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There’s a concept out there that the nearly human is terrifying to us.
We all get that the Other is a thing to be scared of—tigers, llamas, space frogs, cancer, etc—but there is something about that which is nearly human, but not quite, which is just plain terrifying.
Back in the long long ago, 2.5 million years ago (when we had just barely begun being human, also around the time the light depicted in the above photograph caromed out of the stars of the Andromeda galaxy) monkeys gave way for the next big evolutionary thing, what we now call the “protohumans.” Over the following 800,000 years (during which the light pictured above soared across the Andromeda galaxy in our precise direction) apes evolved a few more times, developing species which were similar, but not the same, going through a few stages of “protohumans” before we became what we are today, homo erectus, wo/man who walks erect.
Not every Australopithecus evolved into a Homo habilis, of course, nor did every Homo habilis become a Homo erectus; some were left behind, and some lived side-by-side with their cousins. This resulted in slavery, murder, rape, cohabitation, abuse and eventually genocide; over this period of time we developed a fine-tuned instinct for identifying that which was similar to us, but different.
Fast forward (those beads of light, illustrated above, have crossed the gap between galaxies and now are deep within our own) to the next worthwhile period in human history: the Greeks.
Aristotle theorized that every human comes pre-formed from somewhere inside the man. He believed that the mother was only a vessel; it was the father’s traits which traveled down the hereditary line. Who knew that the Greeks were leaders in the civil rights movement? By the 1600’s this belief developed into the concept that that there actually was a living thing, a microscopic being shaped like a human, existing inside either the mother or the father, and that between fertilization and birth that tiny protohuman grew until it was large enough to emerge into the world.
That tiny human was called a homunculus, and most believed, after the discovery of individual spermatozoa, that there was one inside of every little sperm cell, just waiting quivering with excitement to meet the egg.
The Latin root of homunculus means, literally, “little man,” but it has always had a nasty connotation. By this time, a number of aberrational little monsters had popped up in the collective consciousness. Alchemists wrote that tiny humans could be made from storing human sperm in a horse’s womb for months, and feeding it human blood; creatures like children, but not. It was believed that the mandrake plant came from the ejaculate of hanged men hitting the soil and taking seed. In Goethe’s Faust there is an alchemically created homunculus. These creatures, coming from our genetic material and often even made by human hands, are related to us, and similar to us, but not us.
Homunculus can also mean a midget, and the word carries back to a less accepting time than our own, when such a taxonomical word like that still seemed appropriate for human beings—when midgets and giants were featured in circus acts, inspiring awe and fear; when nuns still beat devilish left-handedness out of students; and phrenologists told the world that according to scientifically-proven fact African Americans were less than human.
It’s the apparition which is nearly human—intelligent, strong, and truculent, like us—but which we don’t quite understand that terrifies us.
All growed up
Frankenstein, Faust and Dracula gave way to The Children of the Corn, zombie mythology, The Exorcist, The Grudge, Twin Peaks, John Carpenter’s The Thing, etc—stories of nearly-humans threatening human life and civilization. The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are a great example too, as are serial-killer movies like Silence of the Lambs and The Shining: fearful because of what inhuman things might come out of our number, or even from within our own hearts and minds.
In recent years, the concept of the Uncanny Valley—hearkening in its title back to the Freudian concept of that which is familiar and yet foreign (terrifying, in an uncanny way)—in animation and robotics.
If you haven’t encountered this concept before, it points out that the more human a representation actually looks, the more endearing it is, until it hits a very weird point where it is nearly precisely human, but is missing only one or two traits—traits which our eyes have long been well-trained to notice. The concept was developed by roboticists to explain why some of their attempts to create human-looking robots were repulsive and disturbing, on an instinctual, difficult to avoid level.
It turns out that though somewhere in our minds we want to invite the near-humans to join our tribe, we have evolved a keen sense of contrast. We can tell when a human’s skin is just a bit too stiff or their lips don’t move correctly or their eyes are too glassy. In an intimate friend, we can tell if they’ve begun to limp a bit, or if their voice is scratchy, or if they’ve started sleeping with someone else.
Monsters under glass
The concept of the homunculus, the little human, though fearful, is one which is used to expand our understanding of ourselves. A homunculus can also refer to any scale model of the human body, especially when it is used to make a medical or psychological illustration. So your barbie dolls were homunculi, as were your G.I. Joes and your Mighty Morphin Power Rangers action figures. But look closely at these cortical homunculi:
Informative, clever, and disturbing. Homunculus is also the name of these cute little guys, invented to illustrate, on a small scale, some basic points about human nature.
When we, for the sake of art or theater or a story, create a character, we necessarily must truncate the complex span of human nature in order to make our point. Whether it’s Oedipus’ pride, or Holmes’ genius, or Gaius Baltar’s sense of self-preservation, the artist has to pare away many other parts of the personality in order to portray one that reads on stage or makes sense in a story. Just as the creators of the Homunculus video above very literally created smaller humans to explore our base instincts, the writer or artist is unable to look at the whole human at once, and must invent a semiperson to explode under the lenses of art and science.
The light which left the Andromeda galaxy, the cluster of light farthest away from Earth in space that humans can see with our naked eyes, 2.5 million years ago, is only just bouncing off of our planet, and human eyes, today. It spent two and a half million years, the entire course of our species’ lifespan, traveling in one direction, and in an unlikely but ineluctable course of events ended up here.
Despite all of that time passing, we’re still afraid of our ancestors, the Homo habilis and Australopithecus, for the humbling reason that they look and act very similar to us.