SSNB Lecture Series:
What is Human? The American Public's View and the Impact on Human Rights.
What a human “is” has probably been debated for as long as humans have had critical self-consciousness. Scholars in this debate have also long claimed that if someone uses the “wrong” definition of a human, they will treat people less humanely. For example, a range of social scientists and humanists claim that if we define a human biologically we will come to think of ourselves more like animals, machines or objects – and treat each other as such. Others claim that if we define humans by having certain traits like rationality or perceptual awareness we will come to think of humans as having differential value – and not be bothered by unequal treatment. Despite their ubiquity, there has never been an empirical examination of these claims. In this talk I summarize a social science research project of the U.S. public that included a 3500 person public opinion poll and a 90 person in-depth interview study. I conclude that the critics of defining humans by biology or traits are correct, and that those holding the definitions are less likely to support human rights. However, it is rare for the public to agree with the precise definitions the critics are worried about, and the definitions the public do hold are subtly different. They are unlikely to have a negative impact on how we treat each other.
John H. Evans is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of the Social Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He specializes in examining debates that involve religion and science in the public sphere, trying to use social science to contribute to humanistic and ethical debates. He has been a visiting professor at six international universities, and is the author of four books on religion, science, ethics and biotechnology. His most recent book is What is a Human? What the Answers Mean for Human Rights(Oxford University Press, 2016).