Issue 6, March 2002
Integrative Biology, University of California at Berkeley
us begin a philosophical exploration of the state of being a person,
or "personhood". What specific attribution, qualification,
or perspective defines personhood? In order to even begin discussing
a question of this magnitude, we must agree that, first and foremost,
there is no single, comprehensive definition of "person".
A sense of awe may surround this question, or a sense of controversy.
While acknowledging the controversy, let us venture forth and scratch
the surface of this topic, exploring some ideas about personhood
as expressed in various disciplines of study.
Personhood of Homo Sapiens
an estimated 6 billion human individuals exist on this planet. On
Earth, humans - that is, people - have decidedly established themselves
as a dominant population. While humans are not the most prevalent
population (the number of arthropods is near 1018 individuals),
they are the most dominant population in terms of influence upon
the planet. Humans are dynamic and social; persons, people, and
nations are ethnically and biologically diverse and highly developed,
culturally and linguistically. One of the earliest proposed persons
found by anthropologists, named Lucy, is an Australopithecus
afarensis. She is surmised to be an important hominid link within
human evolution. Present day humans are presumed to be a result
of mosaic evolution; that is, our evolution was not purposeful,
The ancestral primate that began the Primate order is placed in
the tree of life at about 60 million years ago. According to evolutionary
theory, human beings are not a culmination, but merely a continuance
of the development of life that began with the "primordial soup"
of ancient Earth atmospheres. The very elements constituting our
bodies, passed through time as mass and energy, are ultimately guessed
to be of interstellar origin. The famous Miller experiment demonstrated
the "primordial formation" of amino acids (the building
blocks of life) from a chemical reaction of water, methane, ammonia,
and hydrogen. However, it can be held that "personhood"
is a contemporary concept (philosophical, semantic, and linguistically
variable), and not really a part of a scientific progression in
itself. Perhaps the evolutionary theory of human emergence and taxonomic
classifications has bearing on our interpretation of the concept,
or perhaps it does not, especially in the here and now. We ourselves,
as biologically distinct creatures, have defined personhood, and
to the best of our knowledge, no other being within any discussion
of evolution has done so.
The human brain is the largest and most complex living organ, a
phenomenal apparatus that studies and evaluates even itself. What
we might lack in physical ability as organisms, we make up for in
mental capacity. We have a significant influence on Earth's biodiversity,
habitats, and atmosphere. In the light of our search for personhood
however, these scientific explorations explain only the physical
dynamics of a human organism within the world. There is more to
being a human - or so many of us have suggested.
Humanity and Spiritual Doctrine
Personhood may equate
to what we call "humanity" as an individual or collective
character trait. A dictionary yields the following definitions:
a person is a living human, and an individual with character
and personality. A person is manifested bodily and is unique. So
far, we have examined the bodily manifestation. Let us peek into
a little of what other key realms of study have to say about our
character and personality components.
Complementing or confusing our understanding of science are the
designs of our personal beliefs and religious doctrines. These deal
with ethical and moral issues surrounding existence and purpose.
One example is the monotheistic religion of Islam, in which surrender,
submission, and service to God construct the moral character and
way of life. In the Buddhist attitude of mind, a person is his or
her own master of existence, capable of putting aside hindrances
to reach the Enlightened State, in which the world no longer entangles
his or her person. Ethical and moral viewpoints often step in when
one must make a decision based upon one's understanding of scientific
-- as well as religious (that is, personal) -- knowledge and/or
beliefs. In the fascinating work On Monsters and Marvels,
Renaissance surgeon Ambroise Pare evaluates what modern medicine
calls teratogenesis - the origins or causes of birth defects. He
proposes an ominous list of 13 causes of malformed persons, which
include the "wrath of God" and "demons and devils,"
in addition to "heredity or accidental illnesses." According
to Pare, causes of birth defects range from moral failure to physical
mishap in the human existence. The origin of birth defects is linked
closely to the origin of birth itself. Where does Man originate?
What is his purpose? How does one understand malformed infants not
only scientifically, but also personally? Indeed the things of this
physical world may be confounding enough; science participates in
formulating possible answers, but so does personal doctrine. It
is a constant struggle, in which one may try to separate personal
biases from the practice of science, or choose to unite the two
dominions as a common tool. Both involve a rich and perpetual exploration.
In addition to the many possible moral aspects of defining a person,
a rich abundance of religious discourse, text and culture talk about
the existence of the soul as being a defining element of personhood.
Death is an inevitable boundary that all persons must cross; according
to most religions and according to biological feasibility, personhood
clearly includes a point of birth and of death. What will we do
before we die? What will we do after we die? Let us examine a few
spiritual or religious dictates briefly.
The Qur'an dictates that the human being is inseparably body and
soul. In Hindu philosophy, as found in the Taittiriya Upanishad,
there is a complete five-soul system under a Supreme Soul, called
atman. In order to explore the state of being human and to
develop spiritually, different levels of human consciousness can
be reached with practice and devotion, especially those beyond the
immediate physical world. According to Judeo-Christian belief, the
first man - Adam - is formed by God the Creator "from the dust
of the ground" (NIV translation). In Genesis, God bestows
the soul of the first man - and thus all humans - by breathing into
his nostrils the "breath of life." In an overwhelming
number of religions, there is clearly a physical nature but also
a spiritual nature to human beings. This is also true of ancient
Egyptian beliefs, which held that a person is composed of at least
four factions, the ka (vital force), ba (consciousness),
akh (psyche), and ab (heart and deep nature), working
within the corporeal and spiritual person during and after life.
Opinions and Definition
In order to establish
what individuals' opinions and definitions are about personhood, 86
university students from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds
Sixty-eight believed that a human being could be considered a person
"at birth". Twenty-nine students believed that a person
exists when the fetus achieves the beginnings of brain function in
utero (around the sixth gestational month), 18 indicated the instant
of fertilization signified existence, and 15 chose "sometime during
fetal development before birth" as the critical point. Others didn't
know or didn't want to answer. More than half of the students declared
that a clinically brain-dead individual is still a person; about one-fourth
of the surveyed students stated that this individual is not a person
any longer. An overwhelming 75.5% of the students proclaimed that
people have souls. Following up on this question, the students were
next asked if monozygotic twins have one-half soul each, and a stark
majority, 65 students, said "no." When asked if human clones
(if one day possible) had souls, 48 students replied "yes"
and only four replied "no." Nineteen students didn't know. The last
question queried when the soul participates in the life of a human
during development. Answers ranged from "before fertilization"
to personal explanations, with no majority in any answer.
Formation of a Concept
Without a doubt, the definition of personhood is highly complex. New
medical and genetic techniques only further complicate the issue of
identifying personhood. Embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and
sex changes are occurring today. Politics, government, and the workings
of society convolute the definition even more. When Justice Harry
Blackmun delivered the Supreme Court's opinion on personhood in Roe
v. Wade in 1973, he presented that the Constitution does not define
"person," and thus the unborn fetus is not a person under
the 14th Amendment. Women's rights are closely linked to abortion
issues, as well as health and privacy rights, and even human cloning
(women would be needed as uterine hosts for clones). Which person
engaged in any of these debates has more rights, or is correct or
incorrect? Entangled with these decisions for each person are gender
issues, social issues, and rights issues. The list goes on and on.
Who we are will define what we do. But do we define ourselves? Perhaps
we do. The English philosopher John Locke once said, "Consider
what ‘person' stands for; which, I think, is a thinking, intelligent
being, that has reason and reflection." Considering at least
what students have said in our small survey, Locke's opinion may very
well be that of a minority today; recall that more than half of the
surveyed students considered a clinically brain-dead individual to
still exist as a person. Androids and robots in science fiction and
the movies have often been portrayed as longing to be human. There
is something about being a person, in addition to the vulnerable
but dynamic organism that we call a human being, that is undeniably
unique in this world -- whether it is a scientific, philosophical,
or spiritual phenomenon, or a result of a multitude of other possibilities,
we cannot yet conclude. Whatever our origins, stage in evolutionary
continuum, cultural values, or religious roots, we know of no single
truth; what we do know is that it is all quite personal.
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of Young Investigators. 2002. Volume Five.
Copyright © 2002 by Jean Lee and JYI. All rights reserved.