"Irving Response to 'Humanity Isn't; It Becomes'"

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright September 24, 2012
Reproduced with Permission

[Note: The article on "Humanity Isn't, It Becomes" re when "personhood" began during evolution, copied below and posted on DiscoverMagizine.com, will probably be mostly unintelligible to most readers -- just try to push through it. Needless to say, the website and commentators to whom I responded probably all fall under the categories of the "isms" that I noted for them -- all of which are extreme rationalism (concocted in the mind only with no necessary reference to the real world outside the mind to determine if their concepts of "person" are true or not), usually with ancient gnostic foundations. Thus they are clueless as to the points I raised. I used no "Catholic", theological, or "prolife" arguments (and almost never do) -- simply empirically-based Aristotelean logic -- yet their various and instantaneous responses to my comments consist of typical anti-Catholic and anti-prolife rhetoric. I purposefully did not give my full name, yet quotes used by them from some of my published articles, being referenced as a "she", as well as being a "Catholic" and "prolife" are used to dismiss my comments outright, and indicate that they were already familiar with my writings or Googled them before responding. Yet they see no "prejudices" in their own definitions of "person". For them, "personhood" is an essentially relative concept, with no solid scientifically or philosophically defensible bases, and with no objective foundations. It's just all "opinion" -- to be used for whatever political (or psychological) purpose or need is the fad at the moment. I am simply asking them to seriously consider the full range of consequences to their definitions of "person". "Dialogue" seems to be impossible, but such is the state of academia and politics today. Or, perhaps they're just young and inexperienced. See my summary article of my 400-page doctoral dissertation on the "personhood" of the early human embryo (both sexually and asexually reproduced), "Scientific and philosophical expertise: An evaluation of the arguments on 'personhood'", Linacre Quarterly February 1993, 60:1:18-46, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_04person1.html. -- DNI]


Irving Response to "Humanity Isn't, It Becomes"

Comment #24. D. N. Irving, Ph.D. Says:
September 24th, 2012 at 10:02 am

Although a thorny issue, I see indefensible influences of "process" philosophy here. Can something come from nothing? Definitions of "person" have recently been proclaimed to advance various "isms" - e.g., transhumanism, futurism, postnaturalism, posthumanism, artificial intelligence and robotic "isms", even "bioethics-isms" (is there such a word?!), etc. But all such definitions of "person" seem to be reductive and simplistic, making various "splits" or fragmentations of what is a whole intact human being already possessing both active and potential properties and functions. And all such definitions have real-life consequences that should be seriously considered - and admitted. If "person" is defined only in terms of Singer's "rational attributes" (knowing, willing, relating to the world around one, choosing, etc.), then even the following adult human beings are not "persons": mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the comatose, demented elderly, drug addicts, alcoholics, maybe even teenagers - and all of us when we sleep, are under anesthetics during surgeries, etc. Therefore all such human beings would not deserve the rights and protections afforded real "persons" (and consider those consequences). If "person" is defined only in terms of Singer's "sentience" (ability to feel pain/pleasure), then even adult paraplegics, those with neuropathy, and most of those identified above are also not "persons". If "person" is defined using erroneous or false scientific, philosophical or paleontological "facts", then such definitions are baseless, but just as potentially damaging.
D. N. Irving, Ph.D.
(science and philosophy)


September 23, 2012
by Razib Khan

Humanity isn't, it becomes

John Hawks prompts to reemphasize an aspect of my thinking which has undergone a revolution over the past 10 years. I pointed to it in my post on the Khoe-San. In short, the common anatomically modern human ancestors of Khoe-San and non-Khoe-San may not have been people. Rather, people may have evolved over the past 100-200,000 years ago. Of course the term "people" is not quite as scientific as you might like. In philosophy and law you have debates about "personhood". Granting the utility of these debates I am basically saying that the common ancestor of Khoe-San and non-Khoe-San may not have been persons, as well understand them. Though, as a person myself, I do think they were persons. At this point I am willing to push the class "person" rather far back in time.

As I suggested earlier there is an implicit assumption that personhood is a shared derived trait of our species. Or at least it is a consensus today that all extant members of H. sapiens are persons. Since Khoe-San are persons, the common ancestor of Khoe-San and non-Khoe-San must also be persons if personhood is a shared derived trait. But, we also know that there are many aspects of realized personhood on a sociological or cultural scale which seem to diminish the further back in time you go. For example, the Oldowan lithic technology persisted for ~1 million years. A common modern conception of persons is that persons in the aggregate are simply never so static. Persons have culture, and culture is protean. Therefore, one might infer from the nature of Oldowan technological torpor that the producers of that technology were not persons.

But there's a large gap between the decline of the Oldowan and the rise of anatomically modern humans. Where to draw the line? Let's take a step back about a decade. Here's an extract from Richard Klein's excellent Dawn of Human Culture:

Our third and final observation is that the relationship between anatomical and behavioral change shifted abruptly about 50,000 years ago. Before this time, anatomy and behavior appear to have evolved more or less in tandem, very slowly, but after this time anatomy remained relatively stable while behavioral (cultural) change accelerated rapidly. What could explain this better than a neural change that promoted the extraordinary modern human ability to innovate? This is not to say that Neanderthals and their non-modern contemporaries possessed ape-like brains or that they were as biologically and behaviorally primitive as yet earlier humans. It is only to suggest that an acknowledged genetic link between anatomy and behavior in yet earlier people persisted until the emergence of fully modern ones, and that that postulated genetic change 50,000 years ago fostered the uniquely modern ability to adapt to a remarkable range of natural and social circumstances with little or no physiological change.

Arguably, the last key neural change promoted the modern capacity for rapidly spoken phonemic language, or for what anthropologists Duane Quiatt and Richard Milo have called "a fully vocal language, phenmiized, syntactical, and infinitely open and productive."

The non-moderns were not ape-like, but they were clearly not human-like, if they lacked language as what we understand language to be. Today this view is likely in the minority position, but why? I think the possibility of admixture between these distinct human lineages suggests that the gap between "them" and "us" was not quite as large Klein postulates above. And even then there is a major problem with Klein's thesis: there was mitochondrial and archaeological evidence even then that the divergence of the Khoe-San and non-Africans far pre-dated the 50,000 year time period alluded to above. Since then the evidence has become even stronger that the divergence of the Khoe-San from other humans, and likely Africans from non-Africans, pre-dates the emergence of "behavioral modernity."

An implicit assumption that personhood is a shared derived trait from a common human ancestor to me speaks to the same needs and urges which posit a specific ensoulment or creation of humanity from clay. Our minds are not very good at continuities, so we must create distinctive breaks. One moment an animal, and another moment a man! The occasional scientist who speculates that there may be a set of genes which define humanity I think falls into the trap of assuming discontinuity where there is none. There may be no genetic variant necessary or sufficient to being a human. Let me finish by quoting John Hawks, who inspired me to be a bit more explicit in my own line of thinking:

Personally, I think that "cognitive modernity" is a red herring. Today's people learn some kinds of technical and symbolic complexity that were never present in ancient peoples. Some people living today in Western cultures, despite all our educational efforts, fail to attain levels of technical knowledge that are regular outcomes for the majority of people in the same environment. Human performance varies continuously.

I assert that it is unreasonable to suppose that Neandertals had a "stupid gene". If so, it should be just as unreasonable to suppose that a "smart gene" could explain the evolution of human cognition during the last 100,000 years. These unrealistic assumptions are widespread, and impede our understanding just as thoroughly as assumptions about the nature of biological species impeded our understanding of Neandertal ancestry of living human populations. Some archaeologists have concluded that Neandertal cognition is an either/or proposition. Some look at Neandertals, find a lack of evidence that they behave identically to later people, and conclude that the Neandertals were therefore unquestionably cognitive inferiors. Others look at Neandertals, find some signs of modern-like behaviors, and conclude that Neandertals were therefore unquestionably our cognitive equals.

Cognition in modern humans varies continuously across many axes of variation. No two humans are cognitively identical in outcomes. Nor can we appeal to "cognitive capacity", a meaningless abstraction unless we are discussing a particular structured learning environment in which the outcomes are potentially measurable. Will we someday raise a Neandertal in a human society to see whether and how they attain the skills and abilities we consider essential?