Humankind is in danger of doing itself in—not with weapons of mass destruction, but with shifting conceptual categories.
So argues historian Fernández-Armesto (The Americas, 2003, etc.), suggesting that science and philosophy have combined in the last two generations to blur hitherto hard-and-fast distinctions between human beings and other primates, thus undermining “our traditional concept of humankind.” Geneticists now maintain that the differences between chimpanzees and humans are so minute as to be nearly meaningless; some even urge that the genus Homo be extended to included nonhuman apes. Looking back over the fossil record, scientists point out that features once thought to be distinctively human—bipedalism, large brain cases, the use of tools, and omnivorous diets—were widely shared among the protohominids, including those outside the human line of descent. Considerable debate, for instance, now surrounds the relative merits of early modern humans and Neanderthals; as Fernández-Armesto writes, “save for an accident of evolution, this species might still be around to challenge our human sense of uniqueness,” and certainly Neanderthals possessed most of the fine qualities that 19th-century racialist scientists ascribed to advanced (that is, European) humans. The implications of this broadened view of humankind are many. For one thing, Fernández-Armesto observes, our sense of humanness might come one day to embrace nonhuman kin such as chimps and orangutans, but also robots and suchlike thinking products of human creation. For another thing, he notes, “biology has made racism indefensible,” so that there is no good reason—if there ever was one—for imposing cultural differences based on supposed genetic ones. Will the result be a happier world? For androids and apes, perhaps. For humans, though, the author concludes, the new definition of humankind will best be meaningful when we try to live up to the old one of humans as “uniquely rational, intellectual, spiritual, self-aware, creative, conscientious, moral, or godlike.”
Good food for thought for ethicists and ethologists alike.