Anthropology, in the broadest sense of the term, is concerned with the whole history of mankind: man in the context of evolution. Yet this is a difficult position to take because being concerned with man as he occurs and as he has occurred means that the body and the soul must be taken into consideration together and the differences in man associated with time and location must be investigated. Still, there is a fundamental difference between the work of an anthropologist and that of an anatomist or a psychologist who deal, primarily, with the common functioning of the human mind and body. Accordingly, "Minor differences such as appear in any series of individuals are either disregarded or considered as peculiarities without particular significance for the type, although sometimes suggestive of its rise from lower forms."
To the anthropologist, on the other hand, each individual human must be seen through the lens of its particular cultural and social group. The consequence of this position is that a human being cannot simply be categorized with a blanket definition, but must be regarded on a case by case basis.
It is significant that anthropology is concerned with the human being throughout history, up to the present. This means that anthropology, in its aim to tell the entire story of mankind, must centrally rely upon primary sources in history. Obviously, "History, in the narrower sense of the word, depends on written records."
Certainly history and anthropology must converge at some points, but it is valuable to understand anthropology as something analogous to history; since historians must extract the past from individual sources, the ultimate stories they tell are fundamentally unique to the individual. Anthropology is similar in this way: individual cases are the sources, and of utmost importance is understanding them in their unique situations. Whereas historians must be concerned with the written record to tell their tale, anthropologists must be concerned with human bones, animal bones, as well as human handiwork. Additionally, all of these sources are specific cases of humans and human activities; the human, understood through anthropology, must be a specific human, and not a general subject.
However, there remains a problem with regarding humans on a case by case basis while simultaneously attempting to formulate an overall history of man: where should any story of man begin? In other words, there needs to be some set boundaries between the human being and other animals in order to generate an appropriate account. After all, the geological record tells the same case by case story of all plants and animals, so it is unclear exactly where and why humans should be singled out for discussion.
Essentially, it is important that we define who is a human and who is not. To do this we could use the biologic definition of a species: "a set of individuals who are potentially or actually interbreeding to produce fertile offspring."
This definition leaves the door open for many grey areas in nature: instances where it is impossible to determine whether animals are members of the same species or not. Lions and tigers, for example; when they do interbreed they produce fertile offspring, but it is unclear whether they would interbreed in nature freely. They no-longer coexist in the same habitats -- because of human actions -- so they are not clearly different species. Similarly, you could, based upon the biologic definition of species, claim that an individual born with a genetic defect who is unable to have children is not a homo sapien. Biologically, you might be right; but few people would try to say, then, that we should perform medical experiments upon this individual or that they should not be afforded the same rights as human being in society. It is in this regard that anthropological definitions of human beings must separate themselves from biological the biological definition.
Many people have tried to use our status as moral individuals as the basis for separating ourselves from the animals. Damon Linker, associate editor of First Things magazine, writes, "Western civilization has tended to regard animals as resembling things more than human beings precisely because . . . animals have no perception of morality."
Accordingly, our notions of right and wrong, our capacities as deductive thinkers and, in short, our rationality is what makes us human and grants us rights above other animals. Historically, this has been a powerful motivation for human rights; however, it also is subject to arbitrary consequences. Are we to claim that mentally disabled people should not be granted equal rights because they cannot rationally choose between right and wrong, and therefore, are not human? Once again, we must concede that by this definition they may not be human, but that denying them the rights of society is probably quite immoral. So, designations based upon mental capacity run across the same problems as those based strictly upon biological grounds.
Alfred Korzybski, an early anthropologist, distinguished between the classes of life in an interesting manner: "Since plants captured one kind of energy, converted it into another, and stored it up, he defined the plant class of life as the chemistry-binding class of life. Since animals were characterized by the freedom and faculty to move about in space he defined animals as the space-binding class of life."
So by these two definitions, animals are fairly effectively separated from plants; but the separation between other animals and humans must, fundamentally, rely upon some appeal to a specific characteristic of human beings in order for it to be useful in the field of anthropology.
Many anthropologists have decided that the identity of humans must be determined by their particular capacity to "summarize, digest and appropriate the labors and experiences of our past," and decided that this mental link to our individual pasts must be the basis from which we are able to define each human being as a human being.
This has, to many, placed human beings in the "time-binding class of life."
This is more of a philosophical definition of identity than a purely scientific one, and it is by no means a new distinction. John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding puts forward his analysis of human identity, and it is a similar approach to the issue. Locke's solution to the problem is to connect past and present actions, which are associated with past and present perceptions, with consciousness. Through consciousness it is possible for an individual to perceive what is around him and to perceive that he has already perceived. Consciousness links the human mind to physical actions that the human body has carried out.
Human identity, to Locke, is something different from mere physical identity of man; it "is a thinking and intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places," and is linked to the actions of our physical body through consciousness.
Consciousness allows individuals to consider themselves distinct from other living things, to identify what they have control over and what they do not, and to extend their identity forwards and back as far as their mental capacities allow. Human identity consists of this extension of consciousness. "Person" refers to a man who can take responsibility for his actions and is concerned with the consequences of those actions.
So, although human identity is indelibly linked to bodily identity, they cannot be regarded as the same thing. For the body may have performed a specific action at a specific time, but the retrospective conscious connected to that body may have no recollection of that action. Locke also deconstructs the idea that an immaterial soul could be said to be where personal identity rests. To Locke, these two -- the person and the soul -- are two very different sort of items. Someone could claim to have the same soul as Hector, who fought in the Trojan War, but he could not possibly be concerned with the actions of that man. Since his consciousness is incapable of reaching into his past lives -- though they may exist -- asserting that a modern man and Hector are the same individual person is absurd. The fallacy of equating an immaterial substance and identity is seen in the result that lapses in memory must, necessarily, then be attributed to other identities. "But though the same immaterial substance of soul does not alone, whatever it be, and in whatsoever state, make the same man; yet it is plain, consciousness, as far as ever it can be extended -- should it be to ages past -- unites existences and actions very remote in time into the same person."
Locke's position is an important one for anthropology because it both separates the human being from other animals by calling upon consciousness, and it avoids the "mind-body problem," which has made other lines of reasoning highly questionable. Many anthropologists and bio-ethicists have used the supposed split between the mind and the body to rationalize a definition…