There was once upon a time a piece of wood.
Pinocchio was made of wood, but he wanted to be a real boy. Many good-hearted folk (and even a fairy!) tried to help him, but Pinocchio was insolent, derisive, and just plain mean. He laughed as his “father”, Geppetto the wood carver, was marched off to jail.
Pinocchio betrayed his friends, one by one, with his impatient and lazy ways, with his refusal to listen to their sage advice.
Carlo Collodi’s 1883 narrative still resonates (you can easily find copyright-free translations from Italian into English online), telling of a marionette who wants to become a boy of flesh and blood, but is constantly sidetracked by his own impulsiveness. Collodi’s tale offers Pinocchio five quests, plus the one left unsaid – the one into his own soul.
What, after all, is it to be human?
Jack Heath wondered the same thing as a high school student. He jumped down the rabbit hole and wrote a novel titled The Lab, published in 2008 (soon after he graduated). Secret Agent Six Of Hearts is 16 years old and was grown in a vat. As a toddler, he escaped his makers, the evil scientists who work in the place known only as The Lab, and he has spent every moment since in fear of being recaptured.
Six has special abilities, and was eventually adopted by a dissident and welcomed into a secret society – they give each other code names based on playing cards. They live in a dystopian future, a surveillance state gone mad and run by a single corporation. Smog has reduced the average lifespan, although the rich can buy implants to oxygenate their blood and make it into middle age.
Six is a vigilante for the good guys.
He believes he has no feelings. Yet he refuses to kill, for moral reasons.
Each chapter in this book is a mission for Six, each adventure filled with action and danger. (Although filed in Young Adult, high school-age youth will enjoy this book; it was written by one of their own). And Six keeps asking the question: Can an aquarium-grown collection of cells ever become truly human?
Luna asks herself many of these same questions. She is 15, and was born of a test tube. Like Six, she is a trained warrior, a ninja and government-sponsored spy. Amazing Agent Luna Omnibus (with art by Shiei and story by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christine Weir) is filed in the Graphic Novels section of the Lennoxville Library.
Luna is sent out to infiltrate a high school and discover the secrets of an evil tyrant who rules a rogue country. There’s lots of action and adventure.
But Luna has never socialized before with her peers, nor even with regular adults. And she’s a confused teen, with a crush, and difficult moral decisions to make. Along the way, she too, wonders if she can ever be truly human.
A writer for Psychology Today magazine insists that science has no answer to this: “Biologists aren’t equipped to tell us whether an organism is a human organism because ‘human’ is a folk-category rather a scientific one.”
University of New England professor David Livingstone Smith asks us to think of the folk-category “water”. Scientifically, it’s H2O. But any way you look at it, “water” is equal to H2O – and this is true regardless of whether you’re considering water as liquid, as ice, as vapour, even as a philosophical idea.
“But not every folk category is even approximately reducible to a scientific one. Consider the category ‘weed.’ Weeds don’t have any biological properties that distinguish them from non-weeds. In fact, one could know everything there is to know biologically about a plant, but still not know that it is a weed. So, at least in this respect, being human is more like being a weed than it is like being water.”
We make all kinds of decisions about identity that have no basis in science. As any student of history knows, many have been excluded from the category of “human” – blacks during slave-owning times, Jews during World War II. The list goes on. (What about an embryo?)
In short, we know a human when we see one. And obviously, given this part of Livingstone Smith’s argument, we’re not always right.
He calls humans “natural kinds.” (This gets a bit complicated, but bear with me!)
“The best way to wrap one’s mind around the notion of natural kinds is to contrast them with artificial kinds. Airplane pilots are an artificial kind, as are Red Sox fans and residents of New Jersey, because they only exist in virtue of human linguistic and social practices, whereas natural kinds (for example, chemical elements and compounds, microphysical particles, and, more controversially, biological species) exist ‘out there’ in the world. Our concepts of natural are concepts that purport to correspond to the structural-fault-lines of a mind-independent world. …
“Weeds are an artificial kind, because they exist only in virtue of certain linguistic conventions and social practices, but pteridophyta (ferns) are a natural kind because, unlike weeds, their existence is insensitive to our linguistic conventions.…. If ‘human’ means ‘my own natural kind,’ then referring to a being as human boils down to the assertion that the other is a member of the natural kind that the speaker believes herself to be.”
So. How did Pinocchio become a real boy?
“As he slept, he dreamed of his Fairy, beautiful, smiling, and happy, who kissed him and said to him, ‘Bravo, Pinocchio! In reward for your kind heart, I forgive you for all your old mischief. Boys who love and take good care of their parents when they are old and sick, deserve praise even though they may not be held up as models of obedience and good behavior. Keep on doing so well and you will be happy.’
“At that very moment, Pinocchio awoke and opened wide his eyes.
“What was his surprise and his joy when, on looking himself over, he saw that he was no longer a Marionette, but that he had become a real live boy!”
Pinocchio was recognized as human by the fairy. And… he finally saw himself as human.
Which was most important?
– Eleanor Brown, November 21, 2014