Posts Tagged ‘rationality’

Is Dr. Who Human?

May 1, 2009

I’m afraid I’m not going to have any easy answers on this one.  We have an intuitive sense of what separates the human from the non-human, but pinning it down exactly turns out to be a much more difficult task than it at first appears.  Let’s try some obvious and classical answers.

Humans are rational.

No.  Lots of animals have more rational capacity than newborns, the demented, and some of the mentally challenged.  Besides, if you’re talking computational ability, do you really want to propose a PC as human?

Humans use language.

No.  Creatures as simple as bees use gestures and pheromones that are arguably a kind of language.  Chimps have been taught to use at least rudimentary sign language, and have even been observed teaching it to their offspring.  Admittedly, it’s hotly contested what constitutes linguistic usage and the depths to which chimps genuinely grasp syntax, grammar, and all the rest, but clearly animals communicate with each other and with us.

Humans use tools.

No.  At the very least, chimps in the wild have been observed using sticks to collect ants–then scoot the ants up with their hands and gulp them down in one motion.  Yum!  I seem to recall primates, possibly even birds, using stones to crack nuts and mollusk shells.

Humans are the genetic descendents of the first Homo sapiens.

What?   You say you mean WHOLE organisms?  How whole?  Do amputees not count?  They do?  Then just HOW whole?  What if science were advanced enough to preserve the life of a person whose body had died, but whose brain lived on in a vat?  Would she still be a person?

But aren’t you being a little ethnocentric confining the human family to Homo sapiens?  How about those other branches on the human family tree closest to us, especially the Neanderthals?  I suspect most people would identify them as human, too.  Good thing, as many people believe many modern humans are partially descended from them, although this isn’t yet documented.

And when you start talking about genetics, you’re really opening a can of worms, of course.  We talk about THE human genome as if it were one thing, where there are countless known variations; let me discuss two of the better-known ones:

Down’s Syndrome is when a person has all or part of an extra copy of chromosome 21.  It usually causes mental retardation (although my Philosophy of Biology professor claimed that when she taught at Stanford she had a student with Down’s with an IQ of 140!) and a host of other mental and physical problems, but also a propensity towards less depression than typical.

XYY Syndrome is when a male has an extra Y chromosome.  According to Wikipedia, “most often, the extra Y chromosome causes no unusual physical features or medical problems.”

Since people with Down’s Syndrome or XYY Syndrome are genetically different from your typical person, are they really human?  I think most people would say yes.

And back to Dr. Who (and all the other fictional alien characters literature has given us, who hold a mirror up to our humanity, yet whose ancestors usually did not even spawn in our same oceans), who perhaps we will one day be privileged to meet in person.  Although genetically and internally he is certainly very different from us, yon Time Lord outwardly looks like us, reasons like us, has bad hair days like us, is subject to moral failings like us, uses tools far in advance of us, in short, seems to be meaningfully like us in every way that should count.

So, without a working definition, I want to say yes, I think if the Time Lord will accept us as company, we should accept him as human.