Medicine, Technology, and the Ever-Changing Human Person

Though we often take for granted that humans are persons, they are not exempt from questions surrounding personhood. Indeed, what it means to be a person is largely an unsettled argument, even though we often speak of “people” and “persons.” Just as it’s important to ask if other beings might ever be persons, it is also important to ask if humans are ever not persons. In this pursuit, it’s crucial to separate the concept of personhood from notions of respect, love, and importance. That is to say, while a person may necessitate respect, love, and importance, something need not be a person to also demand respect, love, or importance.

When the concept of personhood in humans comes into discussion, it inevitably is punted to the medical community, often in the context of abortion and end of life. When does the heart first beat? When can a fetus feel pain? When does the brain begin/stop producing electrical activity? There is no doubt that advancements in our understanding of human physiology have enlightened discourse on what it means to be both a human and a person. However, the question of personhood is all too often debated solely in light of Western medical contexts. This conflation of physiology and personhood is the same issue that was discussed in my previous post on primate personhood and will be revisited in my next post on artificial intelligence. To escape this quandary we need to consider factors outside of physiology that are important to the concept of personhood, such as the social.

Modern American society is hyper-individualized. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but it certainly changes how we see and define persons. The lack of consensus both between citizens and between states on issues of personhood lead to confusion and hostility towards the topic. While certain state laws prohibit abortion, viewing it as a restriction of the freedom to live, some of those same states limit or deny certain social programs that would provide the fetus with social support that might be considered a legal or cultural right in some societies. Though we may value independence, as exemplified through the pursuit of the “American Dream,” this is not the case with every human society today, and certainly was not the case in humanity’s past.

With increasingly precise medical and physiological knowledge, society tries to pin down a “week” of pregnancy where the fetus is viable. But viable under what conditions? Surely a fetus is viable much earlier today than 50 years ago. Moreover, fetal viability 50 years from now may well be half as early as it is now. This begs the question, does personhood change? Specifically, is personhood status changing with respect to medical knowledge and technological advancement? This same question occurs on the back-end, too. One hundred years ago, a lack of pulse meant death – the end of personhood. Today, death is marked by lack of brain activity. As medical technology becomes ever more sophisticated, and human physiology better understood, our stretches of personhood as it relates to physiology will reach an asymptotic degree for both pre-birth and the gray areas between the end of life and death.

If (or perhaps, when) cryogenics becomes a viable technique, how will that redefine personhood? Will personhood be suspended in animation alongside the body? Better yet, what of sci-fi ideas involving “uploading” consciousness onto non-biological material? This may seem far-fetched, but most of today’s technology suffered the same fate of inevitability. When these hypotheticals instantiate, there will need to be a radical rethinking of both what it means to be a human and what it means to be a human person. Considering these ideas is difficult, as we automatically take for granted human personhood in a way that is different from considerations of personhood for chimps or AI. Nevertheless, thinking about and discussing the boundaries of personhood in relation to humans needs to be a proactive engagement, not a belated reaction.

Being a human is not just about biology, and being a person shouldn’t either. This is not to suggest that biology isn’t important in discussions of human personhood, nor am I suggesting that personhood cannot change or be influenced by advances in science and technology. However, science and technology are changing quickly; advances are mounting more quickly than they ever have before, and there are no signs of letting up. This means we need to be vigilant when it comes to concepts for which we lean heavily on science and technology to define. There are myriad ways of being human, and as many ways to define a person. We would be wise to look to other humans who are embedded in different social and cultural foundations and try to understand how they define persons. It’s not a question of right or wrong definitions, but a practice in humility and a chance to learn from the wisdom of our fellow humans. Our fellow persons.

If it is the charge of anthropology to understand the human, of which the person is integral, then anthropologists need a seat at the larger table. Many anthropologists have investigated personhood in the past, and as many continue to do so today. However, their discussions are often limited to fellow anthropologists and within the confines of academia. The discussions rarely make it out to the medical community, much less the public. By approaching the public with ideas on personhood, anthropology has an avenue through which it can influence policy and make a difference outside the academy. It’s clear to anthropologists that anthropology matters. It’s clear to anthropologists that anthropology has much to say about personhood. Let’s make that clear to the rest of the scientific community and the public.

I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Human Development department at the University of Chicago. I'm interested in the evolution of human social behavior and biocultural approaches to studying human evolution. I'm also interested in public understanding of science.

2 thoughts on “Medicine, Technology, and the Ever-Changing Human Person

  1. Coltan, I agree that anthropology has much to say about personhood. What is less clear to me is how it will influence the scientific community and the public.

    As you have observed, historically and ethnographically speaking human beings are frequently not regarded as persons. “Person” in the sense I point to here has to do with jural/legal principles that define rights and obligations. History and ethnography are full of cases in which, for example, slaves, women, children, and members of other tribes are not regarded as persons in a sense that applies only to free, adult male members of the group in question. Roman law, for example, gave the pater familias power of life and death over his dependents. Only the patriarch was a person in the full sense of the term. The extension of legal personhood to corporations, which are thus deemed to be endowed with inalienable rights to free speech and political contributions raises the issue of whether persons have to be human at all. In another sense, “person” seems to imply personality, a set of peculiar features that depart from social norms and other expectations in frequently unpredictable ways. Ships and other machines develop quirks through protracted use, leading to personification expressed for instance in “It has a mind of its own” or “Come on baby….” Pets may be treated like members of a family, forming sentimental attachments that justify expensive medical treatment, even though the pet enjoys none of rights prescribed by legal personhood. Anthropology can add numerous other examples from folklore and myth, in which inanimate objects acquire spirits and magical powers. Documenting the range of ways in which personhood is conceived and how these vary through time and space is, intellectually speaking, an interesting contribution to the sum of human knowledge.

    That said, the relevance of these considerations to contemporary and local debates about abortion, the death penalty, collateral damage, the use of drones, etc., remains obscure. It is also easily denied by ideologues who can say, “That’s them, that’s then. Has nothing to do with Truth as we conceive it.”

  2. Hey John, thanks for the comment. I think you’re right that ideologues can easily dismiss the relevance of anthropology’s contributions. But, ideologues tend to do this for anything they disagree with, so I don’t think it’s a reason to back down. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to how anthropologists might make their work seem more relevant. I think it is relevant, and perhaps (I would think) many of them also think it is. Part of my posting this is to encourage anthropologists to draw from their training and collective experience and come up with practical applications. As I said in one of my posts, anthropologists are trained to analyze things like this, and are experts in topics related to many of our society’s debates. Yet, they hardly ever break into the popular dialogue. Part of what we need to do as scientists is develop a capability to explain to the public, to policy makers, and to others outside of our field why what we do matters. I think anthropology has a lot of legwork, but also a lot of potential to shape the public dialogue for the better.

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