Wired Science shared some news of an interesting panel titled, “What it means to be human” held at this year’s World Science Festival in New York City. This week, we saw Michael Tomasello’s take on this question. Last month there was the What Makes Us Human conference. We’ve also read Marc Hauser’s postulates.
Wired Science has summarized some of the panel speaker’s ideas, here they are, and they are almost all wrong:
Marvin Minsky, artificial intelligence pioneer: We do something other species can’t: we remember. We have cultures, ways of transmitting information.
Daniel Dannett, cognitive scientist: We are the first species that represents our reasons, and can reason with each other. “The planet has grown a nervous system,” he said.
Renee Reijo Pera, embryologist: We’re uniquely human from the moment that egg and sperm fuse. A “human program” begins before the brain even begins to form.
Patricia Churchland, neuroethicist: The structure of how the human brain is arranged intrigues me. Are there unique brain structures? As far as we can understand, it’s our size that is unique. What we don’t find are other unique structures. There may be certain types of human-specific cells — but as for what that means, we don’t know. It’s important not only to focus on us, to compare our biology and behavior to other animals.
Jim Gates, physicist: We are blessed with the ability to know our mother. We are conscious of more than our selves. And just as a child sees a mother, the species’ vision clears and sees mother universe. We are getting glimmers of how we are related to space and time. We can ask, what am I? What is this place? And how am I related to it?
Nikolas Rose, sociologist: Language and representation. We are the kind of creatures that ask those questions of ourselves. And we believe science can help answer. We’ve become creatures that think of ourselves as essentially biological — and I think we’re more than biological creatures. I’m not sure biology has answers.
Ian Tattersall, anthropologist: It’s not “what is human,” but what is unique: our extraordinary form of symbolic cognition.
Francis Collins, geneticist: What does the genome tell us? There’s surprisingly little genetic difference between human and chimpanzee. Yet clearly we’re different. There’s brain size and language. A language-related gene, FoxP2, evolved most rapidly in the last few million years. How did we develop empathy? Appreciate our mortality? And we should admit that there are areas that might not submit to material analysis: beauty, inspiration. We shouldn’t dismiss these as epiphenomenal froth.
Harold Varmus, physiologist: Intrigued by our ability to generate hypotheses and make measurements.
Paul Nurse, cell biologist: Is excited about the ability of science to answer this question.
Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist: The critical unique factor is language. Creativity. The religious and scientific impulse. And our social organization, which has developed to a prodigious degree. We have a record of history, moral behavior, economics, political and social institutions. We’re probably unique in our ability to investigate the future, imagine outcomes, and display images in our minds. I like to think of a generator of diversity in the frontal lobe — and those initials are G-O-D.
Marvin Minsky is wrong to say that humans are unique with being able to remember. Ravens/crows, elephants, great apes, etc. have shown remarkable abilities in remembering information. Minsky is also wrong in implying our culture, ways of transmitting information, are unique to humans. Lots of non-human primates, such as chimpanzees have been documented in transmitting information and having distinct rituals.
Daniel Dannett is wrong to say that, ‘we are the first species that represents our reasons, and can reason with each other.’ Reasoning is commonly defined as the cognitive process of looking for reasons for beliefs, conclusions, actions or feelings. A 2005 column written by Carl Zimmer in New York Times, summarized how chimpanzees exhibit a better understanding of cause and effect than human children.
Renee Reijo Pera, isn’t necessarily wrong in saying a unique “human program” begins before the brain even begins to form, because aspects of human development has to be fundamentally different for humans to become a different genus from other apes. But there is a lot of conservation in the development of vertebrates.
Patricia Churchland is right to say the size of human brains are unique. Recently some unique structural differences have been really studied in depth, such as the wiring of the human arcuate fasciculus. I will be really interested to find if there might be certain types of human-specific cells, but I imagine it will be a pretty monumental effort to morphologically and genetically compare every type of brain cell. It will be done though, I am sure of it.
Jim Gates is wrong to say humans are unique in the ability to know our mothers. Many species know their mothers and are conscious of more than themselves. I won’t review them all, it is pretty well studied. Gates is right and wrong at saying we’re unique in asking metaphysical questions, like, “what am I? What is this place? And how am I related to it?” It is hard to really discern if humans are the only ones asking these existential questions, but apes that use sing-language or lexigrams have been able to answer this question at a very basic level.
Nikolas Rose‘s thoughts are out-there. Language and representation are not uniquely human. Many non-human animals have been shown to communicate in unique ways. For example, orca pods have been found to have unique vocalizations that are not understood by other orcas outside of the pod. Captive chimpanzees have also been found to voice unique vocalizations to certain foods. Rose also brings up some metaphysical aspects, which I have just outlined are both right and wrong.
I find that there’s only one anthropologist on the panel, Ian Tattersall, extremely ironic considering they are asking a very anthropological question. Tattersall says our extraordinary form of symbolic cognition is unique. I can’t say definitively that he’s wrong in stating that, but chimpanzees from Gombe have been documented to show some reverence for nature, which is a very symbolic behavior. Read more from Barbara King.
Francis Collins, my favorite creationist geneticist, mentions human brain size and language as unique traits. He’s not wrong in brain size, human brain size is uniquely different from other animals, but so is a horse’s brain from that of other animals. As outlined before, language is not a uniquely human trait. Other animals have been documented to communicate and transmitted knowledge in unique forms. Given Collins’ recent vocal defection to the dark side, I’m not surprised he’s reducing epiphenomenal associations and raising the spiritual question.
Harold Varmus is intrigued by our ability to generate hypotheses and make measurements. I don’t really know what Varmus is suggesting, my best guess is that he thinks that humans are unique in problem solving and trial and error, which is wrong. Non-human animals are excellent problem solvers. While other animals don’t write up reports and publish them in Science or Nature, they do have ideas whose merit requires evaluation. Take the example of the raven who wants to open a nut. The raven most certainly has an idea, to drop the nut from high up in flight, and have the force of gravity coupled with the impact of the nut to the ground to open it up. To act upon this idea, the raven must inherently evaluate each failure and success, ultimately testing the hypothesis and measuring how effective the idea is.
Paul Nurse really didn’t give much to work with. I too am interested in how science can answer this question. I wish he was more forthcoming with his thoughts, even if they are wrong.
Antonio Damasio mentions that language is unique. I already outlined how this is wrong. He instills the human religious and scientific impulse are unique. I also already shown how chimpanzees have been documented to be somewhat spiritual, and that other animals have ‘scientific’ ways of solving problems. Damasio also brings up aspects of Tomasello theory — our ability to imagine our social organization and institutions. I won’t comment on his idea that the diversity of the human brain’s frontal lobe was designed by ‘G-O-D.’