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What is a Human?

What is a Human?

An interview with sociologist John Evans on how our conceptions of humanity affect the support of human rights.

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The title of John H Evans’ most recent book sums up perhaps one of the most persistent questions that human beings ask ourselves– what are we? How do you define a human being? What is our anthropology? How we answer that question can affect not just how we see ourselves, but how we see and, potentially, treat others.

Last week President Trump triggered a national conversation in America on precisely these lines, by tweeting in relation to undocumented migrants: “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.” He later clarified that he was referring specifically to gang members. Many people pointed out the historical correlation between dehumanising categories of people and tyranny.

In 2015 UK controversialist Katie Hopkins wrote a column in which she referred to refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East as ‘cockroaches’. The ensuing debate ran along similar lines.

This instinct, that our fair and just treatment of each other rests on acknowledgement of each other’s humanity is an old one. Much of the resistance to the Darwinian project was motivated by fear that if people see each other as animals, they will treat each other as animals. And for good reason – Sam Keen, Kristen Renwick Monroe and others have shown that “if the government successfully redefines an enemy as ‘vermin, ‘animals’ or ‘gooks’ it makes it easier to kill them”

The practical effects of our beliefs about who does or does not count as a human being show up beyond migration debates. Developments in both biotechnology, including gene editing, and AI have made the question of how we define humans very live.

Although there has been an obvious pattern of tyrannical governments dehumanising their enemies in order to justify killing them (Nazi Germany, Rwanda) up until now there has been very little empirical investigation of the claim that our definitions of the human might impact how we treat other people more generally.

John H. Evans is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He has written widely on politics and religion, bioethics and science, and I spoke to him about his most recent book which attempts to open up research in this field. What Is A Human: What the Answers Mean for Human Rights, examines three possible definitions of a human (biological philosophical and theological ) and seeks to trace how these might have an impact on an individual’s attitude towards human rights in the United States. I spoke to him over the phone from California.

EO: What led you to this topic? I know you’ve been thinking about it for a while.

JE: My interest actually started way back in the 1990s, when I was writing my dissertation on human genetic engineering. The respondents in my data talked about their fears that germline genetic modification would lead to dehumanisation.

It really stayed with me and later I realised that there is no such thing as dehumanisation, as such. It just means a definition of the human that you don’t agree with. There is a clear underlying belief that once people see a person as less than human you can treat them worse. This really stayed with me. I’ve wanted to find a way to test this for a long time and have spent decades thinking about various designs but it’s very difficult to do.

Since then I have been mainly working in bioethics, reproductive genetic technologies and attitudes to them, and more recently have been writing about religion and science. I thought most developments in science were not particularly morally contested because germline modification seemed a way off but it now appears imminent, and therefore the question became more urgent.

So you came at it more with an interest in bioethics than because of the public conversations about refugees and migration?

That’s right, though I think you can come at this question from a number of angles. In amongst the debates about biotechnology is a fear that a biological anthropology in particular is on the rise and it is being implicitly taught as these technologies gain precedence. The worry of many critics is that this will result in us treating other human beings increasingly poorly.

Do you think biological anthropology (that a human being is someone with human DNA) is growing?

Yes, I think so. Younger people are measurably more likely to believe that, but it’s unclear whether that’s a life stage that will pass or a cultural change. The general academic consensus is that that it is on the rise. 

The problem is “probably as old as critical human self– consciousness” so why has there not been more work in this area?

That’s a good question! In the humanities, specifically philosophy and theology, hundreds of linear feet of books and articles have been written about it, but empirically it is difficult to do within established methodological tools of social science. This book is stretching existing methodology. It would be a tighter design to observe people doing things. Because the ideal thing would be to approach it ethnographically: observing military personnel torturing others and then probing their anthropologies but for obvious reasons this isn’t possible.

Can you unpack the methodology you finally alighted on for me, for those not familiar with social science research methods? What kind of questions were you asking?

My method was to try and triangulate two types of data. The first was in–depth interviews, when people can use their own language to tell you what they think. We did this with two different interview samples, the general public and also PhD students in biology and in the humanities.  This obviously has its challenges because people can talk about the same thing in lots of different ways so the analyst has to infer a lot. It is also impossible to do a representative sample in terms of time, geography, and cost.

To supplement the interviews we did a nationally representative opinion survey. While the results of a survey are much less rich, the results are representative of the U.S. public’s views.

These methods ended up with two slightly different results, largely because when I do the in–depth interview I try and let people use their own words, in the survey you have to give them the words. As long as the analyst is aware of how the methods differ you can come to some conclusions.

You started by trying to correlate attitudes to human rights and three different anthropologies – can you explain these?

Yes, within the established academic discourse you have three main ones. The first, what I have termed the theological anthropology, draws on Jewish and Christian thought and answers the question what is a human with “humans are those who are made in the image of God”. Nested within that, you usually have the potential for ongoing relationship with God, implying that God cares for the individual, and the concept of the soul.

The second one is the philosophical anthropology, which says humans are those which have the requisite traits. There are of course many different lists of traits depending on the philosopher!

Finally you have a pure biological anthropology which would say humans are those who have a particular DNA sequence.

And what did you find?

My survey measured extreme versions of anthropologies, as defined by people like Peter Singer representing the philosophical anthropology and Richard Dawkins representing the biological.

People who hold those extreme versions are more likely to say, for example, torture is allowable, poor people should be allowed to sell their organs, or it is okay to end the life of a very old person who is a drain on resources.

As you might expect, academics tend to hold more extreme versions of these anthropologies compared to the public.

There are other interesting differences. For example, the academics who hold to a philosophical anthropology come up with traits that are not at all relational, like: “humans are those with a certain level of consciousness, awareness and so on.” You could hold the requisite list of traits and never come into contact with another human being. Members of the general public who hold to a more philosophical anthropology tend to choose different traits, more relational ones like the ability to feel love or to communicate. Therefore, I think the general public “philosophical anthropologies” do not have any of the same negative implications for treatment.

It’s also important to say that few Americans agree with the extreme versions of the philosophical and biological anthropology. Therefore, people should be vigilant about extreme versions but they don’t currently need to be worried about the general public where generalised belief in equal treatment holds quite strongly.

Why do you think that is?

I think that equal treatment at least used to be taught at almost every stage. The premise of America is that all humans are equal and it was implicitly and explicitly taught in schools, churches and elsewhere. Americans have of course not lived up to those aspirations, but we learned them nonetheless.

If the general public still holds to a default belief in equal treatment does it matter what academics think?

I think scholars of the public sphere have overestimated how durable that belief is.

Also, views held by very few people, if they are powerful, can be very dangerous. Many of the technologies becoming available would implicitly teach biological and philosophical anthropologies. For example, it is thought to be imminent that people will be able to obtain an educational polygenic score, which is a measure of every gene which can explain your educational attainment. Very soon you could score your embryos in pre–implantation IVF and say “this embryo is an 85 on educational polygenic score and this one this is only an 82”. I think widespread use of technologies like these would implicitly teach a philosophical (traits) and biological (DNA) anthropology so we should be aware of the possible effects. If this long term might make us more willing to treat those with lower intelligence or genetic material worse we should be very careful. I therefore like to think of my book as a warning.

You provide evidence that a theological anthropology is probably most protective of human rights, but for those who can’t get on board with theological anthropology, what should they do? 

Be careful about the possible effects of your anthropology. Academics are paid to reason in a particular way, and I think it is important we remember just because philosophers do not make certain connections, it does not mean normal citizens won’t. Think about explicitly counter programming against the conclusion, for example, that if humans are just DNA we can treat other people like animals. Academics often feel like this is stupid and they don’t need to do it, but I think this study suggests they do.

As at least half the United States does not participate in religion, a more general solution would be to create and popularise a secular yet sacred definition of the human being. This would presumably have the same effect as the traditional Jewish and Christian version. For someone who is an advocate of human rights, the best thing is probably to encourage the public to just talk amongst themselves about they think a human is.

How controversial have your findings been? What kind of responses have you had?

Biologists and philosophers of course don’t particularly want to hear this. There are also methodological critiques – there is a type of social scientist who would say “don’t bother asking what people think, just look at what they do”. The only way to satisfy some people methodologically would be to wait until these technologies are in place and then measure their effects. I think by then it would be too late, and impossible to go back.

Do you have a personal stake in this debate? What is your instinctive anthropology?

I think my anthropology is sort of a mix of these things. I do have a commitment to the idea of the sacred human that has unlimited value, and that all humans should have equal value, even if they do not have equal ability. That is my normative commitment and I am concerned about notions of the human that teach something different.

 Image from pixabay available in the public domain.

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Elizabeth Oldfield

Posted 24 May 2018

Human Rights, Humanity, Theology


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