What Does It Mean To Be Human?

by Ashley Sanders

On September 22nd, the CLASS scholars went to Michael Bess’s talk entitled “Technology, Ethics and the Quest to Build a Better Human” as a part of Belmont’s 15th annual Humanities Symposium, Machines Made of Words. Bess, Chancellor’s Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, began his talk by addressing what he calls the “Jetsons fallacy” which describes science fiction movies that depict a futuristic society where technology has massively evolved but humans have remained the same. Bess argues that this picture of unchanged humans with really cool gadgets is an incorrect depiction of our future. Instead, he believes that humans will evolve with new technologies.

He spent the bulk of his time discussing bio-enhancements: how humans are manipulating biology to create superhumans. He addressed in what ways we are already manipulating biology and in what direction he believes we are headed. Right now, we are able to influence our physical traits, abilities and emotions through drugs– using chemicals to fine-tune our own emotional states. In the future, Bess believes that we will be able to override our current physical limitations and slow down the aging process.

Dr. Michael Bess

Bess went on to discuss the possibilities of bioelectronics and the way that neuroscience is intersecting with medical technology. As our understanding of the brain has deepened, so has our ability to intervene and control its processes. Skull cap research has allowed people to pin point exact places in the brain that control emotions enabling intervention on a nuclear level with less side effects than drugs. In 2002, William H. Dobelle was able to give a blind man partial sight through bioelectronics. It occurred him that it was only a short step to adding in new technology like infrared sensors or a telescope feature. We have the capability to make ourselves “better than well.”

Finally, Dr. Bess discussed how we are taking control of our identity and abilities through genetics and particularly epigenetics. Epigenetics, he explained, are molecular mechanisms that change the expression of DNA (what is activated and what is deactivated at a certain time) without changing the code itself. Parents could design their children and people could, in a sense, re-wire themselves. This would allow people to be genetics works in progress.

He suggested that we are moving toward a future where people live longer and have a significant amount of control over their abilities and their emotional states. These technologies would mean creating a new generation of superhumans, with abilities that far surpass anything we are capable of now. But if we are manipulating our abilities, our emotions and even our genetics, what is left of who we are? He finished his talk raising some important and mostly unanswerable questions: Will these new technologies only be accessible to the chosen few? What will it do to the gap between the haves and the have-nots? How will we know what emotional states are real? What is it that makes a good life? And finally, what does it mean to be human?


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