I was having a discussion yesterday with colleagues at CTI about human distinctiveness – how we differentiate ourselves from other animals. Largely this has to do with privilege – treating ourselves as better or more free – and duty – asking more of ourselves. The issue arises again and again in science and religion discussions. This time it had to do with astrobiology and theology. How does our scientific investigation of the origin, extent, and future of life impact our view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos?
I keep returning to one issue. Most of us think humans are, in some way unique, but what do we mean by “human”? At first the question sounds pedantic and obnoxious. We all know what human is, don’t we? Yes, and no. I want to suggest that we have different distinct ideas about “human” and, though we each know what we mean, we don’t all know what others mean. This will come up in discussions of human dignity, the beginning of human life, and human rights. At stake in all of these will be how you draw the boundaries of humanity. We must take care with words because this discussion centers on what those words mean. In order to ask about human uniqueness, we must understand the way we speak.
Let me start by saying that “human” is both an adjective and a noun. The adjective human refers either to a scientific concept – things related to the species Homo sapiens – or to a related common sense concept – things related to us. I can speak of human tissue, human habitations, human culture. We might quibble, but I think I can use the adjective quite clearly and know that we are communicating.
The noun is more problematic. Historically, it comes from the adjective and it refers to something more specific: a human being. We might say it is a human person, a human individual, or just “a human.” That added word does all the heavy lifting. To take the most political example, no one doubts that a human fetus is human (adj.). No one claims that an alien has found its way into a mother. The real debate has to do with whether it is a human being. Thus the beginning of human life generally must be distinguished from the beginning of >a< human life. The first occurred ages ago. As a society, we debate whether the latter occurs at conception, at birth, or somewhere in between.
Human rights, likewise, do not apply to all things incidentally human. Human hair deserves no unique dignity or privileges. Human beings do.
Too often, people worry that scientific discoveries about humans will weaken our concepts of human dignity. They are mistaken. The science tells us things about human flesh and blood, about human history and human relationships. Human dignity does not suffer when we know about these things. It suffers when we reduce human beings to flesh and blood, history and conditioning. That latter step, that reduction to the physical and phenomenal, has not been produced by science. It was produced by confidence that physical science is sufficient to explain the world.
To my mind, our uniqueness does not come from our flesh. It comes from our freedom, our reason, and our relationships. What we know about the species Homo sapiens and about our flesh is fascinating. It tells us we are related to other animals and to all life on Earth. How could that not be wonderful and empowering. The hard work of rights and dignities does not spring from this flesh – or from this flesh alone. In Christianity (and many other faiths) it comes from something else, something we have always understood poorly and which we hesitantly call the soul.
Any real dialogue about human dignity and human rights, any real dialogue about the uniqueness of humanity or the beginning and end of a life, turns on what it means to be a human being. What additional work is done when we specify not just a human (adjective) thing, but a human being – a human (noun)? That’s where the real conflict lies – not in biology, but in philosophy. Let the reductionists out there defend why they think a human being is only a human biological organism. Let their opponents state what must be added or taken away. But let us all stop simply saying “human” as though we knew what we were talking about. We have a long way to go before we understand our selves.