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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
How "Human" Are We?
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"Nano-baby"

Image Courtesy of Victoria Vesna

As an infant science that deals with matter on the molecular level, nanotechnology is notoriously difficult to visualize or intuitively grasp. To forge an intellectual connection with the discipline, Jim Gimzewski, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, teamed up with Victoria Vesna, chair of the Department of Design | Media Arts, to create this collaborative image. Aptly titled “nano baby,” it signifies nanotechnology’s early stages.

Will society come to embrace the idea that we are not special but merely another species in an evolutionary process — or a mere chemical reaction or process? I am not sure we are capable of doing so. For example, I can accept at one level that my daughter is “just another” chemical reaction, but on another level I cannot help but regard her as a very special human, with lots of spirit and special consciousness. Some have suggested that Eastern thinking comes to grips with these splits better than does our Western one. I am not certain of that, but I am certain that it is difficult to accept at an internal level some of the ideas that our rational science demands. This necessarily leads to conflicts within us that may well be ineluctable and a source of real insecurity.

That science fiction movies sometimes raise these issues but ultimately come to reassure us of our inherent human superiority illustrates the problem. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk’s humanness proves superior to Spock’s reasoning; in Star Wars, “trust the Force” suggests that there is a power greater than ourselves. Other movies such as Terminator, I, Robot, Blade Runner and the very poignant A.I. exploit our insecurities about inherent humanness, but also reaffirm that humans are unique. Such conflict would have no appeal if we were really comfortable with our specialness.

The changes in our understanding about the meaning of life and humanness will necessarily lead to changes in the rights and responsibilities that we feel toward one another. It becomes especially important that we have guidance and forums for discussion like the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics. It is important that we not automatically assume that these newer positions offer only bleak, existentialist views. Darwin famously concludes his Origin of Species with his belief that “There is grandeur in this [new] view of life … and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” One must agree with him. I would argue, further, that viewing life and humanness from the newer perspectives is no less wonderful or beautiful, perhaps more so, as we try to imagine one chemical or abstract process reading this essay or contemplating the consequences it portends.

Charles Taylor is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

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