A Review of the “What does it mean to be human?” panel at the 2008 World Science Festival

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.’

20 thoughts on “A Review of the “What does it mean to be human?” panel at the 2008 World Science Festival

  1. 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 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.

    I think you may be missing Dennett’s point here. The key parts are representing and sharing one’s reasoning. There are two components to this, the actual process of reasoning itself, and the transmission of that reasoning to another individual.

    That’s what it says to me, anyway. :)

  2. I’m curious about your comment that chimpanzees have been found to be spiritual. Can you please direct me to some research about that?


  3. Caryne,

    I remember reading this in Jane Goodall’s “Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey.” But I don’t think this is the primary source, it seems like Jane Goodall first mentioned this behavior in, “Glossary of chimpanzee behaviors” 1989.

    This highly cited paper mentions the observations, but I don’t have access to it right now to cofirm:

    HOWELL, N. (2003). The Importance of Being Chimpanzee. Theology and Science, 1(2), 179-191. DOI: 10.1080/1474670032000124586


  4. Quoth the Raven, “E=MC2”. I somehow doubt millions of years of ravens dropping nuts on rocks has ever given rise to a Theory of Gravity……. Same for seagulls and oysters/clams.

  5. Oldfart, the vast majority of my students can’t even do elementary calculus. Does that make them non-human? :)

    Seriously, the problem here is that folks are attempting to use traditional sets to determine “what is human” and these sorts of things are better determined by Fuzzy Set Theory.

    That is, “what is human” should be determined by something like a “membership function”. That is, a chimp might be given, say, .1, “Lucy”, say, .8, Neanderthals, say, .9.

    (I am just making these numbers up).

  6. I am not surprised, but still pretty annoyed, to see that yet again such an interesting sounding talk had so many people with a complete lack of research credentials to actually contribute.

    This should have been a talk dominated by physical anthropologists, alas it was not to be.

    It would have made sense to me to have several different anthropologists talking from the perspective of population genetics, skeletal morphology, phylogenetics, behavioural ecology or group dynamics (not my cup of tea personally), species concepts or speciation, etc to tackle the question of uniqueness. Although it depends what direction we are coming from here: unique compared to the other hominins, to great apes or to other mammals generally?

  7. Personally, I’m astonished that a linguist did not participate. This is all the more surprising because language came up as a topic in the panel (as one would expect). Why did they think that having a sociologist and a neuroscientist comment on language, rather than a linguist, made sense?

    Btw, the claim that non-human species possess language is incorrect — at least if you mean by ‘language’ what *linguists* means by language ;). It is certainly true that non-human species are capable of communication, but none of these species are capable of generating the kind of open-ended and flexible structures used in human communication.

  8. I have to agree with Lev, I find it shocking that the assertion that non-human species possess languages is true. They do not. Again, not in the complex ways that linguists and linguistic anthropologists talk about language–and that feature, the ability to talk about language (metalanguage), seems curiously absent from most definitions of non-human communications systems.

  9. Qualitative. That is, human language exhibits features completely absent from known systems of animal communication. Tony brings up one nice example of such a feature, namely, that human languages are also function as metalanguages — that is, they can be used to talk *about* language. Other unique characteristics of human language include open-ended combinatorial flexibility and the organization of meaningful units into classes that allow for the compositional creation of new meanings.

    Systems of animal communication lack the kind of structural flexibility and creativity that we are discusssing here, as well as the semantic reflexivity that Tony mentions, so the difference is probably best seen as one of kind, and not of degree.

  10. Thanks, tis interesting stuff. I have never, ever touched upon language/linguistics personally so have zero understanding of the field, but what you say makes sense.

    Within the living Homo sapiens throughtout the world are there any examples of entire groups that completely lack human language? Or is it very much ubiquitous.

  11. There are certainly no groups of humans without serious cognitive impairment that lack human language (the question of ‘wild children’ aside). One thing you might find interesting is how quickly groups of humans can create a fully expressive language when the need arises. Creole languages, for example, developed in contexts where a sudden need for a shared language arose, most commonly due to the forced mixing of speakers of diverse languages in contexts of slavery. Within a few generations, these mixed communities created radically new languages.

    Another famous case of language genesis is that of Nicaraguan Sign Language, about which there is a decent Wikipedia article (here).

  12. I would agree with much of what Lev says, and I would add that it is, in my mind, a qualitative distinction.

  13. Let me also add, that as an anthropologist, what always fascinates me are two sets of questions: Why the question of human versus non-human gets asked? And why some very much want our primate kin to have “language.”

  14. Being human, I’d love to see and hear this panel.
    Does anyone know of a link to the video or even audio?


    PS Are we the only species to blush at embarrassment?
    And I hope I don’t need to should there be a dead obvious link . . .

  15. What it means to be human!
    To me, this is meaningless. Why don’t we ask, what it means to be a peacock, a bull and so on?
    Each species is unique. All the animals are best adapted to their environments. Language and big brain are a necessary means of survival for humans. Why should animals have language and reasoning abilities, if they can do well with what they already have?
    What we possess is not something to be very proud of. It is just a means of survival. And each species has it own means.

  16. So after reading all the comments would anyone like to venture an answer to “what is it to be human?” Some of the neuroscience research coming out of UCLA suggests that as mammals we share more than we might suspect with other species. And the genetic research is suggesting some of the same. Thoughts?

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