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June 01, 2008

Human, All Too Human

Human My final session at the wonderfully inspiring and informative World Science Festival was, appropriately enough, further evidence that scientists are an incredibly diverse and contentious lot, and that science itself is a fluid and constantly evolving endeavor. 

The assembled brain power of the 11 panelists could have lit Grand Central Station (how’s that for a renewable energy source?). Yet the topic itself was deceptively simple “what it means to be human.” Ranging from philosopher Daniel Dennett, anthropologist Ian Tattersall and sociologist Nikolas Rose to neuroethicist Patricia Churchland and Nobel Laureates Harold Varmus and Paul Nurse, the intellectual fireworks began soon after the introductions by moderator Charlie Rose.

In the initial go around, Rose asked each panelist for their own first-take on the question at hand. Unsurprisingly there were 11 unique opinions, springing from numerous theoretical backgrounds, and shall we say human, biases.

The first rumble from the crowd occurred when embryologist Renee Reijo Pera, insisted that we are “uniquely human from day one” (meaning conception). The socio political implications of that statement did not seem very popular on stage or in the seats, but Renee stuck doggedly to this conclusion throughout the evening. 

Theoretical physicist Jim Gates sounded a decidedly “New Age” note in defining humanity in terms of the ability to love, to get outside one’s own ego, and develop a sense of wonderment in the beauty of the universe. While computer expert Marvin Minsky opined that advances in computational technology have gotten us “50%” there in terms of modeling the human intellect in 1s and 0s.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio threw the evening into further confusion when he strayed from his usual field of neurons, neurotransmitters and the like, and defined humanity in terms of “critical features” like language, creativity, spirituality and social organization. 

The more free-ranging discussion after the initial statements was generally collegial, and spent much time and energy on questions raised by the burgeoning field of genomics — most importantly: will we still be human when we can begin freely manipulating human genes, hoping to create people with superior cognitive or athletic abilities and perhaps insulating ourselves from many forms of disease and disability? 

In the final ten minutes of the program, the first real bomb was thrown by controversial geneticist Francis Collins, who has raised eyebrows in the scientific community with his religious beliefs. He questioned why the topic of morality, which he defined as an “inner sense” of right and wrong, had not been broached by the panel, and implied that it was somehow outside the evolutionary physical development of humanity. Renowned philosopher and atheist Daniel Dennett quickly took the bait, and wondered why there is any less reason to be “in awe” of our moral sense if it had been implanted by evolution rather than some mysterious external force. A somewhat cranky and self-described “annoying” Minksy also tried to jump into the debate, but unfortunately Rose called time out at the behest of festival organizers (the program had already run 20 minutes later than scheduled). 

To sum up, the session was another example of the fascinating and engaging conversation that has become a cornerstone of World Science Festival events. The only slight disappointment was the lack of time for audience questions, especially from a crowd that was keyed-in intensely to the discussion from the very beginning. Perhaps the topic can be considered again at next year’s festival (please let there be one!).



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