Why Does Identity Matter?

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

Identity means literally the sameness of a person or thing, a sameness that might apply in all circumstances or at all times. Of course, the word has come to have a hundred other possible meanings too, including ‘authenticity’, ‘commonality’, ‘integrity’, and ‘character’. But I want to begin this exploration with what I think identity is in the most immediate sense, the sense of what all human beings are fundamentally, the sense of what it is that unites us and makes for a common identity.

Ever since the neo-Darwinian consensus about our material origins became established, we have had a perfectly coherent theory of what our physical identity is. We are bodies composed of parts or modules that interact in order to perform a specific function, namely the replication of inherited characteristics from one generation to the next. Genes are the fundamental element in this process. They carry the biological information required to build complex living entities and their principal characteristic is to replicate, to transfer that information from one generation to the next. They will do so wherever environmental conditions are favourable, and are assisted by the natural variation of the species that enables some varieties of those species to have greater survival advantage than others. Genes survive and replicate by occupying bodies which themselves survive, reproduce and protect their offspring. Moreover, in more complex organisms such as humans and many species of animals the genes underlie the sense of identity that the host body feels itself to possess, and the adaptive behaviour that it manifests. In humans this becomes the basis for a core sense of self, the sense of what one is, and what one must preserve, cherish and promote. Identity in this biological sense is conferred from outside the human lineage; it is not something we have chosen, rather it is imposed upon us by our natural inheritance.

A biologist might stop there. What else is there to know? Psychologists, particularly those working over the last fifty years or so, often start there; evolutionary psychology tells us a great deal about why we have the physical, mental and emotional characteristics that we exhibit. We have those characteristics because statistically-speaking they have supported the survival and replication of our species, and the more they support it the more those qualities and characteristics are replicated, generation after generation. And one of the key characteristics that this process has promoted is the sense of being a self that requires to be nurtured, protected and cherished. Of course, most of us, whilst accepting this somewhat limited analysis as far as it goes, would also want to argue that we are something more than our mere material inheritance. We possess language, cultures, creativity, thoughts, emotions and intentions that make us more than ‘mere’ natural animals, qualities that make for wisdom and compassion, perhaps transforming our species into a genuine ‘homo sapiens’. And it is in support of such claims that identity becomes important to us as a concept which might confer a status that goes beyond the merely biological.

Even so, it is not immediately obvious exactly why identity as ‘sameness’ should be so significant. Why, for example, should it be more important than diversity? We have good reason to believe that the diversity of the human species is a crucial quality that we need and wish to embrace. We may all be all composed of flesh, genes and selves but we are also all different. Because we all vary in skills, values, temperament, cultures, hopes and fears we embody as a species almost eight billion unique contributions to whatever projects we seek to pursue. As far as we are aware, no other species manifests this global capability to find solutions to its, and the world’s, problems.

Yet at the same time, such diversity creates its own difficulties. It encourages us to divide our species into tribes and cliques which take up stances opposed to each other. It means that I have a different personality from you, a different temperament, with varying or even competing values. In doing so it makes concerted action to solve our most pressing problems more rather than less difficult. It can have the effect of atomising human selves, each apparently locked within its own prison of values, opinions, self-interest and self consciousness. Consequently, I think we have to be clear about what is common in our identity before we can unleash the power inherent in our diversity. And what is most obviously common to all of us would appear to be our sense of being selves separated and isolated from everything that is not the self.

We might imagine that for hundreds of thousands of years human beings had no masters. They lived in small groups and foraged or hunted for food. No doubt there were some that were stronger than others, and others still who were wiser or more ingenious. But on the whole we might surmise that these ancestors lived and died broadly as equals. Then at some point the weaker ones entered into a contractual arrangement with an individual or group of individuals who for one reason or another were regarded as superior- perhaps successful warriors, or especially talented hunters, or shamans skilled in the art of interpreting the natural world. This contract became the model for many similar arrangements that were to follow, contracts between weak and strong, tribal members and tribal leaders, peoples and rulers, citizens and state. The chief objective as far as the weaker party was concerned was to promote physical security and survival.

Yet by itself such surrender was not enough. A second and parallel contract was required, that between humans and their gods, a contract that would provide succour to all in bad times and even the prospect of everlasting life. Although the origins of both these contracts pre-date human history, and the first doubtless had its origins in our non-human ancestors, there can be little doubt that such arrangements existed and that men and women entered into them, willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly, as one generation succeeded the next.

The main subject here is a third contract, one at least as ancient as those described above. This is the contract between the body and the self. It is a contract that has proven to be profoundly adaptive, conducive to both survival and reproduction, and most, if not all, humans living today are its tacit signatories. As we shall see, a self attaches itself to our bodies in infancy, long before we know what the conditions of the arrangement are; even as adults, if we do scrutinise the clauses of this ancient contract we are inclined to see its terms as beneficial, life affirming. The self is greater than our bodies, justly in charge of them as befits their owner and their sovereign. From time to time carping philosophers or would-be religious leaders warn us of the dangers of our deference to the self, but for the most part are ignored.

Yet, emerging in the current century is a potential problem. Just as the development of the physical and biological sciences over the last two hundred years has raised doubts about whether our gods are real or are rather created by minds, twenty-first century cognitive science is raising fundamental concerns about the status of the self. Moreover, as the development of artificial intelligence gathers pace we are beginning to see machines endowed with primitive forms of selfhood, manufactured selves that mirror our bodies’ relationship with human selves. Slowly, we will begin to experience a fundamental shift in the way in which we think about, and are oriented toward, both our bodies and the selves that appear to control those bodies. But why exactly do we think of ourselves as selves? Why is selfhood so often seen as the bedrock of our identity? And what might we be or become if these same selves become unpicked, unraveled, marginalised and discredited?

Rather than see this as yet another human problem with which we have to contend- as if global warming, resource depletion, the emergence of artificial intelligence, pandemics, the reappearance of religious and political fundamentalism, and recurring wars were not enough- we might see it as an opportunity that we have long been able to seize but never as a species felt the urgency to so do. When we contemplate the prospect of our enslaved bodies tearing up the contract, freeing those bodies and bodies yet unborn from its terms, thereby rendering the counter-party impotent, we might find much that is fruitful and life-affirming.

In any case there are two reasons why we may not have a choice. Firstly, modern cognitive science is ensuring that the illusory nature of selfhood is becoming increasingly evident, and the question will be not whether we can retain our selves, and continue in our enslavement, but rather what the alternatives might be. Secondly, we are in this century placed on a precipice in which continuing in our selfish behaviour threatens the integrity of the planet, the survival of the human species, and of many other species too. We have to act, and act soon.

If all that is common in human identity is selfhood, we are clearly in trouble. Or if there are other commonalities, but they are ones which are inferior or much less compelling, we are equally at risk. But I believe that we can come to persuade ourselves that selfhood is not what it seems, and that it can be undermined from within, and in doing so we can enfranchise our species . Once we begin that process we can start to see that what unites humanity is not what emerges when we introspect, or when we look inwards at our self-nature, but what we find when we look outward to everything that is not the self. And it is only as a species so united that we can solve our collective problems.