Saturday 15 September 2012

Are satyrs human?

The star of the excellent exhibition of bronze sculptures that has just opened at the Royal Academy in London is the truly spectacular Dancing Satyr:

There are other, smaller, early modern satyrs and satyresses too. These reflect the merger of the ideas of the satyr and the faun, in that the legs are distinctively goat-like.

Now suppose that satyrs and satyresses with such distinctive goat-like features really existed. Would we regard them as human?

It is tempting to make the answer depend entirely on genetics. If they were a separate line, with any common ancestor with us being very remote, and if they did not interbreed with human beings, we would be inclined to say no. If, on the other hand, they were born of human beings by a strange mutation, that prevented interbreeding with non-mutated human beings and that was generally passed on to their offspring, we might well say they were human. We would be particularly likely to do so if a few children of satyrs and satyresses did not have the mutation and could merge back into the main line of human beings, interbreed with non-mutated human beings, and have children who did not have the mutation.

Even if we decided to rely solely on genetics, this would not answer every question. Suppose that some satyrs and satyresses had been born of human beings five thousand years ago, and no-one from their line had ever merged back into the main line of human beings. Would we still say that they were human beings? One thing that might hold us back from saying that they were not human, would be the possibility of their having children without the mutation, who could merge back into the main line of human beings.

If, however, that possibility would carry weight, how strong would the possibility need to be? If a remote possibility would carry weight, we might have to say that chimps were human because at some time in the future, they could evolve into alternative versions of homo sapiens sapiens who could merge into the human line. We would probably rule out attaching weight to that possibility in relation to chimps, on the ground that even if it might happen, it would certainly not happen for many thousands of years, whereas with the satyrs and satyresses, we envisage that it might happen at any moment. That is, remoteness in likelihood and undoubted remoteness in time can have different effects on our attitudes.

Alternatively, we could take a view that was not purely genetic. We could say that social interaction mattered too. The more we interacted with satyrs and satyresses, in the same ways that we interact with human beings, both at work and at play, the more likely we would be to regard them as human. But we could not let that become the only criterion. If it did, then those with whom we cannot interact, either because they are inhuman in their conduct or because of their restricted faculties, would not count as human, and that would be quite wrong.

I have repeatedly referred to satyrs and satyresses together. When we see them as male and female, as they are portrayed in some of the sculptures at the exhibition, and not just as male, that makes it much easier to see them as human beings. And so I would, were they to move in next door.

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