Journal of Young Investigators
    Undergraduate, Peer-Reviewed Science Journal
Volume Five
Issue 6, March 2002

Defining Personhood

Jean Lee
Integrative Biology, University of California at Berkeley

Let 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.


The Personhood of Homo Sapiens

At present, 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, but random.

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.


Individual Opinions and Definition

In order to establish what individuals' opinions and definitions are about personhood, 86 university students from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds were surveyed. 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.

religious background of participants

ethnicities surveyed

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Suggested Reading

Campbell, N. A., J.B. Reece, L.G. Mitchell. Biology. Fifth Edition. Menlo Park : Benjamin Cummings of Addison-Wesley Longman, Inc. 1999

Garrison, Tom. Oceanography. Third Edition. Belmont: Brooks-Cole and Wadsworth. 1999

Halliday, D., R. Resnick, J. Walker et al., eds.Fundamentals of Physics. Sixth Edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2001

Horgan, John. "In the Beginning". Scientific American. Feb. 1991:117-125.

Lasser, William and Karen Wise, eds. Perspectives on American Government. Second Edition. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company. 1996

Nielsen, N. C., et al. Religions of the World. Ed. Don Reisman, Third Edition. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1993

Pare, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels: A Fifteenth Century Anatomy Lesson. J. Pallister , translator. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 1982

Walpola, Sri Rahula. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press. 1959

Journal of Young Investigators. 2002. Volume Five.
Copyright © 2002 by Jean Lee and JYI. All rights reserved.

JYI is supported by: The National Science Foundation, The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Glaxo Wellcome Inc., Science Magazine, Science's Next Wave, Swarthmore College, Duke University, Georgetown University, and many others.
Copyright ©1998-2003 The Journal of Young Investigators, Inc.