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Homo figurans, not sapiens

Nothing could be more misleading than to taxonomize modern humans by the Latin phrase homo sapiens ‘wise or knowing man’. A more appropriate label would be homo figurans ‘figural or troping man’ because nothing defines the difference between humans and other bipedal primates more essentially than our ability and, more importantly, our propensity to simultaneously say one thing while meaning another. This tropism toward tropes is the differentia specifica of human beings.

If ever one needed further evidence of the quiddity of this existential truth, it was supplied obliquely in an interview heard today on the BBC World Service with a British soldier. Recalling his first meeting with his deceased fiancée, a medical doctor killed in an ambush in Afghanistan, he described her as having “ticked all the boxes” for him. One could, of course, easily fault the soldier for resorting to such an utterly flat and colorless figure of speech to limn what was evidently an emotionally freighted recollection. His mode of expression instantiated nonetheless just that essentially human cognitive capacity which separates us from the other hominidae.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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