Our Shared Humanity: What Is It and How Can We See It?
Photo credit: NASA
When scientists completed the Human Genome Project almost two decades ago, they found that at the base-pair level — the building blocks of DNA — all human beings are 99.9% identical. A lot of variation resides in that 0.1%, but the level of similarity is astounding. Around the same time, a group of statisticians created a model showing that all people living today share common ancestors. The starting point in our species-wide family tree dates back at least a few thousand years. It’s also true, as physicist Brian Greene put it in a recent On Being interview, that humans “are nothing but collections of particles that are fully governed by the laws of physics.” People are much more than that, of course, which Greene believes too. The point is, scientifically speaking, human beings have a lot in common. When it comes to describing our shared humanity, however, people rarely reach for a genomics study or hold up their opposable thumbs. There’s something more transcendent in the idea. But what exactly? Because one of Einhorn Collaborative’s goals is to “help people rediscover our shared humanity,” it felt fruitful to double-click on the concept. In doing so, I also wanted to highlight practical, research-backed ways each of us can cultivate that rediscovery in our everyday lives.
Varied visions of shared humanity
Artists, spiritual leaders, philosophers, politicians, my Headspace meditation app — lots of wise voices invoke the idea of shared humanity. One prevailing theme is that people not only have common experiences and emotions, but also innate qualities. Most major religions, for example, believe there’s a thing called a soul; an intangible essence that makes each of us human. “At the deepest center of each person there is what we call, metaphorically, the heart and soul,” writes David Brooks in The Second Mountain. “The soul is the piece of us that gives each person infinite dignity and worth.” It’s the notion that every individual — regardless of identity, beliefs, skill, standing, or otherwise – is sacred. In exploring the question through the lens of equality, philosopher Jeremy Waldron isn’t persuaded that there is some “small polished unitary soul-like substance” all people possess. In his book, One Another’s Equals, he argues that deep equality resides in our human capacities for reason, autonomy, moral agency, and love. Political philosopher Danielle Allen makes a related point that “human moral equality flows from the human need to be the author of one’s own life.” People are purpose-driven, and we want to pursue happiness on our own terms. The individual choices, tastes, and beliefs, the unique human stories that unfold; that particularity is also part of our humanity.
The idea of dignity anchors another take on shared humanity. Scholar Donna Hicks, an expert on the subject, defines dignity as our inherent value — or what makes each of us invaluable. “Our shared desire for dignity transcends all of our differences,” she writes, “putting our common human identity above all else.” Hicks sees dignity as something every person is born with and deserves, not something that needs to be earned, like respect. Dignity is also easily violated by indignities that come in many forms. Another facet of shared humanity could be described as the interplay between capacities and yearnings. In his book, Sapiens, scholar Yuval Noah Harari argues that what makes humans special is our penchant to create and believe in stories coupled with our ability to cooperate. “Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things,” he writes, “but to do so collectively.” It’s what enables people to create a common life together and to sustain elaborate forms of cooperation. In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman explains that our ability and need for connection is what makes us fundamentally human. People are not primarily selfish and competitive. “Those basic social needs,” Lieberman writes, “are present at birth to ensure our survival, but we are guided by these needs until the end of our days.” This innate capacity and longing for connection — to feel seen, heard, and valued; to experience relationships of deep mutuality — is central to Einhorn Collaborative’s vision of shared humanity. It’s core to our Bonding strategy, which focuses on the importance of healthy relationships between parents and young children. It also animates our Bridging strategy to help adolescents engage positively across difference and our Building strategy to foster a more relational, pluralist culture in America. Across our strategies, we’ve come to see that people’s capacity for connection is not just a key part of our shared humanity. It’s also a vehicle for seeing the humanity of others — for widening our circles of concern.
How to strengthen a sense of shared humanity
Working to advance our shared humanity doesn’t mean pretending everyone is exactly the same or papering over inhumanity. To be sure, the failure to extend a sense of shared humanity across all inhabitants of this country is to blame for many inequities that persist. In this moment of stark division and dehumanization, it’s crucial to help more people see what they have in common; not to erase our differences, but to embrace and bridge them in the service of building a more just society. A growing body of research shows that it’s possible to strengthen — and act on — our sense of shared humanity. Here are a few practical examples:
Encounter others having common experiences: A group of psychology researchers found that subtly priming people to think about others from diverse cultures participating in common activities increased perceptions of similarity across lines of difference. That’s the essence of what makes StoryCorps’ content powerful. In listening to people from diverse backgrounds talk candidly about relatable experiences like love and loss and emotions we all know such as hope, joy, pain, and regret, we see glimmers of ourselves in the stories of others. The Stories of Belonging curated by the Belonging Begins With Us campaign have a similar priming effect; they remind us that everyone knows how it feels to be excluded and to be welcomed.
Connect around more inclusive shared identities: Another fascinating psychology study found that when people broaden the traits they see in common with others — e.g., not simply being fans of the same team but soccer fans generally — they draw their ingroups more expansively. Political science research has shown this phenomenon at work in the context of our polarized politics. People feel more favorable toward the other side when their sense of American identity — rather than their partisan identity — is heightened. Citizen University’s Civic Saturday channels this insight by inviting people to come together in community around shared values and practices of active citizenship. Participants connect joyfully through a shared faith in democracy, checking their political identities at the door. Identify and work toward larger shared goals: Research on intergroup relations points to the power of identifying superordinate goals, outcomes that require disparate groups to work together — groups that may otherwise have little desire to cooperate. Through shared action toward such goals, people can transcend their differences and see themselves as on the same side. This insight informs the work of One America Movement and Interfaith Youth Core, both of whom — among other things — support people from different faith backgrounds to bridge divides through collaborative action on issues of shared concern.
Be on the lookout for human decency in action: Multiple research studies on moral elevation — the “warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion” — have shown that stories of such behavior decrease out-group bias and soften people’s sense of social hierarchy. Solutions Journalism Network’s Solutions Story Tracker is a growing database of news stories from all over the world that portray how people and communities are addressing a range of social problems. These stories are powered by rigorous reporting, with real-world insight about responses that often stoke both inspiration and a sense of possibility.
Lastly, a few related resources from our friends at Greater Good Science Center:
The Connection to Humanity Quiz that helps you gauge how deeply you identify with all of humanity. It’s based on the Identification With All Humanity Scale (IWAH) developed by a group of psychology researchers.
The Common Humanity Mediation that helps you strengthen compassion and a sense of connection with others by seeing what we have in common with people who may seem quite different from us.
A personal postscript
The paper that introduced the IWAH Scale described earlier research that scholars had done to study the attributes and motivations of Holocaust rescuers, people who risked their lives to save Jewish friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers. What prompted such courage and decency amidst such evil? Interviews with rescuers found that one of the qualities that shined through was a fervent belief in our shared humanity. Based on that belief, many of these humble heroes felt a moral obligation to act; these were fellow human beings they were helping. Early in my career, I worked at a nonprofit organization that provides financial support to Holocaust rescuers. I was lucky to meet several of them during my three years leading the education program. I was always filled with awe and gratitude, yet I also felt somewhat mystified by their deeds, given the many reasons they could have chosen to remain bystanders. Their stories are not a silver lining in the horrific history of the Holocaust but are a reminder that goodness is present even in humanity’s darkest hours. Many years later, through my work at Einhorn Collaborative, I’m grateful to partner with leaders and organizations who are helping people — here and now — rediscover our shared humanity.
Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative's Building strategy. You can learn more about our work in Building here and more about Jon here. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon's blog posts.