What is a human? At the very core of this question lies a scrutiny of the very label ‘human’, or Homo Sapiens. When asked ‘are you human?’, proving so can be tricky; “My parents are human”; “I feel pain”; “I possess a conscience, a moral code.” Such arguments cannot be faulted, but are they distinctly human?
Moral behaviour has long separated us from other animals and bestowed the will to temper our primeval nature. Stephen Wise, an animal rights lawyer and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project believes animals are highly sentient beings, possessing not only intense emotional capacities, but also moral codes. In support of this, Wise offers examples of chimpanzees who play economics games with researchers and make fair deals, of cultural artefacts passed down over generations in the wild, and possess the ability for mental time travel; to know of the past and be hopeful for the future.
The idea of a soul belonging only to our species makes little sense. Many theories place the acquisition of a soul across a range of ages; from the first kick in utero, to the idea that gametes already contain one. Scientifically it is argued that, soul or not, everything is governed by the physical laws of our universe. If a soul is present, it too is governed by a series of electrical signals and chemicals that animate and imbue us with personality. In her book ‘Soul of an Octopus’, Sy Montgomery shares the fact that cephalopods – so alien from our own biology – share many hormones found in our bodies; oestrogen, testosterone, and a hormone so similar to oxytocin (associated with feelings of pleasure) that is has been named cephlatocin. Even crayfish, electrically shocked when leaving their burrows, relax and confidently resume normal activities when given anti-anxiety drugs normally prescribed to humans.
The idea that any anyone is genetically a pure human is a widely accepted misnomer. The human body can contain up to nine non-human cells for every native one. Without these non-human cells, consisting of bacteria and some organisms still unknown to science, the human body would not work. Once we begin to examine what we label as ‘human’, we inevitably come to conclusions about what isn’t human. Historically we are very bad at making such decisions. Stephen Wise reminds us “to be a legal person has not always meant that you are human, and vice versa. In the past women, children, and slaves have not been regarded as legal persons”. Conversely, governments have granted legal personhood to Holy Scriptures and buildings, to corporations, and rivers. We ascribe human responsibilities and litigation to paper and metal, but not to some of our closest biological relatives, some of whom share almost 98% of our DNA.
Rapid prototyping processes and technology have ushered in a new revolution in manufacturing. 3D printers are printing the next generation of 3D bio- printers; mechanical evolution and reproduction. Now plaster, metal, even organic cells can be printed in a cornucopia of designs, in complex nuanced ways previously impossible in wasteful subtractive manufacturing. The transubstantiation of raw natural materials into new ones, with properties to suit a world now shaped by our desires and whims (to a degree which we have influenced the planet’s ecosystems and chemistry) is a unique trait of our species. We have become Gods, for better or worse. Our technologies have made us omnipresent through digital selves, always available in video and holographic form, and as artisans of new life forms not only biological, but, as historian Yuval Noah Harari comments, artificial ones too, thereby surpassing ancient divine creators.
During the 16th Century, alchemists attempted to create a homunculus – a diminutive human – from materials listed in recipes, in a process using alembics and a theory of material evolution. Such humans were the first ‘test tube babies’, however they were born as grown adults in miniature form, ectogenesis (outside the womb). Would a human child born from non- human parents be any less human? 3D bioprinting is allowing scientists to work with ‘biofabricators’ to not just simply print new organs or limbs, but to aesthetically design them in new individual ways to suit your personality or follow fashion.
In the 21st Century, could technology enable us to print a human? Would it need to look like us; how genetically different could such a human be? The 21st Century human is far removed from the Homo sapiens of a mere fifty years ago, let alone five hundred. We now carry or wear processors twice as powerful as the supercomputers of only half a century ago. Two and a half million people alive today have been born through IVF, and we can now exist in virtual, digital spaces. We are invisibly tethered externally and internally to increasingly sophisticated technology, now more than ever before, and, in this way, perhaps we have transcended our label to become Novo sapiens.
Featured at the Birmingham Open Media - 'Novo Spaiens'
16th September - 1st October 2016
'Novo Sapiens' - ABS plastic, cork, expanding foam, epoxy glue, glass, plaster, resin, steel, timber.
Photographs by Laurie Ramsell, Alex Ramsell.