Our project will host a variety of distinguished speakers who will give public talks on themes relevant to the Boundaries of Humanity.
Past Distinguished Speaker Events:
Thursday April 27, 2017 (5:00-6:30pm): Michael Tomasello, PhD
Although great apes collaborate for some purposes, recent studies comparing chimpanzees and human children suggest that human collaboration is unique both cognitively and motivationally. In particular humans seem adapted for collaborative foraging, as even young children display numerous relevant mechanisms, from special ways of coordinating and communicating to special ways of sharing food to special forms of social evaluation. The Shared Intentionality hypothesis specifies the ontogeny of these underlying mechanisms and their consequences for both human cognition and human social life.
In an April 27th, 2017 talk at the workshop on Culture, Cognition, and Boundaries, Dr. Michael Tomasello discussed his theory of shared intentionality.
Thursday April 20, 2017 (5:00-6:30pm) Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD
In an April 20, 2017 talk at the Stanford Humanities Center, Professor Antonio Damasio discussed human exceptionalism and its defining features as the opening Distinguished Speaker Event for the Boundaries of Humanity Project.
For most of humanity’s existence, both philosophy and science supported the idea that humans were unique among animals. However, Darwin’s The Descent of Man challenged this idea with its argument that humans differ from other species in degree but not in kind. As biology has progressed, challenges to human exceptionalism and the overlap between humans and non-humans have grown. Two such challenges come from new gene editing technologies, e.g. CRISPR/Cas9, and from artificial intelligence.
These developments contribute to societal skepticism about human exceptionalism, as well as to a decline in the public’s conceptions of human dignity and morality. This trend is supported by two premises, both of which Professor Damasio critiqued. The first is that life, including all organisms and their brains, is entirely algorithmic. Professor Damasio argued instead that living creatures are not just formulas, but are also the execution of those formulas in flesh, blood, and complex biology. He likened these formulas to scores of music and argued that humans and other living creatures are not just the scores themselves, but also the music from these scores, as played out in space and time. The second premise is that algorithms are not affected by the materials that produce them and that it matters not whether they are made of carbon or silicon. They will always produce the same outcome. Professor Damasio used the experience of feelings as a counterexample to this statement. Our basic biological processes, which may be portrayed well by algorithms, result in something more: feelings that directly correspond to the success of those biological processes in maintaining homeostasis. While humans may create machines that are capable of displaying something similar to human feelings, the machine’s “experience” of these feelings is not the same as a human’s experience of feelings.
Continuing, Professor Damasio articulated his evidence for human exceptionalism. He argued that while some human behavior is shared by many different organisms, there are key distinguishing factors between humans and other species. For example, human cultural productions are much greater and more complex than those of other species. Professor Damasio focused on human mental faculties including symbolism, narrative, learning, and memory. He argued that these capabilities, specifically the extensive integration of memory and language into human cognition, allows for a contextualization of feelings that differs from that of other species. Specifically, the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus is especially complex in humans. This structure, an active site of neurogenesis even in adult humans, allows us to recall specific events and people, giving important context to our feelings and memories. Thus, human feelings are connected to past memories, and other brain structures also connect feelings to imagination and future plans. While animals may have similar basic feelings, their feelings are not contextualized in this way, though we do share the same core mechanisms and biological sources.
These contextualized feelings facilitated the creation of human moral principles. Professor Damasio argued that moral principles were generated by reflection on the human condition, as a result of examining and contextualizing feelings (e.g. actual suffering and pain, prospective flourishing and pleasure) and imagining how the causes of feelings could be sought or avoided. Thus, human moral principles are not a mere natural result of biology and evolution but are constructed intentionally by humans under the guidance of values. Taken together, these arguments build a case for the exceptional status of humans, not just in degree but also in kind.
Written by Boundaries of Humanity Project student assistant, Sarah Bell
Edited by Steven Michael Crane