Chapter 12: Beyond Human (Preview)

“Human existence is about to get much better, much worse, or both.” —Robby Berman

“As long as you have a ridiculously long view of things, things are getting better.” —Robert Sapolsky

“How can we recognise the shackles that tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognise them, we are also able to break them.”—Franz Boas

“I am not here for myself, rather for the future, all the kids that will come,” —Nemonte Nenquimo, president of the Waorani Council of Pastaza


We have discussed in this class what is means to be human—how we are different from and similar to other species. We have considered whether other species have language, or whether it is uniquely human. We have looked at how categories like “subsistence” and “race” have been used to justify treating people like non-humans or sub-humans. We have examined non-human primates and their similarities and differences to humans, and discussed whether other species (or even river or trees) should have rights like humans do. We have looked at the ambiguity of humanness in the paleoanthropological record, asking whether Neanderthals and other hominins were human, and if so, why. And finally, we considered whether ancient human remains like Anzick Boy and Kennewick Man are people, and should be treated as such, or whether they are objects to be studied.

But the very definition of what it means to be human is changing. Historian Michael Bess explains:”But what we’re on the verge of doing with bio-engineering technologies like CRISPR is going to be so qualitatively different and more powerful that I think it’s going to force us to reassess who we are and what it means to be human” (Illing 2018). Some have even suggested we are becoming less human-like and more god-like. Visual anthropologist Edmund Carpenter (1976:1) likened contemporary humans to angels, “a spirit freed from flesh.” He explains, “The moment we pick up a phone, we are nowhere in space, everywhere in spirit…That is the Neo-Platonic definition of God: a being whose center is everywhere, whose borders are nowhere.” More recently, Historian Yuval Noah Harari (2018) describes our species not as Homo sapiens, Homo spiritualis, or Homo fictus, but as Homo Deus—god humans—given our unprecedented control over nature, over our biology, and our ability create different kinds of intelligence. 

Taking the Long View 

In our busy and complicated lives, we often take the short view, thinking about next week or, if we are really organized, we might have a five-year plan. The next generation or the next 100 or 1,000 years is typically not foremost in our minds. Thinking ahead, however, is essential for our own personal success and for the future of the planet. The value of looking ahead is captured in the much-cited Iroquois principle of “seven-generation thinking” where one considers the effect of actions of generations living 140 or so years from now and acts accordingly. We are connected to the people of the past, and are living in a world affected by their decisions and actions. The Long Now Foundation was created in order to promote long-term thinking on the scale of centuries and a sense of long-term responsibility. The Clock of the Long Now, designed to last 10,000 years and chime every century, exemplifies this extreme long view. In this chapter, we take the long view, and consider the future of humans and our lasting impacts on the planet.

We have discussed the Anthropocene—the age of humans—in a previous chapter. Never before was there a single species that has made such an impact on the planet. We have transformed the planet through domestication, deforestation, urbanization, ocean acidification, changing biodiversity, and changes to our atmosphere. Even places noted for their isolation and endemic species—unspoiled lands—have huge numbers of invasive species as a result of humans. The remote Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, famously visited by Charles Darwin in 1835, have an estimated 1,700 invasive species and about 20,000 human inhabitants. Given the current trends, we can ask: What will the future of the biosphere look like? How will our species have changed hundreds or even thousands of years from now? What new stories are yet to be told?

Hacking Humans

In this age of genetic research, we are on the threshold of something entirely new—directly adjusting the human genome. Gene editing has improved in recent years with a method called CRISPR/Cas-9. The technique delivers gene-editing components which target a section of DNA, and snip out the mutation, which is then replaced with the desired version. Potentially, the method could be used to edit DNA to prevent diseases like sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis which are caused by a single SNP (Saey 2017). Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is barred from clinical trials of editing embryos and the National Institutes of Health cannot fund such research. Scientists have used the technique to edit genes in a human embryo to repair a genetic mutation, but the embryos were not permitted to develop (Belleck 2017). One fear is that editing embryos—human genetic engineering—runs the risk of designer babies or “CRISPR babies”that are smarter, prettier, or more athletic. 

 

China has already begun using CRISPR on terminal cancer patients. American trials are awaiting approval from the FDA. The head of those trials, Carl June, thinks of the CRISPR trials and research as a kind of biomedical Sputnik, spurring technological competition between the U.S. and China. A second concern is how CRISPR will be regulated. Who will have access to it? Will some be able to profit from it? The United States military is funding genetic research into gene editing, causing alarm over potential military uses (Nelson 2017).

 

CRISPR has implications beyond humans as well. It is theoretically possible, for instance, to wipe out mosquitoes that carry malaria or other disease-carrying vermin. Biochemist and CRISPR co-creator Jennifer Doudna (2017) discusses the potential dangers of releasing edited animals into the wild, including upsetting the balance of an ecosystem or unintentionally wiping out a species. There is also the talk of “de-extinction” of animals—bringing back some version of extinct species using CRISPR. Doudna points out that traits are created by the interaction of many genes, not to mention environmental conditions. And so is not clear whether de-extinction could be a reality. Ethical and ecological questions would also have to be addressed in light of de-extinction.

Perhaps most disturbing is the threat of “super-bugs” that are engineered to cause a global pandemic (Bresler and Bakerlee 2018). Using gene-editing to produce artificial SNPs, bypasses the process of natural selection. While many of today’s diseases are typically zoonotic, gene editing tools like CRISPR could bypass the processes of diseases leaping from one organism to another, but rather targeting a specific one instead by design. Whether caused by accidental release or intentional terrorism, the results of engineered pandemics are equally terrifying. With the threat of super-bugs, there is call for developing infrastructure to develop vaccines to keep apace of the bio-hacked super-bug threat.

A New Intelligence

In addition to bio-hacking changing the human landscape, other kinds of technology like artificial intelligence (AI) are blurring the lines between computers and humans minds. Computers are outpacing humans at tasks that were once considered the exclusive domain of the human brain. The IBM computer Deep Blue beat Grandmaster Garry Kasparov at chess, and in 2016 AlphaGo beat the best in the world at the complex game of Go (Koch 2016). AlphaGo continuously plays itself, steadily improving its skill, a process called “machine learning.” Learning is foundational to humans and even animal culture. Machine learning is quite different from culture since it does not involve communication and cooperation between individuals. Philosopher Nick Bostrom thinks that the potential for artificial intelligence exceeds that of humans, what Bostrom calls “super-intelligence.” That is, according to Bostrom, computers have the potential to be more “sapien”, better thinkers, than humans. Bostrom says, “Think about it. Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make. The machines will then be better at inventing than we are” (Bostrom 2015). 

Nick Bostrom compares the potential of artificial intelligence and humans to the very different pathways of humans and gorillas. One primate is on the verge of extinction, while the other has become a dominant species responsible for that annihilation (Khatchadourian 2017). What will happen to humans in the face of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence? The future, he suggests, would be shaped by the preferences of this AI, and consequently we need to consider how to ensure that super-intelligence is aligned with human values. Who gets to decide what those values are?

 

Computer algorithms, a series of rules designed to accomplish a task, are becoming increasingly important to our daily lives. Today, the top investment managers don’t look for fresh business models to invest in, as depicted on Shark Tank, rather they rely on computer algorithms to make important investment decisions (McGee 2016). Even our social lives have been infiltrated by algorithms. We’ve come a long way from arranged marriages—or have we? In the U.S., we don’t typically entrust our village elders or parents to find a suitable mate, but many put trust in computer algorithms on sites like Tinder and Match.com. Some call centers are now using computer sensing to connect a caller with the most effective customer service person. This is accomplished by analyzing linguistic input like the caller’s tone of voice and choice of words, to match mood and personality with an agent. Even art is not outside the realm of computer algorithms, with computer-generated music based on the style of masters like Mozart or Beethoven (Adams 2010). Computers are beginning to do things that were formerly squarely in the realm of human culture—finding mates, making art, and using language.

 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning will impact the future job market, with experts estimating that as many as 47% of all jobs will become automated in the next 25 years (Ratner 2017). Other estimates are not as dire, with an estimated 14 percent of jobs lost. Other concerns are that automation will not remove jobs entirely, but will result in lower pay. Jobs like grocery clerk, travel agent, and banker are already mostly automated. The comparison with humans and robots is daunting—hospital pharmacy robots make zero errors (Manjoo 2011). Driverless cars are being tested on public roads, currently with a human backup, with the idea of creating safer transit (Thrun 2010). While autonomous cars do not get tired or experience road rage, other ethical questions arise. How would driverless cars evaluate a situation and determine whether to crash itself or strike a pedestrian, or how might it decide which pedestrian to strike given a dire scenario?  These choices would require programming as a part of its algorithm and serious ethical deliberation.

The Inhabitat by Nissan-Autonomous-Drive CC BY-NC-ND

 

In the not-too-distant past, nearly all Americans were agriculturalists. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, employment shifted to industry with a smaller number in service sectors. Today, as industry declines, more and more people work providing some kind of service—in health, education, computer programming. The Department of Labor Statistics lists 102 million people in service jobs as of 2016. Will automation and AI cause another shift in the economy that eliminates the need for most service jobs? If so, what will be left for people to do, and how will they make a living? How much power will those who own algorithms have over those who have none? Google’s subsidiary DeepMind has created a research group, DeepMind Ethics and Society, dedicated to studying the economic and social effects of artificial intelligence (Vincent 2017). 

What Makes a Person?

The very idea of what is human, who has personhood, has changed over time and has been defined culturally. We saw that Ota Benga was considered less than human when he was housed alongside monkeys and apes in the Bronx Zoo. Enslaved African men in the U.S. were not considered “persons” before they obtained citizenry and the right to vote with the 14th and 15th amendments. Ponca chief Standing Bear argued during the 1879 Standing Bear vs. Crook trial had to argue that he was in fact a human. He stated, “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you too will feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man.” Standing Bear won his case, which granted rights of personhood and the right of habeus corpus (have to show cause for authorities to detain you) to native peoples. As late as 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed agreed that women were “persons” and the 14th Amendment (“nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) applies to women.

Standing Bear won his case in court, winning rights of personhood.

Some animals species like dolphins and chimps have been represented in court with regard to personhood and rights, along with corporations, rivers and other non-human entities. Germany has granted some rights to animals in its constitution, especially with regard to experimentation for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals (Connelly 2002). Ecuador’s Constitution addresses the rights of the environment directly, stating that it has “the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” It is easy to see the connection here with animism, endowing natural phenomena with with human-like qualities, a spirit, soul, or agency. Or, indeed, the reverse, that humans are a part of nature. These recent efforts to grant animals, rivers, and “Mother Earth” with human-like rights lies in stark contrast to viewing the earth as a resource only. 

A blurring of what constitutes a person also appears in art. A photograph of Erica, dubbed the most realistic human robot, was shortlisted for the National Portrait Gallery’s Taylor Wessing prize, even though technically the portrait is supposed to be of a living person (Warburton 2017). 

 

 

The Future of the Past

Kennewick Man also known as The Ancient One is one of the earliest skeletons found in the Americas and dates to ca. 9,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene. Kennewick Man, like so many other remarkable finds was found accidentally. Two college students found the skeletal remains while wading in the Columbia River in Washington on Army Corps of Engineer land (federal property) during a boat race. Thinking it was a forensic case, they called in the authorities. At first, it was thought to be an early European explorer given the skull morphology. The radiocarbon date, however, sparked a controversy that is still raging today. The problem is who owns or who has rights to Kennewick Man’s remains? Is Kennewick Man a person or a thing? Some scientists argued that Kennewick man is a thing to be studied. Some tribal Nations, on the other hand, argued that Kennewick Man is a person, who required a proper burial.

Legislation called NAGPRA or Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 stipulates that human remains and other culturally important items found on federal lands should be repatriated or returned to tribes that can demonstrate cultural affiliation. Most repatriations are non-controversial, and there is a clear link between ancient remains and modern people. With Kennewick Man, the link from past to present was so distant that scientists who wanted to study the remains questioned whether he should be repatriated and reburied. In addition, some suggested that Kennewick Man’s cranial morphology resembled Europeans more than Native Americans. You can see how this debate had similarities to the Folsom site debate, where Hrlicka did not think Native Americans had been in the New World for very long. In 2015, a genetic analysis of Kennewick Man—comparing his SNPs to worldwide populations—revealed he was more similar to Native Americans (both North and South) than any other modern population. Kennewick Man’s mtDNA haplogroup (X2A) is found almost exclusively in Native Americans. (Haplogroup X, from which X2A is derived in found in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa). This case also illustrates how attempts to place Kennewick Man into a category based on morphology were flawed as racial categories are also often flawed. In 2017, Kennewick Man was reburied in an undisclosed location on the Columbia Plateau by Native tribes.

The discussion over whether bodies are objects or people also applies to the exhibition of modern people, like the Bodies exhibit in which humans bodies are preserved and displayed in terms of different systems (digestive, skeletal, muscular). The bodies, which are Chinese in origin, have no clear provenance, and may come from executed prisoners. Some have called for a ban on the exhibit and a burial of the bodies.

Food for a Growing Planet

We have learned about foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, and agriculture, along with the concept of intensification. Today there are around 7 billion people on the planet and we expect to hit 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed everyone? Technically, there is enough food to feed the world’s population, but the food is often wasted, fed to animals, converted to biofuel, or is not affordable by the people that need it most. Food prices are a major component of the problem. Prices have skyrocketed as a result of climate change, increasing oil prices, ethanol fuel, rise of the middle class and demand for better foods in places like China. People in poorer countries spend nearly 70 percent of their income on food alone. Given these factors, there is concern that a global food crisis will emerge by 2050. Scientists estimate that as much as 50 percent more food will be required by that time in order to feed the world. 

 

Geographer Evan Fraser lays out four different actions that can be taken to avoid a global food crisis. First, technology could help the impending global food crisis by providing Africa with materials for modern farming—seeds, fertilizers, and equipment— to maximize its food potential. This effort would have to play out at the local level with farmers and scientists working together, necessitating deep understanding of local practices and cultures. Secondly, small farms around urban areas would provide a buffer in case world markets fail. Third, food aid organizations must have stockpiles of food and a plan of distribution when food shortages arise. Finally, Fraser argues that governmental regulation is needed in order to promote and ensure sustainable farming.

Sara Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence, suggests that the crisis could happen much sooner than 2050. She predicts that by 2027 there will be a deficit of 214 trillion calories, an outcome of catastrophic proportions. She explains that some countries like the United States produce more food than they consume. South American countries like Brazil have flipped from being food importers to producers, at the loss of rainforest. Other regions, like China and Africa, are importers of food, and will be hit hardest by a global food crisis. Menker argues that commercialization of agriculture—intensification—in Africa could tip the balance back, making Africa a net producer that can sustain itself and provide food to food importers. 

Making New Stories

We have looked at how humans are “swimming” in culture. Our own culture can be hard to see because we take it for granted or assume it is normal. Some of our most salient realities are created by people—everything from money to laws to some of our most cherished values. Even those who are not religious very often have deep-seated values that are sacred to them. Those values are in turn backed up by symbols and stories. 

Nonetheless, our shared web of meaning, our sacred values and the symbols and stories that accompany them, can change in an instant. The Soviet Union can disappear with the signing of the Belavezha Accords, the Defense of Marriage Act can be overturned overnight, and once-illegal drugs like marijuana can suddenly become legal. Even the ideals and values of our parents can seem quaint to us. The value system and worldview of our great-great-great grandparents, who may have lived through the American Civil War or the Mexican Revolution, would likely seem foreign to us. And technology is changing so fast, that people worry that our values system cannot keep pace with the changes. Historian Michael Bess cautions, “We need to sit down with ourselves and say, “As I look at my daily life, as I look at the past year, as I look at the past five years, what are the aspects of my life that have been the most rewarding and enriching? When have I been happiest? What are the things that have made me flourish?” If we ask these questions in a thoughtful, explicit way, then we can say more definitely what these technologies are adding to the human experience and, more importantly, what they’re subtracting from the human experience.” (Illing 2018) As we experience these new changes in technology and what it means to be human, people, especially young people, have much power in deciding the shape of a culture’s values and the stories and symbols that support those values. The actions of your generation will shape the course of the future as we enter the Anthropocene. If we do this with eyes both on the past and the future, we stand to make better choices for our species and the natural environment. 

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