Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Human Condition

I continue to be fascinated with this question:
What is the definition of a Human?

Do a google search - you'll find very little of substance on this topic. Certain philosophy pages referencing Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz) skirt the subject of defining a human (as differentiated from, say, a dog). The President's Council on Bioethics published a collection of writings in 2003 called Being Human, which, though interesting, examines the human condition rather than make a solid attempt at defining what it means to be human. Certain blog posts, like this one.

Strange, isn't it? We base so many ethical and legal decisions on how we define a human, or a person, but we can't really agree on what that definition is.
hu·man
n.

1. A member of the genus Homo and especially of the species H. sapiens.

Oh, now I see. So being a human means being part of a taxonomical species, in this case Homo sapiens. Okay - what's a species?
spe·cies
n. pl. species

1. Biology.
1. A fundamental category of taxonomic classification, ranking below a genus or subgenus and consisting of related organisms capable of interbreeding.

So a human is any organism that can interbreed with another human. So if I replace the sperm cells of a german shepard with human spermatazoa, and the dog...well, you know...is the dog now a human? (hey, it happens - you can find pictures on the internet...or so I hear...) How about the other way - if I castrate a male, or perform a hysterectomy on a female, are either still human? How about hermaphroditic or other reproductive abnormalities at birth - are these children human?

Consensus would say yes - these are all human. (Except for the dog. Although I know some people who treat their dog better than other humans...) So being a member of a self described group that can interbreed really isn't a good definition of human.

Perhaps we can define human in terms of differences with non-humans. What features do humans posess that no other life form posesses?

Is it having a body that "looks human"? What about a quadriplegic? Severe burn victims? How about a robot/android built in a human shape?

Is it having the humanly unique 46 chromosomes? Nope - unless we want to count Down Syndrome and other Trisomy victims as not human.

Ok - forget the physical for a minute. What about mental features? Here are a few that are commonly called out.

Communication - yet plenty of animals have been shown to have the ability to communicate. From the simple warning sounds of birds, to the more sophisticated sign language of apes, it's clear that humans don't have a monopoly on the ability to communicate. We do it better, you say? How about a severely autistic child? Or an advanced Alzheimer's victim. Still human? So it isn't this feature, or even degree, that provides a differentiator.

Cognitive manipulation of tools with intent - The tool users. Many species of monkey are tool users. Even certain birds have been identified as using tools. Cetaceans have even demonstrated cultural transmission of knowledge, including certain tool use (combining many "human" concepts of communication, tool use, modeling, intent, and cultural knowledge).

Self-awareness - the classic test for self-awareness is the mirror test. Put a mirror in front of a creature and watch whether or not the creature thinks they're looking at another creature or at themselves. "Human" children don't pass this test until about 15-24 months of age. Neither do human adults with certain right frontal lobe impairments. Chimpanzees and other apes, as well as dolphins, have been shown to be able to pass this test. No differentiators here.

Free Will - oh yes, next we'll be getting even more intangible, talking about the soul. (really...we will - it's the next paragraph). Assuming that there is such a thing as free will (a theory that has yet to have much supporting evidence one way or the other), do all humans exhibit free will? What about those who are on certain drugs which impair their ability to direct attention, or intention, or which cause the lack of resistance to direct commands? How about a girlfriend in a coma? And what about the band who wrote Girlfriend in a Coma? (And are you telling me that the little dog barking at the stick thrown into the middle of the pool isn't exhibiting free will, deciding whether or not to go after the stick they want, but not as much as they don't want to go in the pool - they can, mind you, they just don't feel like it then).

Having a Soul - Ok, perhaps you know you have a soul, and non-human organisms do not, and this is what distinguishes a human from a non-human. But can you prove it? Is there any physical evidence you can collect to show you have some "essence" unique to human kind? And even if you "know" you have a soul, can you provide any evidence that I do? (Or don't?) We can play the game of defining one intangible term with another, but that's all it would be - a game. Unless we can root a definition eventually in concrete terms, it has no real semantic value.

I love science fiction. There is certainly a lot of poor science fiction, just as there is a lot of poor romance, mystery, and other kinds of fiction written. But a well written science fiction story not only can provide all of the best features of any other genre, it also provides something that most genres do not - the exploration of ideas. Taking a concept, or a trend, or a hypothesis, and writing a story about the implications of that existence allows us to explore meaningful issues like what it means to be human, better than any other written form.

And in science fiction, the idea of what it means to be human has been explored a lot. Cyborgs, transfers of consciousness and memory to computers, post-human modifications, both mechanical and biological, abilities to control mental chemistry directly...all of these really screw with preconceived (and ill conceived) notions of how we define "human." I won't geek out and bore you with a list of good stories, other than to say that it is clear that if technology trends continue in the direction and speed at which they are now, it won't be long before we need to come up with a societal answer to this question.

Who is a human?

Are you?

Are "they"?

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