What does it mean to be human?
My husband got me started watching this show that he had seen before and liked called Battlestar Galactica. It’s the sequel (made in the 2000s), sort of, to a show of the same name from the 1970-80s. I guess you could categorize it as a sci-fi drama (my bro-in-law says it shares more in common with a drama like Downton Abbey than with most other sci-fi stuff!). Anyway, I deeply disliked it for about a season, but I’m somewhat trusting and my husband is quite persistent and, in the end, he was right. I liked the show. No, I love the show (not as much as I love him…but anyway).
And I love it mostly because of the way the writers and characters dance with and around this question that I guess maybe I am wondering at as well: What does it mean to be human?
Long before the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, the human population on a cluster of colonies on planets in a distant galaxy created robots called Cylons. Eventually the Cylons rebelled against them, war broke out and the Cylons were driven away. Over a period of years, the Cylons evolve and come back to wage war against the humans again. But the trick is that now some of the Cylons actually look human.* But they aren’t human…are they?
So just what is it that makes us human?
Perhaps the deeper question is better articulated this way: What is the source of our personhood and/or value as a person?
Is it enough to just look like a human? For the humans faced with the frightening prospect of humanoid robots, looking like a human is not enough.
Is it our capacity for emotion that sets us apart? Our capacity to give and receive love? Is it our anger? Our desire for justice to prevail? Our longing for meaningful relationship? The desire that draws us toward sexual relationship? The ability to procreate, to participate in creation, making flesh in our flesh, bringing new life into the world? The capacity to feel pain, to suffer grief? The Cylons have all of this capacity, all of this ability.
Is evil a part of being human? In one scene, a Cylon plainly states that murder is what makes humans human. And we do see that the thread of evil, of inflicting harm upon one another, running through the course of our history, almost as far back as we can trace.
Perhaps it is our limitations that make us truly human. Later in the show as you learn more about the evolution of the Cylons into humanoid form, you learn that the humanoid Cylons were “designed to be as human as possible.” One Cylon “model” complains, “I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to – I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to – I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! …I’m a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body!” (from Season 4, “No Exit”)
Or maybe the certainty of death is what makes us human. When a Cylon dies, its consciousness is simply reborn in a new body. In that way, they cannot really die as humans do, stepping through this uncertain doorway, leaving the known of life behind. And so another Cylon model muses, “We…realize[d] that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over… Mortality is the one thing… Well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole.” (from Season 4, “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner”)
Perhaps this seems like useless babble. But here is the thing. What we believe about the true meaning of being human will shape the way we interact with other beings. The belief that the Cylons are “things” and “machines” rather than persons gives the humans license to treat them in absolutely horrific ways. How many times has this happened in our real human history? Far too many. Any time we are able to distance ourselves from “the other,” whether he or she be Jew, black, gay, Muslim, female, whatever, we are leaving room for tremendous abuse of that “other.”
What seems obvious to me as an outsider to the world of Battlestar Galactica may not always be obvious in this real world I live in. But I hope I continue to become more and more aware. That other being is a person just as I am. We are far more similar than different. What does it mean to be human? I don’t know if I can sum it up. But I recognize the personhood, the being human, in my self. And as I live alongside and brush past so many others, may I grow to recognize the being human in each of them as well.
*Okay, so this is a little bit of a spoiler. Sorry about that. But trust me, all of this happens in the first 3 hours of a 4-season show, so there is plenty more left unspoiled.
Although I do highly recommend this show for its beautiful and complex themes, characters and intriguing storyline, it isn’t for everyone. It does contain quite a bit of what I would call graphic (albeit not gratuitous) violence, as well as suspense, action sequences, sex, and alcohol. So do your research. But thanks for humoring me as I reflect on the questions raised through this show.