Does being human require a certain kind of embodiment? This may sound like a strange question because we are accustomed to the equation, ‘Human = Homo sapiens’. Thus, the natural way to interpret talk about ‘animal rights’ or ‘machine rights’ these days is in terms of granting ‘rights’ in some sense to beings not embodied as Homo sapiens. But alternatively, we could simply mean extending the status of ‘human’ to animals and machines. The latter interpretation, while counterintuitive at first glance, would be truer to the uneven legal application of ‘human’ in the history of Homo sapiens. After all, we are still struggling to accept all members of Homo sapiens as ‘human’, even though ‘humanity’ has been attributed to animals, machines – and even extraterrestrials – down through the ages.
Now, you might read this last sentence as a moral indictment of Homo sapiens. On the other hand, you might say that it reveals the historical vagueness of ‘human’ as a predicate that remains even after Linnaeus’ mid-eighteenth-century coinage of ‘Homo sapiens’ to name the human animal. Only then did most modern intuitions about ‘humanity’ start to crystallize. But Linnaeus’ seemingly simplifying move has arguably only complicated matters. Consider these two countervailing developments:
(1) ‘Anthropology’ was coined (by Kant) at the end of the eighteenth century to name the science of Homo sapiens, whosespecies uniqueness has been increasingly challenged by Darwinians wanting to absorb humans into the more general study of animals. The fate of the ‘social sciences’ as separate from the natural sciences hangs in the balance.
(2) At the same time, a vast cross-disciplinary search has been launched to find something distinctive about upright apes that might make them ‘human’ – or more to the point, Homo sapiens as already ‘human’. The quarry has often been defined in linguistic or genetic terms – or both! The results have so far been inconclusive, to say the least.
Senior Fellow at c:o/re (10/21-09/22)
Steve holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, England, where he founded the research program of social epistemology.
This checkered history in the modern study of the ‘human’ suggests that we might consider the advantages of returning ‘human’ to the status of a vague predicate. From its earliest usage, ‘humanity’ has generally implied educability. It results in what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus, which is in turn ultimately about comportment: how you carry yourself in the world. In very broad terms, the Greeks and Romans focused on self-comportment, whereas the Christians stressed comportment towards others. This helps to explain the survival of ‘dignity’ and ‘recognition’ as normative concepts throughout modern Homo sapiens-centered discussions of humanity. However, the key metaphysical point is that ‘humanity’ is presented as something that one transitions into. It’s not naturally given, but it’s available as an opportunity to seize. This explains the centrality of education in (at least) the Western imagination in both ancient and modern times: It’s the process by which (any)one can become human. It’s also why the ‘humanities’ have been historically central to the university curriculum.
Given the various exclusionary narratives that have evolved around Homo sapiens over the past 250 years, one might conclude that Linnaeus’ coinage has served to restrict – not extend – our understanding of humanity. In this context, the word cishumanity has been coined to characterize what has become our default Linnaean view: that is, to be human is to be born as Homo sapiens. The neologism is modelled on the usage of transgender activists who coined ‘cisgender’ to refer to those who identify gender with the sex of one’s birth – as opposed to the manner of one’s self-presentation. The use of ‘cis-’ in this context has aroused controversy because it draws attention to the privileging of origins – in this case, being born in the ‘right’ animal species – over achievement in the determination of one’s standing in the world. Of course, this is a familiar theme from the long history of human attempts to escape from social discrimination.
But once we take seriously the proposition that humanity is something that one is not born into but rather must achieve, the focus shifts to the criteria of humanity. ‘Criteria’ first became philosophically luminous in the hands of the Stoics, whose worldview was informed by the belief that decisions must be taken against the backdrop of a fundamentally indeterminate world. The ‘only’ question is the basis on which such decisions should be taken; hence the need for ‘criteria’. In terms of modern philosophy, this position captured at once a ‘deontological’ ethics and an ‘antirealist’ epistemology. In other words, you must set the principles of judgement – otherwise there are no principles – and then you abide by whatever follows from that decision. Kant’s greatness came from tackling the question of the ‘you’ in its clearest and most comprehensive form. However, the self-styled ‘cosmopolitanism’ (a Stoic coinage) of his moral and political writings was arguably compromised by his debt to Linnaeus in the Anthropologie.
The ‘you’ in terms of criteria for humanity is the one who decides who else belongs. In this context, I have proposed a ‘Turing Test 2.0’. Whereas the original Turing Test was about selecting out the computer from the human, its upgraded version would select in the computer — or any other being — that passes the criteria, regardless of its material origins. In the spirit of Kant’s categorical imperative, your confidence in the principles that constitute the criteria would be sufficient to judge on behalf of the entire set of beings with which you identify. (Of course, then you would be willing to live with the consequences of your judgements). Such a ‘Turing Test 2.0’ would certify a sense of ‘ontological citizenship’ that binds both the judging and judged entity in a common humanity. The resulting world is one where The League of Humanity liberates the robots in R.U.R. and all the replicants pass the Voight-Kampff test in Blade Runner.
Fuller, S. (2014). ‘What scientific idea is ready for retirement?: Human = Homo sapiens’. Edge.org
Fuller, S. (2019). ‘The metaphysical standing of the human: A future for the history of the human sciences’. History of the Human Sciences 32: 23-40. The metaphysical standing of the human: A future for the history of the human sciences – Steve Fuller, 2019 (sagepub.com)
Hernandez-Orallo, J. (2017). The Measure of All Minds: Evaluating Natural and Artificial Intelligences. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Featured image: carbon fibers, photo: Mario Irrmischer
proposed citation: Fuller, Steve. 2022. Who are ‘You‘ in the Future of Humanity? https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/01/17/2086/2086/