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Children of the Damned

Approaches to the Definition of Humanity

In 1951 a popular science fiction writer using the pen name John Wyndham published a book called The Midwich Cuckoos. Nine years later a film based on his book was made in England for a small budget. The film, Village of the Damned, was to become a sci-fi cult classic. Its sequel, Children of the Damned, released in 1963, is somewhat inferior in cinematic terms, but met with equal success. Both films touched a subliminal key in the collective psyche of the time, and the message they sent resonates strongly to this day.

Secret Fears

Village of the Damned is a chilling tale of extra-human intrusion in a small town in America (although the film was made in England). The drama is intensified by the modest scale of events and the familiarity of the setting. In the opening scene the entire populace of several hundred souls gathers for a civic celebration, complete with home-cooked food and local entertainment. Suddenly an odd, drilling sound hits everyone at once. They sprawl to the ground, unconscious. Three hours later everyone revives and looks around, dazed and baffled to have lost time. No one seems hurt by the blackout, but a couple of people have been killed in mishaps due to what they were doing (for example, driving a car) at the moment of the mysterious stupefaction.

Nine months later a dozen or so children are born to women in the village. From their first moments in the crib, the infants demontrate extraordinary powers. They read the minds of adults and control them by telepathic commands. As they grow to the age of walking and speaking, these alarming abilities increase. They exhibit an extraordinary capacity for rapid learning and retention of information, although they are evidently lacking in certain emotional responses typical of the human species. Their most frightening skill is to project a burning glance that causes the targeted individual to go insane and commit suicide. Black-and-white images of the Children of the Damned with eyes glowing like pale green lasers became iconic at the time the films were released.

Both films on the Damned theme exploit deep-seated fears that parents hold toward their children, fears that are psychologically denied and kept under tight social taboo. Evidence of such fears can be traced back into the depths of the collective psyche through myth and folklore. Children who rise up and slay their parents are stock items in the "generations of Gods" found in Greek mythology: Ouranos the celestial Father God is slain by his son, Chronos, and Chronos is turn is overthrown by his son, Zeus. The cycle of familial homocide in Greek myth was carried over into the tragic dramaturgy of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Oedipus, who kills his own father, becomes (largely through Freud) the model of the modern self in conflict with the "family romance" from which the self draws its identity.

The notion of the demonic child is a common theme in worldwide folklore. Often the child is a "changeling," a "fairy child" who has been substituted for a real human infant. The Children of the Damned are human progeny but they have been altered (so we gradually surmise as the film unfolds) by some "alien" force, a force whose origins and aims are never fully specified in the film. This is a clever variation on the changeling theme. The fear implied here is that humanity may be capable of serving as the instrument of powers that are not human; i.e., extraterrestrial. Or to put it otherwise: that human beings may disguise non-human entities. Hence the theme of substitution.

In Village of the Damned, the act of substitution is confined to the small town setting, but other sci-fi classics of the same era propose a sinister program of global substitution. The most famous is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1955. It exploits the notion that the entire human race can be replicated by alien technology. Here aliens take over the population of the earth by growing human doubles from gooey pods. This tactic is horrific because it requires eliminating the original version of the pod-person. In Invasion of the body Snatchers, substitution equates to planet-wide genocide. Total elimination of the human species is achieved by the replacement of each real, thinking-feeling person by an emotionally inert replica obedient to a hive mentality.

The Damned films qualify as psychological thrillers, contrasted to the horror genre exemplified by Invasion, because in the former there is a struggle to maintain the human spirit against alien influences, whereas in the latter the struggle is to save humanity from outright physical elimination. The Children of the Damned are human progeny, born of normal mothers, yet they represent a deviation from what is normal for the human species. In this respect, the Damned films present an excellent occasion for exploring the question: What defines being human?

The Race Card

The term homo sapiens was devised by Swedish botanist Karl von Linne (Linneaus) between 1737 and 1753. It belongs to a system of naming (a taxonomy) applicable to all life-forms, conceived in a set of eight grades. Defined in the full array of terms, human beings belong to (1) Kingdom of Animals, (2) the Phylum of Chordata, (3) the Class of Mammalia (including blue whales, the largest creatures that now live, and ever lived, on earth), (4) the Order of Primates (including our close evolutionary cousins, apes and chimipanzees), (5) the Superfamily of Hominids (exhibiting exclusively human traits), the (6) Family of Hominidae, (7) the Genus homo and (8) the Species sapiens.

Linneaus chose the term sapiens to denote the special kind of intelligence uniquely possessed by the human race. He did not, however, indicate in precise and concrete terms what constitutes this intelligence; and on one since his time has done so, either. It happens, then, that the human race is labelled by scientific nomenclature that has never been adequately or comprehensively defined. (In the Lexicon, I attempt to address this problem by the thread running through a group of definitions. See abo sapiens, learning, sapience, primitive, and related terms.)

In the above paragraph I use the term "human race" as if equating it with the species defined in scientific terms as homo sapiens. But "race" is a problematic word, to say the least. Is the human species a single, unified race, or is it a species that consists of races? While "human race" is routinely used to refer to the entire species, the term "race" is more often used to make distinctions within the species. Although "race" is not a scientifically correct term, this is the widely accepted facon de parler, a manner of speaking. Defined by Genus and Species, homo sapiens is an evolutionary type that breaks down into races, sub-sets of the one species. (Sometimes we must preserve semantic usage to get through a discussion that can lead beyond the semantic limits imposed by that usage.)

Historians speak routinely of Oriental races, Negroid races, and so on. The old habit of designating races by colors reinforces the assumption that homo sapiens is a Species divided into various races, rather than a single and inclusive race. Something more than quibbling over terms is involved here, for the manner of speaking is massively applied: the vast majority of people in the world define themselves first by race, and then perhaps by vague reference to the human species as a whole. To be Chinese, Armenian, Navajo, Jewish or Portuguese is a primary fact of identity, for people in general do not relate in a primary way to being a member of the human species. No language in common use reflects such a way of relating. Appeals to "our common humanity" are not effective, and the reason why not will become evident as we proceed.

Primitive Empathy

I say "people in general" do not express a primary sense of being human, but there are notable exceptions. In his pathbreaking book, In Search for the Primitive (1974), anthropologist Stanley Diamond argues that "primitive" is the crucial term in our quest to understand what it means to call ourselves human. He notes that so-called primitive peoples (the politically correct term being "indigenous") frequently call themselves by a term that denotes being human in a non-racial, non-specific sense. In his comments on Daimond’s work, Derrick Jensen observes that "many indigenous cultures refer to themselves as the people," and wonders if that implies "that everyone else is not the people." (C 197) Putting the question to an interlocuter (Richard Drinnon), Jensen received this response:

The name strikes you and me as xenohobic since a cardinal principle of our Western civilization has been what one anthropologist calls ‘the negation of the other.’ By contrast, tribal cultures affirmed ‘the other who affirms you’ and this principle of affirmation always carried with it the possibility of extending the people outward, beyond family and clan and tribe to all other beings and things in a universal embrace that would reflect the very antithesis of xenophobia.
(Ibid.)

In other words, by calling themselves "the people," indigenous tribes do not intend an exclusional meaning that makes everyone outside their identified group into non-people. Diamond says that by calling themselves the people, indigenous tribes were expressing "recognition of their uniqueness in a state of nature" and "the understanding of commonality in nature." (155) A stranger who arrives is not automatically excluded from the definition of the people, an exclusion that would amount to "the latter’s nonexistence as a human being." The stranger only lacks social status according to the local and specific habits of the people he or she encounters. The sense of being "the people" allows for social (i.e., local, tribal and ritual) distinctions, but does not induce hostility to those whose status may be socially undetermined. Contrary to caveman movies and evangelical hype, "savages" more often than not "prided themselves on being hospitable to strangers." (Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, cited by Diamond.) This is certainly the case for the "savages" of the New World who, with a few exceptions, received the explorers from Europe with exemplary amity and astonishing generosity.

The reflections of Jensen, Diamond and Drinnon confirm the extensive testimony of anthropologists on the self-naming of indigenous peoples:

The Mohawk, Hopi, Navajo, Miwok, Blood and other peoples have, within their own languages, names that distinguish them from others. Generally these words can be translated into English along the lines of ‘the people,’ ‘the true people,’ ‘real people,’ ‘the two-legged creatures,’ or ‘the people who live in this place.’
(Peat, 19)

The Zuni of the American southwest call themselves A shivi, "the flesh," "Zuni" being a Spanish corruption of this word. Is this their way of expressing a sense of identity that is "generically" human? Certainly, there is no indication that they and other indigenous groups who follow the same mode of self-naming would deny humanity to other tribal groups. Tribal identity is place-oriented and particular to inherited rites and customs, but the identity so defined stands against the background of a universal feeling, a generic sense of humanity. Primitive self-naming indicates empathy for the human species in its entirely, but it also suggests that identification with the species is the primary requisite for such empathy. As such, primitive empathy is the exact opposite of (and perhaps the antidote to) the race card. It is also worth noting that those indigeous people who name themselves in this way invariably display an attitude that embraces all non-human creatures as part of a single, inter-dependent community.

It appears that indigenous people may have an edge over modern, civilized people in grounding their identity in what I will henceforth call a generic sense of being human. In racial self-naming, the race you belong to defines your identity as a human being but excludes the more direct identification with humanity exemplified in primitive empathy. Ideally, "homo sapiens" ought to indicate the generic sense, but it does not because the definition of sapience has not been supplied. Consequently, the race card always trumps the generic sense. (This may go a ways to explain why racist, imperialistic cultures can and do overrun and decimate peoples whose identity is grounded in a generic humanness.) People stubbornly insist that they are British or Bolivian or whatever, before they give a thought to being human. The connotations of racial self-naming are dense and complex: attachment to tradition, beliefs, dietary and dress codes, familial lineages, heroic and symbolic figures, ties to blood and land, etc. All these factors congeal into a complex that easily overwhelms the generic sense of being human.

Semantic Double-Bind

The difficulty of achieving a generic sense of humanity consists only in part in the lack of clear standards or criteria for defining homo sapiens. It also consists in the deceptive twist peculiar to the operative term, "humanity." This word poses a difficulty that recalls the mind-bending effect of the word "Jew." A Jew is someone who belongs to a race, the Jewish or Hebrew or Semitic race. Merely to propose this definition is to play the race card, but Jew also denotes a religion, the belief-system of the ancient Hebrews that has been preserved for centuries by people of Jewish descent. To be a Jew means, confusingly, to belong to a race and to subscribe to a religion. Why is this confusing? Because common usage suggests that membership in a race is not something anyone can control: it is given in one’s biological and hereditary makeup. Belonging to a religion is, presumably, a matter of choice. Even though the vast majority of adherents to the six world-scale religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism) do not choose these religions, they are theoretically free to choose them or to reject them, if they wish to do so. Your belief-system is (or ideally may be) optional, your biology certainly is not. Yet "Jew" denotes an identity that includes both racial determination and religious persuasion as simultaneously given, interrelated factors.

(NOTE: I am well aware of the objection that could be raised here: namely, to be born a Jew, biologically, is not necessarily to practice Jewish religion. Many people of Jewish descent do not practice Judaism or hold stock in the traditional beliefs of the ancient Hebrews. Clearly, someone born a Jew does not automatically subscribe to Jewish religion but must embrace and practice it by choice, or by default, the lack of choosing otherwise. In the strict sense, this is true, of course. But it does not invalidate the argument I am developing about the confusing connotations of the word "Jew".)

Like "Jew," the term "humanity" refers to two things at once, and yet these two things do not automatically belong together. The term confounds two different senses. In the first sense, humanity is the common term used by members of the human species for self-naming in a collective or universal manner. It is the term in use to affirm that we belong to the species, sapiens, and the genus, homo. Humanity = homo sapiens = the human species = the "human race" in the generic sense. This equation is standard and consistent with the routine use of the term "humanity" in the biological and evolutionary sense.

But something else is denoted by the term "humanity." It means a lot more than biological identity, defined according to the taxonomy of Linneaus. It also indicates a unique quality, or set of qualities, that we believe distinguish us from other animals. To "show humanity" does not mean to flash a copper badge with HOMO SAPIENS engraved on it. It means to express and demonstrate certain traits, such as compassion and caring, fairness, or the concern for equality and justice. Humanity is a set of moral qualities possessed by humanity and only by humanity, by the human species. To combine the two senses: humanity in the biological sense is the Species that displays humanity in the moral sense. The circularity of the definition should be a warning that something in it has not been adequately specified. A semantic double-bind fuses biological and moral-ethical factors in the same word. Our definition of humanity contains a perplexing twist because it assumes what is to be demonstrated: QED, quod erat demonstratum. And what in this case is the QED, that which is to be demonstrated, or proven? What is to be proven is: how the biological Species, homo sapiens, can be uniquely and exclusively endowed with the moral and ethical qualities attributed to humanity.

To simplify this conundrum, I propose a change of terminology. Let’s call the ensemble of moral qualities that singles out humanity as such by the Latin term inherited by Renaissance humanism from Pagan philosophy: humanitas. In routine use, humanity is a term applied both to our species-specific biological makeup and to our presumed ethical endowment. The problem with the double connotation is that it makes us assume that the biological component somehow supports or produces the ethical component — an assumption that may be gravely misleading. On the face of it, it is doubtful that the fact that we are biologically human will insure that we act ethically, in a just and caring way, as humanity is presumed able to act. In fact, the history of our species demonstrates a pattern of behaviour markedly biassed to the contrary. For a hige period of time, perhaps since around 4000 BCE, the human species (or a dominant portion of it) has consistently and persistently acted in ways that are inhumane, i.e., harmful and inethical, if not downright murderous and insane. If humanity has humanitas, a special endowment to act in a fair-minded and caring way, it has consistently betrayed its own nature.

Belief in Humanity

Humanitas is what distinguishes the human species as human in the moral sense. As members of the Species, we can each be said to show humanitas when we act in a caring and conscientious way, an ethical way, a humane way. This last word is a helpful addition to our discussion at this point. Everything the human species does is human, by definition, but not everything it does is humane. It is widely argued (and it is likely to be true, I reckon) that in the 20th century humanity exhibited a massive display of inhumane behavior, previously unprecedented in scale and intensity. The evidence of experience seems to be saying that humanitas is an option, but not the dominant option, in human behavior. To refine the question: it could be argued that humanitas is the dominant option in human behavior, but not the dominant expression of behavior in whole societies. I shall have to reserve discussion of this nuance for another essay.

Here let’s assume that humanitas can be defined by certain behavioral traits. Neither Linnaeus nor anyone else has named the specific marks of homo sapiens that would define humanity, but this is not exactly so. Evolutionary science defines homo sapiens by specific features such as upright posture, bipedal motion, the opposable thumb, the capacity for communication through linguistic and symbolic systems, and most importantly, a three-stage brain that allows for feats of abstract thinking to an extent not evident in other species. These are marks of the species in biological terms. Defining humanity in ethical terms is another matter. It presents a wholly different kind of challenge. Here is where the notion of humanitas comes decisively into play.

And here, also, is where belief in humanity comes into play. The biological features of homo sapiens are not a matter of belief: they are evidential and can be detected consistently in the behavior of the species over time and through all manner of cultural and racial variations. The marks of humanitas are of a different order. They must be defined, not along biological and anthropological lines, but according to human convictions. The marks of humanitas are conceived according to whatever one believes is essential to being human. It is an act of faith even to believe that humanity, the biological species, can display humanitas in some unique and exclusive manner.

Belief in the humane marks of the human species is commonly divided into two distinct views: the radical view expressed in the belief that humanity possesses unique and exclusive moral traits, and the relativist view expressed in the belief that humanity shares moral traits with other species. The radical version of belief in humanitas is closely aligned to religion and especially to fundamentalist religious doctrines. It requires a high level of belief — of "faith" -- to adhere to this view, but the view is prevalent in human affairs because the assumption that the human species is good and intelligent, or "blessed" with special traits and capacities, in ways that other species are not, possesses an atavistic appeal to human egotism. In short, it proposes the moral superiority of homo sapiens. According to this view, the human species alone is made in "the image of the Creator." Despite our notorious violations of human rights, we enjoy the status of "most favored species." As such, we are endowed by the Creator with both the power and the right to dominate and exploit all other species.

This blatant appeal to human megalomania is invariably linked to a religious narrative in which the creator god dictates the laws of human behavior; e.g., the Ten Commandments. The humanitas of the species is insured by following the prescribed moral commandments coming from above, from beyond the human realm. Behavioral desiderata are assigned to the human species by dictation, as the species is not believed to be endowed with these moral imperatives. Humanitas is not given in the innate potential of the species, so it has to be inculcated from without. Fundamentalist belief-systems assume that humanity is sinful by nature and needs to follow the commandments of God to act in a way that is truly human and humane.

By contrast, the relativist view of what constitutes humanitas is aligned to a belief in the kinship of all species. Those who hold this view see in the human species, biologically, just another variant among the myriad animal creatures inhabiting the earth. The behavioral ensemble that might uniquely be attributed to homo sapiens — consisting of fairness, caring, conscience, even forgiveness — is widely demonstrated in other animals and cannot be assigned exclusively to humanity, nor can it be taken as the unique signature of human superiority. There is plenty of direct evidence to support this view in the behaviour of animals, birds and insects, and so it demands a lesser degree of pure belief (i.e., credence without rational or evidential support).

Although the human species may be biologically distinct in certain ways, "man" is not morally distinct from other animals in kind, but only in degree. Nor can communication skills be viewed as the distinctive factor for humanitas. All manner of creatures, from microscopic amoebae to enormous whales, communicate, and in some rather marvellous ways. Many non-human species have systems of communication superior to those of human beings: for instance, flocks of migrating birds collectively use the magnetic field of the earth in ways that still challenge scientific understanding. Photosynthesis is an act of communication (information exchange) between plants and the atmosphere that cannot be duplicated by human science.

Although language and social organization are brought to a high level of complexity in the human species, all the rudiments of social exchange are present in the animal kingdoms, and some animals possess systems of communication that rival our own. Moreover, no animal species engages in full-scale warfare on its own kind, or other kinds. No animal species engages in the equivalent of slavery or economic exploitation of its fellows. In the relativist view, humanitas is denoted by a set of behavioral traits that we, the human species, demonstrate in a particular way, with special nuances and vast extension, but not in any way that would allow us to claim unique possession of those traits.

Neither view, the radical or the relativist, presents a definition of humanitas through which we can understand what makes the human truly human. This is the QED, what is to be demonstrated. Where can we look for such a demonstration?

Mutant Morality

Let’s consider again the Children of the Damned, this time with the possibility in mind of mirroring ourselves in the mutant progeny of the sci-fi narrative.

The Children are of human biological origin, yet they exhibit certain alarming traits of behavior, capacities that may be due to meddling by alien powers. In fact, this theme is nothing new. The notion that the human species has been mysteriously altered by a more highly evolved species ( i.e., alien or extraterrestrial entities) is one of the oldest motifs in world mythology. Clay tablets from Assyria and Babylon, dated to 1600 BCE, record legends carried down from the Sumerian culture of an even earlier time. According to the interpretation of Zecharia Sitchin and others, the tablets contain textual evidence of how the Annunaki, god-like visitors from outer space, grafted their genes upon the indigenous human population, called "blackheads." The result is the lulu, "servant," so-called because the motive of the gods in genetically upgrading the human species was to produce a slave race to serve them by menial labor.

According to Joseph Campbell, the notion that humanity is enslaved to the will of the Creator is particular to Levantine mythology: i.e., the lore of the Middle East, including Palestine. The slave motif is incorporated into Judeo-Christian religion, although the idea is often softened by the interpretation that humanity is intended to be the "caretaker" in the world provided by the Creator God. The message carried in this mythological complex is ambigous because the slave-status involves crossbreeding with a super-evolved or god-like species. Hence we are children of the Gods, engineered genetically in accord with the divine image, yet we are damned to live out the inferior role of slaves. (As I write these words, French geneticist Brigitte Boissellier is in nearby Brussels to represent the Raelian movement, a UFO cult founded on the belief that the Elohim of the Old Testament were Extraterrestrials who genetically seeded the human race on earth. The Raelians claim to have achieved the first feat of human cloning.)

Genetic modification of the human species does not, apparently, support humanitas. It seems rather to produce a different set of traits (or capacities), what might be called the marks of mutant morality. These are evident in the behavior and attitude of the Children, and they are also evident in human behavior as we ordinarily know it and exhibit it. Consider each of the factors in "mutant morality" and note how we, the human species, clearly exhibit these mutated traits, perhaps even more strongly and consistently than we exhibit the much-touted humane marks of humanitas:

Superlearning. The Children learn with astonishing ease and they absorb vast amounts of information rapidly. Due to our forebrain circuits, we also learn in ways that extend beyond the instinctual programming of other species. Compared to other animals, we are indeed superlearners, especially in two features: our capacity to embrace novelty, and our capacity to absorb and store vast amounts of information. Since the dawn of the Electronic Age, wehave been pushing these capacities to another level by inventing devices called computer that mimic our learning and information-processing capacities — and, seemingly, surpass them. On the intellectual level, we exhibit the mutant traits of the Children to an extreme degree.

Telepathy, mind control. Although person-to-person acts of mind-reading are rare, mass-mind control and telepathic programming through the media is the norm for the human species and has been since Marconi tuned the first radio. Advertising is mind control that uses telepathic methods. The news media and the entertainment media alike are instruments of telepathic suggestion and control. Like the Children, we are deep into the games of behavior modification, so deep that it is impossible to tell those who are controlling behavior from those who are being controlled. The Children in the films control their environment with Nazi-like efficiency, but they are also controlled by the alien mind-set for which they are instrumental adjuncts.

The power to induce insanity, carried to the point of provoking suicide. This is the most terrifying power exhibited by the Children. It is also a power routinely exhibited by the human species, both in individual cases and on the mass scale. Anyone who have ever been close to another human being in domestic and familial complicity knows the fear of being driven insane by this proximity and the demands it carries. In the behavioral syndrome called "codependency," people routinely adopt insane behaviour as a way of adapting to each other. Human contact may produce insanity unless strong antidotes (contact with pet animals, escape to nature) are applied. We are uniquely the species that commits suicide (with the exception of lemmings), and whose members drive others to kill themselves. In any given year, in civilized societies all around the world, an impressive number of people kill themselves. In the few remaining indigenous societies, like those found in the Amazon Basin, native people contronted with the option to become civilized are killing themselves at an unprecedented rate. Suicide appears in indigenous societies where it was practically unknown before contact with colonialist settlers and corporate agents. Indigenous peoples like the Native Americans were widely reported as saying that the European settlers who came and decimated them looked and acted insane. The white man is known for his lies, and lying is known to be an effective way to drive people to insanity. The Children of the Damned have nothing over us on this account.

Lack of emotional affect. The zombie-like emotionlessness of the Children can be observed on any shopping day in any shopping mall anywhere in the world, or on the streets of any big city such as London. It is now widely understood that the lack of affect in children and adults is due to overstimulation by the media. Apparently a positive feedback loop operates here: the more stimulation applied, the more stimulation it takes to raise a response. Affect-block has been a standing joke in therapy circles for over half a century. (The man in the shrink’s office looks down blankly at the crocodile biting his leg. The caption says: "Golly, Doctor, it’s really a miracle. I can feel again.") The lack of affect in the Children is merely a parody of its human counterpart. If the Children are mutated by an alien influence, humanity has been mutated by alienation from itself and from the root of its own feeling-nature.

Regimentation, hive mentality. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution almost three hundred years ago, human populations have become intensely concentrated in urban areas and the pattern is still increasing at a geometric rate. News, entertainment and advertising all foster and enforce a hive mentality in which everyone wants what everyone else wants (this syndrome has been named "mimetic desire" by anthropologist Rene Girard). Under the illusion of complete individual freedom, people are driven into mindless rote and behavioral regimentation. The hive mentality is exhibited in countless ways. One notable example: the use of cell-phones by everyone from the age of eight to eighty, the frantic exchange of "text messages" and, with the next generation of mobile phone technology, snapshots sent and received by the handset, etc. Of course, the Children rely on telepathy without electronic gear to support it. This will apply for humanity as well, as soon as the technocrats work out how to wire everyone into the system with cybernetic implants and computer networks that operate on circuits printed in carbon (the stardust of which human flesh is made) rather than in silicon (presumably the flesh of alien bodies).

The lethal glaring eyes. Like the stare of the Children, the human gaze may in some bizarre and extreme manner be fatal to what it beholds. This is a frightening prospect, but the evidence is ample that almost everything subject to human attention is also a target for human consumption. Land, water, air — as soon as it is seen, surveyed, measured, it is ready to be consumed and exploited. This trait in homo sapiens, so aptly symbolized by the lethal gaze of the Children, may belie the inability of our species to set limits for itself. Eyes that do not recognize the natural boundaries of things and processes are certainly "alien" eyes, because all other creatures in the natural habitat do recognize and observe the given boundaries that Sacred Nature has so carefully and variously inscribed. The pale green laser eyes of the Children may indeed be a haunting reflection of the unique capacity of human being to exceed their limits and destroy their own life-giving habitat.

We are the Children of the Damned. In modern times the human species exhibits traits of a mutated behavior more clearly and consistently that it exhibits the behavioral ensemble that might define humanitas. Children of the Damned presents a frightening reflection of the human condition, but the story has a happy ending. Well, sort of.

The Sequel to Our Story

The female protagonist in Village of the Damned is the teacher in the small town elementary school. Her son is one of the mutants. As a mother and a woman dedicated to educating youngsters, she is especially attentive to the behavior of the Children. She notices that her son displays some traits of kindness and caring, although only in a fleeting way. In one instance, he relents and shows humane concern while the rest of the Children stay cruelly bent on doing harm. A conflict arises with the man who presents the "love interest" for the teacher, for he is convinced that the mutants cannot be converted to humane behavior and so must be destroyed. At the end of the film, the man destroys himself and the classroom of mutants, but the woman escapes with her son. The last scene shows them driving away from the town in her car.

Crucial is the mother’s role as a teacher. Upon glimpsing some evidence of humane concern in her son, she discerns a paramount possibility: humanity can be taught to the Children. This plot-factor in the sci-fi narrative redeems it from total horror and leaves the story-line open for a sequel. It also suggests what might be the sequal of our story, the human adventure recorded in history extending over some six thousands years.

The sequel for us might consist in this: upon waking up in the 21st century we discover that we exhibit the mutated behavior on a mass scale. We are shocked into the realization that humanitas is not only achievable, but must be achieved, if our species is to survive.

If this is the prospective moral of the sc-fi story, it is a pretty good one, a sober and inspiring one. How the moral might be applied depends on the belief of the woman protagonist that humanity can be taught. I would propose that these four words present the basis for a definition of humanity that we have not so far formualted, either in radical or relativist terms.

"Humanity can be taught" is a trick phrase that includes both the biological and the moral aspects of the word "humanity," but does not confound them. These four words can be read in two distinct ways. In the first way, the phrase asserts that the biological species, homo sapiens, can be taught. Hence humanitas consists, at the biological level, in the teachability of our species, its unique capacity to learn. In the second way, the phrase indicates what the species can be taught: how to act in a humane manner. To expand the phrase to its full significance: homo sapiens is the species that can be taught humanity. This might serve for the definition of humanity strictly and exclusively on human terms. What makes us homo sapiens in the moral sense, and what defines humane behavior, is the ability to teach and learn humanitas. The endowment that distinguishes the human species is not an innate potential to behave morally, but a potential to learn moral (i.e., sane, kind, wise, self-regulated) behavior.

There is an ethos peculiar to our species, but is not given potentially in our genetic makeup: only the capacity to formulate the ethos and transmit it through teaching is given. This is a crucial distinction and a most liberating one. Why? Because it gets us off the hook of the old dilemma about whether or not "human nature" is innately disposed to good behavior. To assert that humanity can be taught to act for the good does not require that we believe in innate goodness, or disbelieve in it, either. If acting for the good can be learned, it does not have to reside in us as an inborn capacity as such, but in the capacity to learn. This is the crucial and capital distinction.

So we, the human species, are damned (prone to deviation) and we are exceptionally gifted, because we can learn from our deviation and find the true course of evolution for our species.

The definition of humanity I am here proposing does not confine us exclusively to learning from, or because of, our deviation. In the broad sense, humanitas is the capacity to teach and learn over a wide and ever-changing range of experiences. It does seem, however, that we have an exceptional opportunity to learn humanitas from the ways we can deviate from it. If the deviations do not go unnoticed and uncorrected, that is.

One of the key principles of Gnostic philosophy was self-correction. This principle applies beautifully to the situation facing us, the Children of the Damned.

jll: January 2003

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.