All posts by Coltan Scrivner

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.

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.

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Of Primates and Persons

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives.

When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been to, I was most eager to visit the Great Ape exhibit. As always, after sitting and watching the chimpanzees for some time, I inevitably start to feel a bit guilty. There’s something about the chimps, with their eerily human-like behavior, that makes it feel wrong to be watching them in an enclosure.

You can get at the familiarity from a biological perspective by rattling off scientific facts like “they share 99% of our protein-coding genes,” or “our lineages split just 5-7 million years ago.” As a biological anthropologist, I am prone to do so. These things are often invoked to shed light on similarities between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. Between species. Yet, even to someone who knows nothing of biology, there is still something about chimpanzees that rings familiar. Something about the way they behave, about the way they interact with other chimpanzees and their environment. You don’t need the biology or the genetics to begin to wonder if perhaps they should be considered as something more than animal. It’s clear they aren’t humans, but could they be individuals? Can a chimpanzee possess an understanding of a self, be a someone as opposed to a something; can they be “persons?” Continue reading