We’re humans from earth, pt. I

20 01 2014

*Updated* I just noted that the comment TWO referred to earlier as perhaps being stuck in moderation was in fact so stuck. I just noticed it now, so haven’t responded to it in either this post or in pt II (which I’ve already written); if necessary, I’ll make the necessary adjustments to my response in pt III.

A bit late—laziness and fun colluded to prevent a posting before this—but finally, on the instability of the human.

First, the initial claim, and The Wet One’s challenge to the claim and some back and forth (way way down the thread—and ignoring TWO’s snark about ivory towers):

ab: the “human” is a constructed being, so to look for the human in history is to make basic choices about what & how one looks at that history.

two: It’s constructed to a certain extent, yes, but there really is an irreducible humanness that really does exists. It’s visible in electron microscopes and the like if you need to look. It’s common to all of us humans and is about as constructed as is gravity or the sun.

Some back & forth on the biology itself (interesting in its own right, but not the issue in this post), then:

two: Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better? I guess as a genetics student (undergrad only), I find that response kinda wanting. I’m well aware that there are plenty of morphological and genetic aberations that deviate quite widely from the norm, but for our purposes here, I think you and I (perhaps not all, but you and I at any rate) know what the norm is to determine “humanity.” Extra chromosomes, polydactly, other morphological aberations don’t really change this. It still falls within the realm of “human” for all intents and purposes. Don’t abstract away a reasonably concrete reality with ideas out at the 9th or 10th standard deviation from the norm. It just doesn’t seem to me to be terribly pragmatic or useful.

ab: At one level, there is the matter of what counts as “reasonably concrete realities”; I think this varies across time and place.

Related to this is my disagreement with the contention that those outside of the norm have fallen “within the realm of the ‘human’ for all intents and purposes’. They most assuredly have not and to the extent they do today is due to explicit efforts to change our understanding of the human.

two: [to paraphrase: examples from past and present, please!]

So there it is, in an ungainly nutshell.

First, to TWO’s contention Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better?

I think it can and often does serve as a foundation, and as I noted in the previous ramble, I ought to have been more explicit about that. There is a certain practicality, today, in going along with the notion that any being borne of those already recognized as human, and who takes a form which is more-or-less similar to those already recognizably human, is herself human. Much of contemporary (bio)ethics and politics is predicated upon this biologically-based recognition.

And I do, in fact, talk about this in my bioethics class. Biology—genetics—matters! As I note, while we share almost all of our genes with chimpanzees and other apes, the fact that we are so morphologically (among other things) distinct suggests that those few genetic differences are powerful.

That said, I hold to my original contention as to the variability of the human, and the fact that while biology may be a necessary condition for recognition as human (tho’ this may change as AI evolves; subject for another post, perhaps), it is not sufficient.

Thus we may—I’ll let TWO speak for him (I think) -self—have arrived at the source of our disagreement: TWO takes biology as having an “is-ness” which is apparent, “pragmatic”, “useful” (to use two terms taking from another part of his comment), which obviousness marks it as having a (near?) absolute quality.

I don’t believe it has an absolute quality (and this is quite apart from our agreed-upon framework of evolution), but instead an historical quality. He thinks it is more or less fixed; I do not.

On a practical level*, our disagreement isn’t so great, as I noted, above. And that I think the human is historically contingent does not mean that the meaning isn’t durable, or stable for long terms.

Still, I think that the mention of embryos and fetuses is apt in highlighting that even at this practical level there is some disagreement as to status of entities which clearly share our biological material.

TWO responded in a comment to my last post

does anyone think that human embryo or fetuses (or those sourced from a human) would turn into anything else other than a human adult were it permitted to follow its natural journey through development? Would it ever become a cat, a blue whale, a crab or a robin? Does anyone doubt this?

I don’t, at least outside of science-fiction speculations, but note the “would turn into” and of the necessity of “development”. If the biology were dispositive in and of itself, no such development would be necessary—and, in fact, for pro-lifers, no such development is necessary: the embryo is a human person, full stop.

(Side note: there are all kinds of arguments about personhood out there, some of which I’ve discussed previously, but I don’t want to complicated this discussion even further by bringing in questions of the relationship of personhood to humanness.)

In some ways, the emphasis on development seems, well, an over-emphasis, for precisely the reason TWO points out—that conceptus ain’t gonna turn into a kitty. But insofar as we in the US (and elsewhere) are politically preoccupied with embryos and fetuses, and that a big question at the center of that preoccupation is When does the embryo/fetus become a human [person]?, then at a very practical level, it makes sense to look at development.

Now, you will no doubt have observed that, despite my side-note, I used the term “human person” rather than just “human” or “human being”: this is a concession to the way the question is often framed in ordinary discourse; in the debate over abortion or stem cells, it’s not referred to as the “embryo of Homo sapiens“, but “human embryo”.

For my purposes here that ordinary usage is unfortunate: to make my point as clearly as possible, the argument over the status of the embryo/fetus is not whether it is of the material of Homo sapiens (general agreement: yes), but when that biological material becomes human.

TWO argues that the biology answers the question for itself, but I argue that it cannot.

Which brings me to the ontological level—and part II.


*I am harkening back to my epistemological/ontological/practical distinction in calling this level “practical”: it is the level at which we live our daily lives, and at which politics, and ordinary-ethics (or discussions over “the right thing to do”) take place.




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