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Significance

According to the National Intelligence Council report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds, “We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures." Nowhere is this more evident than in the promise and peril of advancing biotechnology and associated applications of information technologies. Together with recent insights from archaeology and ethology, new perspectives and powers associated with advances in genetics, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, and robotics are blurring the boundaries between humans, animals, and machines, and raising conceptual and practical problems of profound importance for the human future.

Driven by broad public expectations, together with powerful medical, commercial, and military interests, these challenges raise an urgent need for comprehensive consideration to open positive possibilities and encourage renewed appreciation of the distinctive character of the human person and our place within living nature.

These challenges distill around several major questions: What are the unique and defining features of human nature? What composition, conditions, and constraints (physical, social, and spiritual) provide the frame for the fullest flourishing of our distinctive human purposes within the world? And, most perplexing, is modern humankind a transitional form toward some future expression of our humanity? More specifically:

  • What is the meaning of apparent mind, emotion, and moral awareness in animals? Are humans, as some maintain, ‘just another ordinary animal species’?
  • What are we to make of predictions of conscious machines (neuromorphic computers and robotic servants, caregivers, and companions)? Can human nature be reduced to ‘information processing’–are we, as MIT professor Marvin Minski says, just a “meat machine”?
  • Will biotech-mediated enhancements of physical and mental powers open new horizons or disrupt fundamental aspects of our humanity? Shall we alter human physiology to enable interplanetary space travel or superior combat performance?
  • What issues of human dignity arise with the creation of human-animal hybrids for tissue production or scientific research (including placing human neurons in neonatal rat brains)? What similar issues arise with human-machine cyborgs, brain-computer interfaces, or modular neural implants?
  • Finally, how ought we regard and relate to ancestral human species or possible future forms of human life? What are we to make of projects to clone early hominids such as Neanderthals, or the Transhumanists’ proposals for the ‘evolution-by-design’ of future humans? They argue that our advancing neuro-technologies offer us the opportunity to escape the constraints and cruelties of an amoral evolutionary process, to lift humanity to its next level of personal and social flourishing—as human/machine-hybrid Post-Humans.

These intellectual and moral problems regarding the source and significance of human life and our place and purpose within the cosmic drama are at the heart of our project. Though these questions have been the subject of centuries of discussion, new perspectives from the natural and social sciences are, at once, challenging our traditions and opening constructive insights into our nature and place within the world.

Whereas previous concepts of human uniqueness were built on direct observations (the featherless biped, the animal that blushes) and theoretical abstractions (an individual substance of a rational nature), new tools of imaging and scientific inquiry are allowing deeper penetration into the bio-molecular mechanisms that underlie species similarities and distinctions. Likewise, more integrated theoretical approaches such as systems biology, social-cognitive neuroscience, and epigenetics allow a clearer understanding of the bio/social/spiritual unity of the human person. For example, we now have a better idea of how the human form provides the representational primitives and fundamental metaphors for the conceptual foundations essential for personal identity and theory of mind.

These advances, in turn, are contributing to a fuller appreciation of organic complexity (an important concern in projects to alter our natural body and mind), as well as the social, cultural, and spiritual conditions (and constraints) that support and promote the fullest flourishing of human life. A deeper physical anthropology is illuminating a seamless continuity of top-down and bottom-up causation and connection, including the co-evolution of genes and cultures, while a fuller analysis of the ethnographic literature is helping to clarify the range of human universals.

Meanwhile, advances in neurobiology and cognitive psychology are illuminating the biomechanisms of neural computation, sensory discrimination, and emotion, allowing radical refinements in computer design and robotic simulation of body movement, emotions, and even some (albeit limited) manipulation of language.

Taken together, these advances provide remarkably timely conditions and context for a project on the ‘boundaries of humanity.’ Moreover, such a project will add important contributions to fields as diverse as evolution and astrobiology. Already there is serious academic and intense popular interest in these matters (e.g. Google has an ethics committee on robots). What is missing is a concerted project to draw together the widest range of scholarship and scientific expertise in addressing these issues in a coherent and comprehensive way. We will formulate a thoughtful approach toward this goal, one that will provide a platform for genuine interdisciplinary dialogue, peer-reviewed publication, and accessible but authoritative information to engage and educate the public. Such an approach will at once deepen our reflection, guide social policy, and promote a renewed appreciation of the distinctive character of the human person.