Organizing On the Human


April 2009

In recent years, several scientific disciplines have converged on the most traditional subject of the humanities: the human. The fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, primatology, and other disciplines provide powerful new descriptions and analyses of fundamental human attributes such as language, emotions, social behavior, creativity, and moral feelings. How, if at all, will these empirical findings pressure traditional understandings of human nature and human being?

This question is the focus of the National Humanities Center’s web-based initiative, On the Human. OTH brings together humanists and scientists to explore and assess the ways advances in science are changing the limits of human life and therefore disturbing traditional understandings of what it means to be human.

OTH continues the work of the Center’s three-year Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity initiative by bringing humanists and scientists together in conversation on these issues. By focusing attention on these fundamental attributes of humanity, OTH hopes to generate new knowledge, new syntheses, and new perspectives.

We divide our topics into three broad categories:

  • Rethinking the boundaries between human beings and machines

    Cognitive science is producing new ways of describing and analyzing the functioning of the brain; at the same time, computer science is finding new ways of replicating in machines some of the brain’s capacities. Already, certain capacities that were thought to be distinctively human, such as the ability to “learn” from interaction and to “compete,” are being performed by computer-driven robots. Scientists and technicians even claim that emotions are being mimicked. While the ultimate prospects for a convergence of consciousness and computation are uncertain, and many results produced so far remain controversial, the new knowledge being generated about both brains and computers is forcing us to reflect anew on the differences between them. In what ways, and to what extent, can the mind be said to be a computer? To what degree can consciousness be reduced to computation? And to what extent does the new information that is emerging about brain functioning fundamentally alter our understanding and evaluation of such traditional attributes as character, rationality, subjectivity, individuality, and responsibility?
  • Rethinking the boundaries between human beings and animals Scientists in several fields are exploring new implications of the process of evolution, applying the framework of evolutionary change to the brain in particular and, more generally, to all aspects of human thought and behavior including language, ethical intuitions, and emotional responses. Traditional philosophical concepts such as free will, moral choice, judgment, desire, and autonomy are being redescribed as functions of evolved biological imperatives. At the same time, primatologists and zoologists are generating far richer accounts than we had in the past of non-human animals’ abilities to communicate, empathize, learn, play, and judge. In light of new information about human and non-human animals, the questions we must now confront are how the differences between these two can be meaningfully described, and what ethical and other implications follow from that description.
  • Rethinking the boundaries between human beings and human beingsNew technologies have combined with vastly increased knowledge of fields such as genetics to give us a radically expanded capacity to alter bodies, including our own, by adding sophisticated prostheses or changing the genetic code. The effect of such increased capacity will be to diminish the forces of nature and necessity, to reduce the scope of such traditional concepts as chance, fate, destiny, luck, and divine will, and to expand the domain of intention, choice, and freedom.  Some have predicted that biotechnology will soon generate what has been called “a new art form,” personal self-creation through genetic manipulation. Since ancient times, the self has been treated as a malleable object: self-understanding, self-transcendence, and self-fashioning are entirely consistent with traditional values. The question we must now confront is whether new scientific knowledge and technology are producing mere extensions of traditional understandings of the form and limits of human life, or new attitudes and orientations that are radically incompatible with tradition.