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What Does It Mean To Be Human July 16, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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What does it mean to be human?  This question has been with us for as long as we as a species can remember.  Entire libraries could be filled with all the opinions, rebuttals, debates and ruminations that have cropped up around it.   Its answer has confounded our greatest philosophers, eluded our best scientists and even after 10,000 years of recorded history we are still no closer to unraveling it.  It is a question I have no intention of trying to answer here.

You’re probably confused now.  You’re probably scratching your head and thinking, “What is this, a bait-and-switch?  Why did you start this with a question you‘re not going to answer?”  The reason I began this essay with it is because it is a question that is at the heart of much of the debate surrounding human enhancement and needs to be addressed, and the reason I do not intended to answer it is because it is a meaningless question.  You read that right.  It is meaningless, pointless, unimportant.

I am aware of how strange this may sound, but bear with me.  Many of the arguments against human enhancement can be boiled down to the idea that there is something special about humanity, something that would be lost should we begin to drastically change ourselves.  So what are these unique qualities, these traits that we stand to lose?  To answer that we must ask, what is a human?  What defines a being as belonging to humanity?  It is not our tools.  Many animals have been shown to use tools.  What about our intelligence?  It is impressive in its scope but it is certainly not unique.  Self consciousness?  Many animals are aware of their own existence.  Our capacity for kindness and altruism?  Anyone who has owned a pet knows we are not alone in that.  Is it simply a combination of all of these, or is that we do all these things better than the rest of the animal kingdom?  Ah, now that requires a slightly longer answer.  Let us say for the sake of argument that one day we take a dolphin and alter it.  Through genetic engineering and biomechanical augmentation we change it so that it’s abilities rival our own.  It can speak, it can manipulate tools, it can think like we do with long term memory, abstract thinking and problem solving, it can do all the things we can do.  Let us say we do all these things and ask yourself: have we made this dolphin into a human?  No.  We have made it a smarter dolphin, a handier dolphin, a more eloquent dolphin, but through all of this it remains a dolphin.  It does not become a human because it is not our language, our tools, our intelligence or any combination of these or other features that make us human.  A human is defined as belonging to the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and the only thing that makes us Homo Sapiens is our DNA, our 36 pairs of chromosomes containing all the genes that when expressed and put together give us a human.   That’s it.

If we except that our genes are all that make us who we are then I put the question to you: what is so special about being human?   Nothing, there is nothing special about being human and therefore there is no special meaning of being human.  If being human is not important, then one of the major arguments against transhumanism and human enhancement falls flat on it‘s face.  Then we are left with a different question; if being human is not important, than what is.  The purpose of this article is not to answer this question but since different people will have different opinions I’ll offer my own here.  What is important is not being human but being a person, where a person is defined as a being capable of self-awareness.

Still, there are those who will never except this more humble position for humanity.  For many of us our whole view of the world is based around the idea that we are at the center of it, an idea that has survived since ancient times.  It used to be that we were at the center of the very universe, put there by the hand of God himself.  When that idea fell by the wayside our position changed slightly.  If we are not the center of the universe we said at least we are the only possible intelligent life in that universe, living on our unique little life bearing planet.  That view was defeated when we saw the sheer size of the universe and found our first extra solar planet.  How, in the face of so many worlds around so many stars in so many galaxies, could we possibly believe that we are the only ones.   If not that, then at least we are the masters of our own planet we said, the top predator on earth, and for 10,000 years we have been.  But that time is coming to an end.

We are approaching a time in the history of our species when the ability to alter ourselves will be in our grasp.  In the coming decades we will gain the ability to change our bodies, our minds, our very DNA.  We can, if we choose, become something other than human.  What will it mean to be post-human.  No more than what it means to be human.

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