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Making a human

I recently read Bill Bryson’s book, ‘The Body: A Guide for Occupant’s. The book starts with an intriguing question – how much would it cost to make a human?

Bryson recalls that his teacher at the junior high had suggested that all the elements that make a human body can cost a few dollars. A study by arguably the more authoritative Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, however, estimated the 59 elements constituting the human body to cost under $120,000, in the quantities each of these is needed to make a human body the size of Benedict Cumberbatch. Labour costs and taxes would take the production cost to approximately $250,000. All very interesting discussions, but Bryson does admit that no matter how precisely we arrange these materials, we will not be able to create a human being.

A bit of a disappointment, I know. Fortunately, we have enough human beings currently inhabiting the planet and others are added with reasonable levels of predictability that we do not need to create human beings from these elements – even if it were possible which as Bryson admits, it is clearly not.

The question for us, then, is not whether we create a biological human being since we cannot and we need not. The question is what type of humans we create. And this latter question is one that looks at more of a social process. Society and all the institutions that constitute it, are primarily geared towards one principal goal – manufacturing a certain type of human being. And if we understand societies as factories for producing one type of humans or another, we realise that different societies create different types of humans.

I have often wondered whether a society can distinctly articulate the ideal type of human being it wishes to create. The education system in many societies outlines the type of citizens or individuals it hopes to produce. The focus is often on ethics, on the system of good and evil that is at the foundation of a society.

In Japan, for instance, the focus is on ‘manners before knowledge’. Students are taught to respect each other and animals and nature and compassion and generosity. The Danish system tries to foster pluralism and multiculturalism. The French system of education calls for neutrality and Laicite (secularism).

And these are only a few examples; if one investigates adequately, one can find either explicit statements or implicit indications from the curriculum and pedagogy of the values an education system tries to foster and the type of humans it ideally creates.

And whereas it is easy to understand why the education system would be viewed as the spot that receives most attention for the type of individuals it creates, it hardly is the only place. There is an African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. An individual is created as a combination of influences that extend beyond the home and school. In other words, as I have noted before, it is society that makes a certain type of human. Therefore, if a society is displeased at the type of individuals it continues to churn out, it needs to look at the values that drive the process where these humans are fashioned.

If we could with some level of objectivity examine our own social processes in Pakistan, starting with the family and school and extending into the media and the public sphere in general, we would understand why we are surrounded by a certain type of people. We live in a society that cherishes intolerance, and consequently we make intolerant human beings. We glorify violence and end up producing violent people. We view misogyny as normal and naturally we have misogynistic individuals. We have a certain culture of power, and we unsurprisingly make citizens who whenever they can, undermine rule of law.

It is ironic to me that the type of society we wish to create is quite dissimilar to the type of humans we create. We say that we wish to create a society free of violence, but as noted, we glorify and normalize violence. We want to create a society that is just and does not discriminate, but we teach the humans that make the society that they are different and superior to others. We wish to build a tolerant society through exclusionist extremist narratives.

We have not failed as a society in producing the type of humans that we wish to produce. We just do not realise that we are making exactly the type of individuals that correspond with the values the society cherishes and the processes it has in place to bring it about.

What we need to do when we talk about educational or social reforms is to sit down and draw an outline of the human we need to make. The values that such a human should possess and the moral compass that we give this future person. And we should ponder whether the educational and social system we have in place prefers these values or not. Will all the humans that we make represent the ideal we want to create? No. But at least a vast majority will vary around the ideal we have set for them.

Email: aameraza@gmail.com

Dr Aamer Raza, "Making a human," The News. 2022-01-23.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social reforms , Social processes , Social system , Violence , Extremists , Bill Bryson , Pakistan