What Does it Mean to Be Human?

Genetics has greatly changed the concept of what it means to be human. Throughout our history this issue has largely been cultural in the sense of ‘self’ versus ‘other’. Greeks widely viewed barbarians (non-Greeks) as sub-human, imperial Europeans viewed the cultures they subjected as inferior, and philosophers clung to the specification cogito ergo sum. However, ever since the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), stem cell research, and the possibility of cloning we are faced with taking a more critical look at what constitutes a human being.

DNA undoubtedly plays a large role in who we are as living beings. But how much importance can we actually place on it as the determining factor in our humanity? Homo Sapiens share 99.9% of their genetic material with their closest primate relatives and 97% of the human genome is synonymous with yeast. Humans do not even have the most genetic material of living things, that title is held by the Amoeba dubia which has a genome 200 times the size of ours (Sizing up genomes: Amoeba is king).

Compounding the issue even further is the physical condition known as chimerism in which one person has two different sets of DNA (Disputed Maternity Leading to Identification of Tetragametic Chimerism. N Engl J Med 346:1545, May 16, 2002). Cells taken from one area of the body do not match the DNA in cells from the other areas of the body. Despite this fact, these individuals retain a singular identity and have no idea that they have this condition. What does this say about the influence of DNA on our personalities, not to mention the implication that DNA is equated with identity? These issues beg the question: does a fully comprised DNA sequence equal a human being?

This issue comes into play regarding destroying human embryos for the purpose of stem cell research. Opponents to this method say that a human embryo fertilized outside the human body has the potential to become a human being. This is like saying (please excuse the extremely crude metaphor) that a corn kernel can become another corn plant if placed in fertile ground, while at the same time acknowledging that it could also turn into popcorn- something delicious and nutritious that you could eat. As of right now, a fertilized human embryo that is never placed in fertile ground (i.e. a woman’s uterus), cannot develop into what we call a person. It can, however, become a heart, lung, or liver for a dying relative. Can it still be considered human life solely on the bases of a completed DNA sequence? When is it that a human begins to exist? At fertilization? After the first heart beat? When the nervous system is formed? At birth? Do fertilized embryos have the rights that you and I do? Should they?

Another facet of the stem cell debate is patient specific stem cells. Scientists are now able to derive human stem cells from human skin cells (Cloned Human Embryo Created From Skin Cells). This means that a skin cell could potentially become another human being. Do these same opponents to stem cell research now have a moral responsibility to ensure that not a single cell in their body dies? This resultant person would technically be a clone, genetically identical to their progenitor. What are the moral implications of that?

I think most people are at the very least apprehensive about cloning human beings. But this idea of cloning people has astounding possibilities. We could bring back Einstein, Gandhi, Hemingway,… Stalin, George W. Bush. For me the idea of having another Einstein makes me giddy but the thought of infinite dubbyas waiting to ascend to the presidency makes my lip quiver in fear. We can never be sure who would regulate the cloning of human beings and I think most people realize the inherent dangers. On some level I can’t help but wonder if the majority of people are worried about “playing god” more than anything. Perhaps the thought of two people with the same DNA living at the same time provides them with a feeling of uneasiness.

However unnerving, this happens all the time in nature: worker bees in a hive are 100% genetically the same, wasps too, even human identical twins have the exact same genetic code. Regardless of being “the same person”, twins can still retain independent identities. Many people may also be drawn to the possibilities of cloning because they are interested in it for themselves- the possibility to genetically live forever. After all, what is the point of sexual reproduction if but to pass on your own DNA to another person?

Ben Hefner

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~ by Mismatched Sox on January 23, 2008.

2 Responses to “What Does it Mean to Be Human?”

  1. “But this idea of cloning people has astounding possibilities. We could bring back Einstein, Gandhi, Hemingway,… Stalin, George W. Bush.”

    We could create twins of these people, but would we really be ‘bringing them back?’ Both nature and nurture contribute to the personality, skills, and talents of a human being. And, as they say, there’s no accounting for taste: even if a clone of Einstein were provided with all a physicist could want, perhaps he would prefer to be a painter or an electrician or a doctor. The reproduction of an individual’s biological components does not produce that person, merely a copy of their body, and as much as we invest our individuality in the uniqueness of our fleshy forms, in reality our identities are made up of much, much more that cannot ever be recreated in just the same way to produce just the same person. Humans are willful creatures.

    -Anna Musun-Miller.

  2. An excellent prelude to the class discussion on what it means to be human in Never Let Me Go.

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