What Does It Mean to Be Human?

by Mike Walls, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

What does it mean to be human? Where does our conception of life and death come from? Scholars and writers alike have been toiling with these questions for centuries. Our understanding of the term “human” is often embedded in the culture we grew up in. For some, human may simply mean the physical embodiment of our soul. To them, the human form is no more than just a transitory stage in our soul’s celestial journey. For others, the term is specifically defined by our genetic makeup, chromosome for chromosome, allele for allele, etc. However, our legal understanding of “human” has been especially difficult to discern. States have taken many different approaches.

In his article, “Defining the Essence of Being Human,” Professor Efthimios Parasidis discusses various states’ interpretations of human. Parasidis discusses Ohio’s interpretation of human life as beginning when one can detect the fetal heartbeat. For Ohio citizens, life begins with the beating heart, but it is unclear what this definition means for heart-related anomalies in adult-life, such as a person whose heart ceases to pump blood temporarily. Nebraska focuses on whether pain can be detected in the fetus, although the Act glosses over individuals who are incapable of experiencing pain, or fetus’s with delayed sensory development. Mississippi’s unsuccessful amendment attempted to define “person” as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof,” which left the door open to further criticism. Should splicing human genes with animal genes necessarily discount human-like organisms from our understanding of human? Would a “manimal” have been covered under the Mississippi law? It appears that elsewhere around the world introducing animal genes into the human form is forbidden, whereas human genes introduced into animals is sometimes permitted.

Parasidis’ discussion of various states’ conceptions of human life involving pain, heartbeats, and fertilization, led him to attempt to answer the question: “What distinguishes humans from other species?” His answer fell into two categories, the anthropological record (Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, etc.) and genetics. He concluded that both explanations are vague (or at least their boundary lines do more to raise serious questions than to console skeptics).

As I ponder Parasidis’ article as a grown-up, the kid in me has found it difficult to set aside my childhood curiosity for science-fiction. What wisdom could I take from science-fiction without getting sidetracked? I turned to Dr. Moreau for answers. In 1896, H.G. Wells published The Island of Dr. Moreau, based on a mad-scientist destined to create half-men, half-animals, through vivisection. Wells wrote this piece without knowledge of genes or modern discoveries in anthropology and human origins. Wells’ interpretation of human and animal is both poetic and informative, and his philosophy on scientific inquiry plagued by moral dilemmas speaks through Dr. Moreau.

Astonished by the bestial creatures he saw on Dr. Moreau’s island, the weary naturalist Prendrick viewed Moreau as a heartless scientist, detached from the ethical world we live in. In my favorite chapter, Dr. Moreau Explains, Moreau lays out his unadorned view on the commonalities between man and animal. After Dr. Moreau inserts a blade into his own thigh, he states the following:

“Then I am a religious man, Prendrick, as every sane man must be. It may be I fancy I have seen more of the ways of this world’s Maker than you–for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven and hell. Pleasure and pain–Bah! . . . men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendrick, is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came. Pain! Pain and pleasure–they are for us, only so long as we wriggle in the dust . . . .”

On the one extreme, Dr. Moreau believed that anything fathomed under the laws of science (and thus, to him, created by God), was permissible scientific inquiry. To him, pain is unmistakably detached from religion–rather it is incidental to experimentation. Moreover, Dr. Moreau believed pain is simply whatever we make of the sensation (“The capacity for pain is not needed in the muscle, and only here and there over the thigh is a spot capable of feeling pain. Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us.”). Moreau’s religion is his scientific inquiry, completely unfettered from ethical obligations. On the other hand, Nebraska takes the opposite view. Pain is the factor between life and death. But for Nebraskan legislators, is the criterion of inflicting “pain” on a fetus any more of a medical description than it is a moral obligation? Dr. Moreau and Professor Parasidis would probably argue that simply detecting pain is a smokescreen for anti-abortionists. The Nebraskan viewpoint that pain is a medical factor that necessarily dictates abortion rights might be fogging the issue. I struggle to understand some of our states’ preemptive abortion policies, as does Professor Parasidis, in their inability to separate conceptions of human life (when pain is felt) from their legal obligations owed to the individual (informed by science).

The point of all this is rather simple. No matter how we decide to determine what is human, or when life begins, public policy should influence how exacting our legal definition of human is. Dr. Moreau wouldn’t sacrifice scientific inquiry for the ethical norms of others. To him, everyone else must reconcile their moral differences with science. Professor Parasidis argues that when legislators use descriptive characteristics (like pain) in their legal definitions, they should also consider other policy implications. Besides the fetus, who else is affected? By redirecting our focus to science, we may free ourselves from biases currently clouding our reproductive rights jurisprudence, and potentially answer the question, what is the essence of being human?