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12 january 2021

The Human volume in the Reaktion Animal series could have paralleled its marvelous companions: cataloguing human biology and evolution, undertaking human ethology from a perspective either aloof or ironic, looking at humans in art, literature, and other media. It could have been coy or matter-of-fact. Instead, Amanda Rees and Charlotte Sleigh have used their 184 generously-illustrated pages to offer a series of provocative essays on what it means to be human – and in the process have assembled a valuable introductory guide to current thought in posthumanism and whatever will be post-posthumanist.

Rees and Sleigh offer chapters on things that humans distinguish themselves from – and sometimes align other humans with, in an attempt to make them less human. They discuss animals, hominins, machines, women, gods, and aliens. "Women" is not a misprint. If the proper study of mankind is man, as a man once said, it has often been a study of how men aren't, and shouldn't be, like women.

Species are sometimes defined by the ability to breed, and many of the boundaries that Rees and Sleigh chart are sexual. Classical mythology is full of stories of people mating with animals or gods, sometimes with gods in the form of animals – a motif so disturbing, the authors note, that Louis of Orléans, in the 18th century, took a knife and slashed up Correggio's painting Leda and the Swan. Bestiality, unsettling even back in the day when Pasiphaë was dating bulls, has become more taboo all the time – even as images of "anthro" sexuality and IRL furry communities have become more open about the pleasures of acknowledging the animal in us.

Paleofiction brims with tales of love between humans and Neanderthals; sexbots express our unease with the all-too-human qualities of automata. And "alien" carries a potent double meaning, as Rees and Sleigh argue in a wide-ranging synthesis: humans agonize over miscegenation and bodily assimilation to terrestrial strangers, but also about being abducted and impregnated by spacemen – the more outlandish fear is symbolic for the more mundane.

Men have even been known to mate with women, though Rees & Sleigh's chapter "She" is the least concerned with sexuality. The authors give a far-reaching overview of female efforts to be recognized as fully human – which seems to be an arc bending toward equality, but not without occasional setbacks. Many women see abortion rights as essential to full female humanity – but Rees and Sleigh acknowledge that abortion rights depend on seeing the fetus as less than human.

Human is an effervescent book that never stays on one idea long, and is all the better for its lightning-quick changes of topic. It covers a wide range of currently-discussed issues and has its own distinct point of view on each one. Ultimately the authors are not taken with the concept "posthuman." They prefer "imhumanism," which "starts from acting as if other beings – including humans – are human" (175). Their humanity resides in them; it is not something they aspire to by transcending some other nature (beast, immigrant, woman).

By invoking imhumanism, the authors hope to avoid a problem with received posthumanism, which ascribes agency to all sorts of other beings but always acts as their interpreter, "returning us to the filter of humanism" (175). Just be mindful of other beings, don't try to think or speak for them, treat them (again, especially treat other humans) unconditionally as possessing the same status you assert for yourself.

This can lead to practical problems. Rees and Sleigh point to the remarkable 2017 decision in New Zealand to write the legal personhood of the Whanganui River into law. Māori people think of the river as a relative, indeed their own ancestor, so the status makes sense. Still, it is hard to think of requiring civic duty from a river, or punishing it if it transgresses. Rees and Sleigh note that we don't think of all humans as equally human, though. We do not require duty or punish misbehavior from children as we do with adults. Maybe we will have to get used to treating rivers in their own unique way as river-humans: not as adult Homo sapiens, but as people, all the same.

I have one pedantic cavil with Human. Rees and Sleigh say that "'Human' comes from the Greek ὁμός, homos, the same." "The term only makes sense when we know what is different," is their point (167), but while it's a suggestive point, the Latin homo for person and the Greek ὁμός for "the same" seem to resemble each other only accidentally, not etymologically.

Rees, Amanda, and Charlotte Sleigh. Human. London: Reaktion, 2020.