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Humankind: A Brief History, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Humanity and the Mind

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Humankind: A Brief History

Humankind: A Brief History, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Perhaps when we call ourselves human were are basing this on social and/or mental factors: a “human” is a “person” who possesses certain mental attributes and participates, or at least is capable of participating, in human community relationships. This is similar to how ancient cultures defined “human” or at least defined those persons who had rights: people in the community had rights while those who lived outside the community did not — and maybe weren’t really “human” at all.

There are serious problems here as well, again because the line between our mental faculties and those of other species is not as bright and sharp and we like to think. A variety of cultural “tests” have been articulated for the definition of humanity: making tools, language, reasoning powers, ethical concepts, etc. Detailed research has revealed and each and every one can be found in other species, at least to some degree. Thus, the difference us and them is merely one of degree rather than kind — often a very large degree, it is true, but still a degree nonetheless.

Looking into the future, we can anticipate the possibility of creating artificial intelligence and placing that within machines. It is not unreasonable to assume that, if we are successful in this, the artificial intelligence will possess at least the same faculties that we have — if not more. Should we then define our intelligent machines as “human”? If not, then obviously this sort of definition of human can’t be used.


Why We Should Care

Is any of this really something we should worry about? Should we really care much whether we have a firm grasp of what we mean by “human”? Absolutely, argues Fernandez-Armesto, and he’s probably right. Some of what we take for granted and some of what we argue over fiercely depends upon how we define the nature of being human.

Perhaps the most obvious issue involves “human rights,” a continuing factor in social policies as well as international relations. We can’t very well insist upon the value or importance of “human rights” without having some idea as to what “human” means, can we? To whom do human rights apply? When? How? Why should we care?

That nature of humanity is a key factor in debates over hot-button issues like abortion and euthanasia. Is the fetus a “human” such that abortion qualifies as murder, or is the fetus something different? When a person is in a persistent vegetative state, are they still “human” such that they should not be killed, or have they changed in some fashion? Arguably we need to rethink who and what we are, but too much rethinking could get us into trouble:

Humankind: A Brief History

Humankind: A Brief History, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

    “That we humans are uniquely rational, intellectual, spiritual, self-aware, creative, conscientious, moral, or godlike seems to be a myth — an article of faith to which we cling in defiance of the evidence. But we need our myths to make irresoluble dilemmas bearable. ...If we were uncompromising mythbusters, we would tear up our human rights and start again: rethink what we mean by human life and human dignity.”

Most aren’t willing to do that, which is hardly a surprise. If we don’t do it, though, what is left? What other options do we have? Fernandez-Armesto suggests that we try living up to our myths. I’m not sure we can, but he presents an interesting challenge: two choices, both perhaps beyond our grasp. Which is most worth reaching for and taking a chance on?

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