What Makes a Human “Human”?
What does it mean to be a human? How do we determine humanness? Why does it matter to know?
Throughout the history of mankind, countless people have tried to answer the question, “What is a human?”
Some people define humans genetically, according to our genetic blueprints, ability to breed with exclusively with other humans, and our characteristic humanoid appearance. This definition suits more than humans, however, and in fact, humans share a high percentage of non-unique genes with other species, such as chimps, pigs, mice, and even worms! Others say our rationality sets us apart from other animals, or our cultures, languages, or some other trait that we believe is unique to “us”. But animals have their own forms of organized society, communication, and fundamentally, we are all made of the same elements and atoms.
What sets us apart from non-human animals, if anything? Could it simply be our arrogance leading us to rationalize that our purpose is to conquer nature, just because we have done so? We have justified our Earth consumerism habits this way for generations, but that does not mean that they have been right.
Foregoing a clear definition, every human reading this can likely identify another human by sight. However, this may not always be the case; advancements in biotechnology are blurring the taken-for-granted lines between humans and other living beings. It is now possible for scientists to transfer genes between humans, animals and bacteria; in fact, countless research projects have done or are doing so at this moment. Most insulin for diabetics is synthesized using yeast or E. coli engineered with a human insulin gene in a laboratory. If a human is determined genetically, what do we consider a bacteria that has had its genome engineered with predominantly human genes? It would lack a humanoid form, so we probably wouldn’t consider this a human. But what about a human that has had multiple organ transplants from animals? Or a fully, synthetically-engineered human that walks, talks, and behaves like a human, but was designed and grown in a laboratory?
When these possibilities become realities, understanding what makes a human “human” will be necessary for deciding who may have legally-protected human rights. The Nonhuman Rights Project is already fighting for the legal rights of chimpanzees, so it’s not inconceivable to imagine that laboratory-grown synthetic organisms may also require the right to fight legally for their interests. Someday, these organisms might require social consideration, too.
Critics of biotechnology say that it is morally wrong to manipulate nature into something unnatural — because doing so is wrongfully dominating, against the wishes of an intelligent designer, or could bring grave repercussions. However, proponents argue that the process of manipulating genetics is a natural one, inherent in bacteria sharing genes across membranes as well as the cells in our very own bodies sharing genetic information to carry out metabolic processes, so biotechnology is only designing the microevolution that nature already does naturally.
Delineating what is meant by “natural”, an oft-ambiguous term especially in terms of food products, is important. In the face of genetically engineered foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) has not yet defined a standard for what are considered natural kinds of plant and animal food products — until it does, food manufacturers can use the word however they like to promote their products, and consumers may not know exactly what compounds they’re putting into their bodies. What scientists consider natural may not be the same as what traditionally-minded people consider natural, and that point of contention (one of many) has real consequences for all people and the world in which we inhabit.
Biotechnology has already given us life-sustaining medicines and promise solutions like synthesizing biofuels or degradable bioplastics. It also taught us a lesson through using antibiotics that manipulating what we do not understand can lead to amplification of the problem we intended to solve (i.e. fast-forming lethal superbugs). But how else can we have the benefits science brings except by experimenting at the edge of knowledge?
What could be the unintended consequences of blurring the line between human and nonhuman, if such a division exists? We may soon find out.