All posts by Coltan Scrivner

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.

Progressing the Person and Policy

The English word “person” has a long and convoluted history. Though the word itself likely derives from the Latin, persona, referring to the masks worn in theatre, its meaning has evolved over time. One of the biggest conceptual overhauls came in the 4th century AD during a church council that was held to investigate the concept of person as it related to the Trinity. Whereas the Greek fathers defined the Trinity as three hypostases, roughly translated as “substances” or “essences,” the Latin fathers saw them as one hypostasis that could be distinguished by the concept of persona. Because both the Roman Church and the Greek Church viewed each other as orthodox, they brushed off the difference of terms as semantics. Over time, this resulted in a conceptual conflation of the terms, effectively leading to persona encapsulating the notion of both the “role” one plays and one’s “essence” or “character” [1].

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Artificially Intelligent, Genuinely a Person

It’s difficult to overstate our society’s fascination with Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the millions of people who tuned in every week for the new HBO show WestWorld to home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Americans fully embrace the notion of “smart machines.” As a peculiar apex of our ability to craft tools, smart machines are revolutionizing our lives at home, at work, and nearly every other facet of society.

We often envision true AI to resemble us – both in body and mind. The Turing Test has evolved in the collective imagination from a machine who can fool you over the phone to one who can fool you in front of your eyes. Indeed, modern conceptions of AI bring to mind Ex Machina’s Ava and WestWorld’s “Hosts,” which are so alike humans in both behavior and looks that they are truly indistinguishable from other humans. However, it seems a bit self-centered to me to assume that a being who equals us in intelligence should also look like us. Though, it is perhaps a fitting assessment for a being who gave itself the biological moniker of “wise man.” At any rate, it’s probably clear to computer scientists and exobiologists alike that “life” doesn’t necessarily need to resemble what we know it as. Likewise, “person” need not represent what we know it as.

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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