What is a Person?

What is a person?

This seems like an easy question, but appearances can be deceiving. Throughout the long sweep of human history, the answer to the question of what a person is has continually changed. Was a woman a person, or was she a piece of property? Or was she even a liability, something that had to be compensated for with a dowry before a man’s family would agree to take her on? Was a man alien to their immediate culture a person? Not if you were of African descent in the United States of 1861 or if you were a Jew in the Germany of 1938.

As time marched on, human society liberalized and the definition of personhood broadened. By the end of the 20th century, in most Western nation-states at least, a consensus view emerged that implicitly extended the definition of personhood to all human beings. Seems reasonable. Problem solved, right?

Not quite.

That definition of personhood only seems stable until you ask a second question. What makes a human a human? To put it another way, what makes a being sapient? While religious-minded people had easy answers about god-given authority to shape the land and slaughter the beasts, philosophers and scientists struggled with the answer. In fact, the more humans studied other creatures, the harder it was to say what sapience was and why it didn’t apply to animals. The conversation went something like this:

B: But sea otters use stones to crack open mollusks.

A: Those are rocks the otters just found lying around. Only humans make tools.

B: Except for wild chimpanzees, who modify twigs for termite fishing.

A: But that’s just instinct. Humans are innovators. Animals don’t innovate.

B: Ever set up a bird feeder designed to keep squirrels out?

A: Sure.

B: Do those things ever work?

A: Well …

B: Doesn’t the squirrel always find a way to get the food?

A: That’s only because squirrels are evolved to break into bird feeders!

B: Really?

A: Then it’s language. Only humans use language.

B: That’s the worst example yet. Dolphins and whales use a quite sophisticated language. Bonobos and gorillas have shown an ability to understand human language, even inventing new words. Really any animal that can accept human voice commands has at least a rudimentary understanding of language. Even simple songbirds compose their songs according to linguistic rules.

A: All right, but it’s something. It has to be something.

By the late 20th century, human science was beginning to bump up against the possibility that it wasn’t really something, after all. Maybe humans and animals didn’t belong to two distinct groups, but Homo sapiens was just one species placed on a long continuum of intelligence. Sure, humanity was on the smart end of the stick, but the real question was, just how smart were their neighbors?

Why did it matter? Because once you start acknowledging other creatures as intelligent, you have to start thinking about the implications. Did other intelligent beings have rights? Were humans ethically bound to avoid causing them pain? Should these animals then be exempt not only from hunting, slaughter, and experimentation, but should they be protected?


A great passage on the history of personhood and its possible future.

Folksonomies: humanity egalitarianism semantics personhood rights

/pets/birds (0.602372)
/pets/reptiles (0.514054)
/pets/large animals (0.433594)

20th century (0.907229 (neutral:0.000000)), humans (0.843979 (positive:0.539646)), late 20th century (0.843363 (neutral:0.000000)), personhood (0.829012 (positive:0.170069)), easy question (0.759353 (positive:0.362151)), long sweep (0.751932 (neutral:0.000000)), human history (0.749020 (neutral:0.000000)), possible future (0.742847 (positive:0.713270)), great passage (0.741708 (positive:0.713270)), human society (0.740748 (neutral:0.000000)), person (0.737543 (positive:0.265863)), African descent (0.733703 (negative:-0.452263)), god-given authority (0.728918 (positive:0.910099)), religious-minded people (0.726277 (neutral:0.000000)), consensus view (0.726180 (positive:0.512392)), United States (0.725285 (negative:-0.249213)), Western nation-states (0.722459 (neutral:0.000000)), wild chimpanzees (0.721925 (negative:-0.243722)), sea otters (0.721634 (neutral:0.000000)), human language (0.720562 (neutral:0.000000)), termite fishing (0.718893 (neutral:0.000000)), open mollusks (0.715428 (neutral:0.000000)), simple songbirds (0.714150 (neutral:0.000000)), easy answers (0.710620 (positive:0.910099)), human science (0.705263 (neutral:0.000000)), sophisticated language (0.704937 (positive:0.405909)), worst example (0.704548 (negative:-0.693996)), bird feeder (0.704351 (positive:0.219034)), real question (0.703799 (neutral:0.000000)), voice commands (0.701989 (negative:-0.733871))

Homo sapiens:FieldTerminology (0.649255 (neutral:0.000000)), Germany:Country (0.543648 (neutral:0.000000)), United States:Country (0.543042 (negative:-0.249213))

Human (0.981888): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Chimpanzee (0.682119): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Humans (0.650803): dbpedia
Hominidae (0.634263): dbpedia | freebase
Bonobo (0.606314): dbpedia | freebase
Religion (0.595500): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Prehistory (0.581591): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Science (0.576293): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc

 Eclipse Phase - Panopticon
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Boyle , Rob and Cross, Brian (2011-06-15), Eclipse Phase - Panopticon, Retrieved on 2013-06-17
  • Source Material [books.google.com]
  • Folksonomies: futurism rpg


    17 MAY 2011

     Comparing Ourselves to Other Animals

    Examples of authors referring to animals in nature for insights into human nature.