Stephen Jay Gould on the Essence of Being Human

Nature provides no moral messages for our complex and confusing lives. But this evolutionary argument for construing the “essence” of humanity as the sum total of our variation within the discrete boundaries of our species does provide an important insight into what might be called the biological meaning of human equality. If all living humans form one distinct historical entity, not a set of stages in a continuum leading backward into our evolutionary ancestry, then we cannot order our variation into any ranking of worth based on “higher” or “lower” stages. A person becomes a full human being by genealogical membership within our evolutionarily discrete species, and not by possessing “essential” traits that we may happen to judge as more valuable than others: the strength of Mark McGwire or the brains of Albert Einstein. In this sense, we must regard the birthright of humanity as being truly inalienable in the most literal way. A person born into this biological entity cannot sell his or her membership for a mess of pottage or for all the world’s gold and power. Every human being contributes equally to the full variation that defines our essence. In this sense, the most mentally limited person remains as fully and completely human as McGwire or Einstein. This truly biological view of human essences can only elevate the familiar words of Tiny Tim to more than a saccharine pronouncement at the end of kiddie Christmas specials: “God Bless Us, Every One!”


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