Magazine article The Human Life Review

What Is a Human?: What the Answers Mean for Human Rights

Magazine article The Human Life Review

What Is a Human?: What the Answers Mean for Human Rights

Article excerpt

WHAT IS A HUMAN?: WHAT THE ANSWERS MEAN FOR HUMAN RIGHTS John H. Evans (Oxford University Press, 2016, 272 pages. $35.00)

Reviewed by Jason Morgan

What is a human? The answer may seem obvious. Perhaps that's why most people have never really considered the question. Even many pro-lifers, who spend much of their time trying to convince others of the humanity of the unborn, may not have had much occasion to define what, exactly, a human being is. "Life begins at the moment of conception," we often say. But what is life, and what makes some life human?

John H. Evans's new book, What Is a Human? is not an attempt to solve this thorniest and most pressing of philosophical quandaries. But as the book's subtitle ( What the Answers Mean for Human Rights) shows, whom we include under the rubric of humanity can have profound consequences for how far we are willing to go to care for one another.

Evans is a sociology professor at the University of California-San Diego who has written widely on bioethics and public attitudes towards reproductive technologies. What Is a Human? is a welcome contribution to an already extensive body of work. Evans's well-researched and cogently presented book does not answer the question posed rhetorically in the title, and does not try to. It is far beyond the scope of a work of statistical sociology to treat of such weighty inquiries as this. Instead, What Is a Human? explores who thinks who-or even what (computers? monkeys? clones?)-qualifies as a fellow member of our species. In this, Evans succeeds, and is to be thanked for his enlightening efforts.

While the question of humanity is, philosophically and religiously speaking, very old, statistical data showing who holds which views of humanity in the United States today (and how these various views influence commitments to human rights) are sparse. This topic becomes increasingly relevant year by year, because rapidly-emerging biotechnologies-from prosthetics to transplants, medications to gene therapies, and fertility treatments to stem-cell research-serve to widen the field of what Evans calls "contested humans," or people (such as the cognitively disabled; the congenitally diseased; the socially stigmatized; and infants, children, and the elderly, who are less fully functional than normal adults) whose degree of humanity is a subject of ongoing debate.

Naturally, which humans are "contested" will depend upon which definition one uses for "human being." Evans's task in writing What Is a Human? was to condense various claims about who does and does not count as a human into concise "anthropologies," and then to present those anthropologies to both PhD students (in a variety of disciplines) and laypeople in order to gauge whether, and how, the degree of agreement with a given anthropology enhances or dilutes agreement with various aspects of human rights. Evans's anthropologies-all stated fairly and plainly, to my mind-are:

1. The Christian Theological Anthropology. This is centered on the claim that each human is made in the image and likeness of God.

2. The Philosophical Anthropology. This defines "humans" as "persons" having a number of traits (about which not all philosophers agree), such as consciousness, reason, and powers of communication.

3. The Biological Anthropology. This anthropology "assumes a thoroughgoing materialism, where only material entities are real[.] Humans 'are' the chemical called DNA, and since a chemical is an object, this anthropology portrays humans as objects" (p. 9).

4. The Socially Conferred Anthropology. This anthropology, widespread in academia albeit in "inchoate form" (p. 10), holds that, essentially, a human is anything in a social relationship with other humans.

Evans's findings largely confirm the suspicions of those outside academia that academics have a diminished regard for human rights. According to the answers that academics provided to a serious of questions Evans prepared, those who advocate tightening the circle of humanity by excluding groups based on arbitrary criteria are indeed more likely to be willing to dispense with human rights for the sake of convenience, money, or utilitarian calculations of aggregate happiness and suffering. …

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