Who, or what, becomes human?

July 31, 2012

Our long childhood and dependence on parental care seem to leave no doubt about it: we are not born as humans, we become human.

I want to highlight a particularly tempting metaphor for this process of “becoming human” – the metaphor of:

  • “Order out of chaos.”

According to this metaphor, human infancy is abundantly rich in possibilities; so abundant, in fact, that it is a formless chaos – a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” as William James characterized the infant’s experience of being alive.

To acquire recognizable human form, the child’s inner chaos must be tamed through the disciplining efforts of parents and society at large (the metaphor suggests). The child’s formlessly rich inner life must me narrowed down, hardened, made boring… until, finally, it becomes another obedient member of society.

Society does not acknowledge a real human subject until the norms of “being human” are confidently repeated: as if the child easily would slip back into its more original state of blooming, buzzing confusion, the moment the reiteration of the social norms of humanity terminates.

The “order out of chaos” metaphor makes life and growth look like death and atrophy. To become human means aborting limitless possibilities and gradually turning into that tragic effect of social forces that we know as “the mature adult.”

Perhaps the intriguing topic of the “deconstruction of the subject” is nothing but rigorous faithfulness to the logic of this tempting metaphor? If becoming human is anything like what the metaphor presents it as, then “no one” becomes human, strictly speaking, for before the disciplined human is formed, there is nameless chaos and no recognizable human subject.

But how can the proto-human chaos – I mean, the child – be so responsive to its non-chaotic parents that it reduces its inner chaos and becomes… human? Isn’t that responsiveness already a form of life, a way of being human?

Dare we entertain the hypothesis that the newborn already is active, and that her metamorphoses throughout life require her own creative participation?

I believe we need another understanding of human becoming than that of “order out of chaos.” – Or is human life really a form of colonization of the child?

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


What do donors need to know about future research?

July 22, 2012

I’m reading a Scientific American Guest Blog, on the ethics of future-use DNA sampling. Donating DNA to research is described as a more lasting donation than donating organs or embryos: DNA is information and information can last longer.

That donating DNA is such a lasting donation seems to imply that the future use to which the DNA can be put to use is more open. Who knows what information future researchers might be able to obtain from DNA donated today?

The author of the guest blog, Ricki Lewis, asks how consent can be obtained for DNA sampling intended for future genetic research.

She rejects the view that researchers must know in advance where the research might lead and inform donors about it; and if research takes unforeseen directions years or decades after the donation, researchers must contact donors again for renewed consent.

This view is rejected because knowing where research might lead “is not how science works.” And renewed consent would be “confusing, disturbing, and likely expensive.” – I agree.

Ricki Lewis’s own solution is the following:

  • “…informed consent documents should state that the sample might be used in the future to get information unknown today. Participants or patients can agree, or not sign.”

Both solutions seem to operate on a level that strikes me as less relevant to DNA donors.

People who donate DNA to science probably want to contribute to research that can improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of various diseases. That is the level at which they are concerned about the future use of their DNA: the level of the practical significance of the research.

The exact scientific path that future research takes is less relevant to donors, I believe, as long as the research has the kind of practical significance that motivates their donation. And to ask for consent to do science as science is done – without knowing in advance where it might lead – could be confusing.

I also wonder: could a consent form that emphasizes the open and unpredictable nature of scientific research be misused on the practical level that probably concern donors more?

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


Neither innate nor learned

July 11, 2012

A child begins to speak; to say that it is hungry, or does not want to sleep. Where was the child’s language hiding before it began to speak? Did the child invent it?

Certainly not, experts on language development would insist. A child cannot create language. Language exists before the child starts to speak. All that is happening during language development is that language is being transported to the child.

The big question is: transported from where? There seem to be only two alternatives:

  1. Language is innate. It is prepared in our neural structures. When the child hears its parents speak, these structures are stimulated and soon start supporting the child’s own speech.
  2. Language is learned. It exists in society. Children have social learning skills; through these skills, language is transported from the social environment to the young pupil, soon supporting the child’s own speech.

These are the alternatives, then. Language is either inside or outside the newborn. Language development is either a process of “externalization” or a process of “internalization” of language. There can be no third alternative.

I have written about the ape Kanzi, who was raised by a human mother. I’ve written about him both on The Ethics Blog and in the book, Kanzi’s Primal Language. This bonobo and his half-sister Panbanisha developed language in a manner that does not clearly correspond to any of these two alternatives.

Since it is hardly credible that human language is innate in apes, ape language researchers typically try to teach apes language. These attempts fail.

Kanzi’s human mother, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, avoided teaching Kanzi. Instead, she simply spoke to him, as parents do, in a shared Pan/Homo culture. As a result of this humanlike cultural rearing, he developed language as nativists believe only human children do: spontaneously, without the parent having to play the social role of a teacher.

The humble purpose of this blog post is to introduce the idea we have to think more carefully about human changeability than we have done so far. We tend to think that human changes are either lying dormant in our nature or are being taught to us by the society.

Kanzi entices us to think differently.

Spontaneous language development in a nonhuman suggests that being reared in culture is more than simply a matter of internalizing social norms. Being reared in culture means participating in the culture: a more creative and masterful role than that of a mere pupil.

I believe we are caught in an adult/child dichotomy. The creative role of the child becomes invisible because the dichotomy categorically portrays her as a novice, as a pupil, as a learner… as a vacuous not-yet-adult-human.

Perhaps, if we manage to liberate us from this dichotomy, we can see the possibility that language – together with much else in human life – is neither innate nor learned.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


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