WHAT IS HUMAN NATURE?

Meeting report on our March 10th ‘99 discussion on human nature.

To Christians, human beings are easy to identify. We are merely the fallen children of God, out of favour with our creator, and trying to find our way home.

Darwinists would see us as a zoological species of ape, barely a percentage in DNA separates us from some species of monkey. The title of Desmond Morris’s most famous book recognises us as the only hairless Ape, out of 400 species of ape, and calls us ‘The Naked Ape’.

Most human actions can and are performed by animals. Birds build nests and rabbits dig burrows. Our conviction that we alone shape the environment to suit our needs rather than adapting ourselves to it or dying off is naive. Some animals use weapons. Chimpanzees may throw stones. Only humans however use tools to make tools with. Animals may show signs of creativity, violence against their own kind, homosexuality, some animals show speech patterns and rudimentary language skills.

Aliens visiting our world might find bacteria more fascinating than people, as there are so much more of them than us, and they last considerably longer in lifespan.

Humans are keen to measure themselves by their intelligence and their sense of ethical morality. Studies show that the human brain is possibly two brains, with the right hand-hemisphere brain making us logical, and the left hemisphere making us more creative.

Humans can breed with humans, but not with other creatures, which also find it difficult to breed with any other than their own kind, though hybrids are occasionally found, mules coming from horses and donkeys, for example.

If we identify humanity by our intelligence, what of the very young, old, and mentally disabled? Should someone unable to convey thoughts and feelings be regarded as having less rights than more intelligent humans? One member thought surprisingly (in a view in which he was very much in the minority) that he answer to this question is ‘No!’ He argued that a right is only yours if you can convey it. This involved the notion that while no one should torture you, if you are unable to plead a case for not being tortured, you have no ‘right’ to object to such treatment. The argument was criticised for not taking account for our obligations to recognise the rights of others, even perhaps if they have not expressed those rights openly. All individuals have obligations to respect the rights and needs of other people(s).

Human ability to control the environment was challenged on the grounds that man makes such a mess of the environment. Our evolutionary change into inventive city builders should not be interpreted as evolutionary progress. Change isn’t progress unless it is sustainable and controllable. Our handling of the Earth’s scarce resources is currently out of such control.

We need to look at our rights and responsibilities more through a Humanistic framework. This will help to make us a more practical and dynamic movement. Reductionism makes us little more than the sum of our atomic parts. Are we more than that?

We moved to looking at Human intelligence in comparison to Artificial and computer intelligence. AI scientists generally admit to being nowhere near replicating human thought processes in computer programmes. Theoretically it remains possible though. Our minds make us what we are. Replace your brain with a Pentium chip that does everything your brain now does and would it still be you? If you transplant your brain into another being, would it still be you in the brain or your original body? Physical harm distresses the mental state of humans and vice-versa. Where does the person begin?

Alan Turing, one of the most neglected and misunderstood scientific heroes of our age, devised the hypothetical and remarkable ‘Turing Test,’ in which a human observer has two test subjects hidden from his sight in separate rooms. One is human, another an alien from the stars, the third a computer brain. By asking questions, he has to decide which is which. The hypothesise declares that if the computer can convince him it is human, then it has to be admitted that it is human in nature through and through, concludes Turing. The computer needn’t look remotely human. It is its function, and what it does that counts. It is by our actions that we become human and more human still.

                                                            FOOTNOTE ON ALAN TURING (1912-1954)

Alan Turing masterminded the Enigma code-breaking machines that cracked German U-boat ciphers in WW2. He was a Londoner who moved to Manchester in later years where he was blackmailed by a gay lover. Turing called the police, when being gay was illegal. They arrested him. Offered the choice of drugs to curb his urges or prison, he took the drugs. He committed suicide with a cyanide laced apple. A Manchester statue is planned in his honour.

Arthur Chappell