We Have Never Been Human

by Sean Miller

27 April 2016

Within our bodies, single-celled organisms outnumber cells that we identify as human DNA ten to one. We're merely a colony within a colony within a colony.
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Two recent events in the news highlight the growing change in perspective on the place of Homo sapiens in the universe. Microbiologist Jillian Banfield and her colleagues just published a new study in the journal Nature Microbiology that radically revises Charles Darwin’s cherished concept of the Tree of Life.

As any microbiologist can attest, throughout much of our planet’s history, single-celled organisms have done a tremendous job of changing the composition of the Earth, even while lacking imaginations or opposable thumbs.

Using cutting-edge sequencing methods, microbiologists have been databasing the genomes of hundreds of new microbial species. They’ve known for decades that single-celled organisms—in particular, bacteria—comprise the bulk of the biomass on Earth. Now it’s becoming clear that bacteria also make up the lion’s share of biodiversity, as well. When it comes to life on our Podunk planet, prokaryotes are where it’s at.

We nucleus-sporting eukaryotes, a group which includes multi-celled organisms like plants and animals, are on the margins of the cornucopia. Even within our own bodies, single-celled organisms outnumber cells that possess what we identify as human DNA ten to one. Without these “guest” organisms, largely in our guts, we wouldn’t survive. Microbiologists are only beginning to understand the relationship between guests and host. Some suggest that our gut biome has a profound effect on our mental states. In short, only in certain proscribed social contexts are we humans contiguous unities. In the bigger biological picture, we’re a symbiotic multiplicity: a colony within a colony within a colony.

Also recently, Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner held a press conference with a coterie of scientific and Web 2.0 luminaries to unveil a new space exploration project called Breakthrough Starshot. Breakthrough Starshot intends to grapeshot a fleet of smartphone-sized robots to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. With an estimated budget of US$10 billion, Yuri and company plan to build a massive array of lasers that will jettison the nanocraft by targeting their unfurled sails for two minutes with 100 gigawatts of power. This would propel the tiny probes to one fifth the speed of light and allow them to reach Alpha Centauri, which is over four light-years away, in about 20 years. What an incredibly ambitious undertaking! It has the legendary ingenuity of one of Milner’s advisors, Freeman Dyson, written all over it.

Yet Breakthrough Starshot underscores how feeble we wise apes are in the cosmic scale of things. In a prelude to the press conference, with his characteristic priestly gravitas, project advisor Stephen Hawking intoned that what makes “human beings unique” is “transcending our limits” through our “minds and machines”. Also characteristically, Hawking omitted the key ingredient that connects mind to machine: the body.

All organisms—which I feel compelled to point out, have bodies as well—transcend their limits. Merely exhibiting this capacity makes us no different from other living things. There’s a case to be made that what’s unique about the human capacity to transcend limits is in its scale and scope. But once again, in cosmic scales, our dram of mind-and-machine-enabled ingenuity feels pretty dinky. We’ll have to wait a couple generations for grainy close-ups of the planets orbiting the three stars of the Alpha Centauri system to get beamed back to us by this navy of nanoprobes. Which is to say, if we can manage to not collectively euthanize ourselves before then, we’re a hell of a long way from colonizing the Milky Way.

Hawking’s prologue to the Breakthrough Starshot press conference belongs to the philosophical tradition that has dominated Western thinking for the past three centuries: humanism. One of humanism’s tells is its anxious compulsion to define what makes humans unique. Humanism very much wants humans to be special, both as a group and as individuals. The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “human” delineates the word through a series of distinctions. In the tradition, humans have been considered superior to (other) animals due to their ability to think, speak, and stand upright. We are also distinct from machinery and “the mechanic element”, as well as “mere objects or events”.

But humanism doesn’t always just punch down. When feeling weak or glum, it may begrudgingly acknowledge that humans are also distinct from “God or superhuman beings”. In a more penitent mood, humanists might even mutter about “human error”, “human frailty” or, getting all deep, the “human condition”.

The biggest issue I have with humanism as a worldview, taken by many as a commonsense truth, is its boorish conflation of the biological term Homo sapiens with what it all too often refers to as the “human being”. Human being is a term that buttresses an ontology—a claim about who you are on the inside—to a natural order as observed from the outside. That natural order is ostensibly our scientific understanding of the facts of “human nature”. In short, “human being” is an awkward juxtaposition of a unique interiority with a universal exteriority. In social contexts, to speak of anyone’s “being”, especially one not my own, is presumptuous. The “human” part of “human being”, that is, the part biologists refer to as Homo sapiens, as an object of scientific inquiry, is far too complex to support, especially in non-scientific discursive contexts, all but the blandest bromides.

A couple examples should suffice to drive the point home. Late last year, the novelist Bret Easton Ellis published an op-ed in the New York Times about the Internet-enabled “cult of likeability”. He opines, “Instead of embracing the true contradictory nature of human beings, with all of their biases and imperfections, we continue to transform ourselves into virtuous robots.” Here Ellis is making an ontological claim about “humans” with a tacit morality. His moral is that, in effect, being an asshole sometimes is better than being a goody-good all the time. For Ellis, consistently “virtuous” behavior isn’t being human; it’s being a machine.

More recently, the Gray Lady featured another op-ed by Sandra Arnold entitled, “Why Slaves’ Graves Matter”. Arnold writes that “memorialization keeps us connected to what is most significant about those who are no longer with us” and that “by gracing the sacred spaces of enslaved Americans with that same intention, we can give humanity and dignity to their memory.” The essay is moving, the argument powerful. But the recognition that once-enslaved Americans deserve resonates most powerfully when we remember them not as “humans”, but as “Grandpa Ben” or “Papa”, as “fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents”.

The tagline for the article, probably concocted by the editors, asserts that “those who lived through slavery were human beings, not abstractions.” But the term “human being” itself is an abstraction of the vaguest kind. There’s a better word to use when considering others, whether deceased or facing us right now. It’s a word that’s more intimate, more suffused with bonhomie. That word is “person”.

Humanism, and its elevation of the human, was a double-invention of 19th century European men of letters. In 1877, J.A. Symonds wrote that, during the Italian Renaissance, humanism was “a new and vital perception of the dignity of man”, which “was partly a reaction against ecclesiastical despotism” and “partly an attempt to find the point of unity for all that had been thought and done by man.” In 1888, Matthew Arnold enthused that Chaucer had “gained the power to survey the world from a central, a truly human point of view.”

Since its inception, in an attempt to take its own claims to universality seriously, humanism has progressively widened its tacit self-identification—as a very much middle-class European male preoccupation—to embrace the non-male and the non-European. Even in the 21st century, humanism still clings to what Tony Davies calls its “twin pillars… the sovereignty of rational consciousness and the authenticity of individual speech.” In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, humanists continue to insist that “humans beings” are special because of their capacity to reason, which, in turn, makes possible both moral action and material progress. Unfortunately for us and those with whom we cohabitate, the natural end-game of humanism is the anthropocene, and all the menace that an environment overrun by Homo sapiens entails.

With increasing frequency, though, humanism has extended its decentering away from white middle-class Western males to include not only women, minorities, and other forms of human being, but also, however clumsily, the non-human. Humanism has begun to sniff the passing of its sell-by date.

As I said, humanism puts much stock in the moral primacy of the individual “human being”. But here’s an example of one of humanism’s many contradictions: Richard Dawkins’ famous formulation of the “selfish gene” as the fundamental driver of the evolutionary process. According to Dawkins, the gene is an agent acting in its own interest to reproduce itself as far and wide as possible, given environmental constraints. In Dawkins formulation, it’s not clear what acts, or in other words, who the agent is. Outside of the biological context of the cell, genes—whether RNA or DNA—are chains of inert molecules. It’s more appropriate to ascribe agency not to the gene, but to the cell. Genes don’t want. Genes don’t act. Cells want. Cells act. To ascribe agency to a gene is a metaphor, and not a very apt one. To ascribe agency to a prokaryote, now that’s defensible.

So let’s return to the bacterium. It exhibits agency—and the intelligence that agency implies—to act in its environment to further the preservation of its kind. What does the bacterium possess that the gene lacks? It has a boundary. It has a metabolism. It has a mechanism for replication. All three of these features are necessary for life, but none are sufficient. One of the great ongoing mysteries of evolutionary biology is determining precisely when molecular mechanism became biological organism.

This brings up yet another problem relevant to the humanist notion of the sacrosanct individual. Cells have evolved to form organisms, collections of cells that collaborate toward a common purpose. But if cells are the fundamental intelligent agents of evolving life, what are we to make of the organism, this socialist collective of cells? Clearly, the biological organism exhibits its own agency, its own will to act with an intelligence adapted to its environment above and beyond the agency of individual cells. So which agent, then, has moral primacy?

The biological organism, as agent, has no meaning outside the context of its environment—other cells, other members of its group, and the ecosystem that hosts them. They are all a tightly coupled system. This is further complicated by the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, ten trillion nominally human cells, that is, cells that contain what’s recognized as human DNA, coexist with 100 trillion “guest” cells that lack human DNA, but without which, the human cells wouldn’t survive. In this heterogeneous collective, it’s not at all clear who the primary agent is.

There’s yet another form of agency that we must account for: the person, the “you” and “me” with which we’re most conversant. This agent acts in a social environment, complicated further by language and other prickly forms of meaning-making. The person is largely ignorant of the intelligence of the biological organism. Taking our cue from the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and the psychologist Sigmund Freud, we’re in the habit of calling this ignorance the unconscious. So we must account for yet another, third form of agency, in addition to the agency of the individual cell and the individual organism, which, in deference to humanism, I’ll call the liberal subject.

Once again, it’s important to recognize that the liberal subject, the one who’s autonomy and rights humanists are keen to legitimize and protect, has no meaning outside of the social context that circumscribes it. It, too, is an entity tightly coupled to an environment, both physical and semiotic. Enter the humanist notion of the “human being”; that abstraction meant to bridge the ontological gap between the biological organism, Homo sapiens, and the liberal subject. Certainly, the biological organism plays a key role in shaping the liberal subject. We have evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and the social sciences, among other disciplines, to thank for insights into that influence. Yet with tools in our hands and the plastic imaginations to guide them, we, as people, also shape the biological organism and the physical environment into which it ambivalently nestles.

It’s in this no-man’s-land between biological organism and liberal subject, this so-called “human being”, where humanism falls on its face. Here humanism scrambles to plaster over the gap with a heaping dollop of popular evolutionary biology. In short, it seeks to equate natural selection with progress. But evolution doesn’t progress, at least in the way humanists generally want to describe a monolithic “civilization” as doing. Living things, whether cells or multicellular organisms, adapt to their environments. Period. If the environment changes, then the organism must change with it—or perish.

If an organism changes its environment, then it, in turn, changes in adaptation to those environmental changes. This process may very well be intelligent, but it doesn’t have to be conscious. As any microbiologist can attest, throughout much of our planet’s history, single-celled organisms have done a tremendous job of changing the composition of the Earth, even while lacking imaginations or opposable thumbs. Furthermore, it’s easy enough to imagine a sufficiently different environment, whether physical or social, from the one that we enjoy here on Earth today where a morality entirely alien to our own—and anathema to the liberal subject—is the appropriate fit. Maybe we’ll find such a place near Alpha Centauri.

Ultimately, humanists just can’t make a claim that evolution, in its totality, promotes moral progress. They might argue that given this particular environment in this historical moment, moral progress is possible, but to claim it’s an evolutionary necessity, let alone an inevitability, is dubious at best. Something that drifts, that is, the biological organism, according to the prevailing winds of environmental flux, isn’t progressing or regressing. At the very least, humanists need to posit a hypothesis to explain why life—on this planet and, by extension, in the entire universe—evolves toward consciousness. Otherwise, what they have is a teleology that sounds a lot like that of the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor famously argued that humanism evolved out of Christian theology, and retains many of its features. Inspired by Taylor, we could even say that the “human being” is just a variant of the Christian soul.

While many prominent humanists, including Dawkins and Hawking, engage in a rear-guard action against what they shrilly decry as the ignorance and superstition of organized religion, they neglect what’s just over the horizon. What looms is the obsolescence of their own antiquated worldview. What lies ahead after humanism are post-humanisms. But that’s a conversation for another time, another day.

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