howard_gardner's picture
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author, A Synthesizing Mind
Our Changing Conceptions Of What It Means To Be Human

When I take a look at John Brockman’s original list of "hot topics" from a quarter of a century ago, I discern a pattern, or throughline. We live at a time of great, perhaps unprecedented, advances in digital technology (hardware/software) and biological (genetic/brain) research and applications. It’s easy to see these changes as wholly or largely positive, though—as a card-carrying member of the pessimists’ society—I can easily point to problematic aspects as well.

But irrespective of how full (or empty) you believe the glass to be, a powerful question emerges: To what extent will our conceptions of what it means to be human change?

History records huge changes in our species over the last 5000 years or so—and presumably pre-history would fill in the picture. But scholars have generally held the view that the fundamental nature of our species—the human genome, so to speak—has remained largely the same for at least 10,000 years and possibly much longer. As Marshall McLuhan argued, technology extends our senses—it does not fundamentally change them. Once one begins to alter human DNA—for example, through CRISPR—or the human nervous system—by inserting mechanical or digital devices—then we are challenging the very definition of what it means to be human. And once one cedes high level decisions to digital creations, or these artificially intelligent entities cease to follow the instructions that have been programmed into them and rewrite their own processes, our species will no longer be dominant on this planet.

In a happy scenario, such changes will take place gradually, even imperceptibly, and they may lead to a more peaceful and even happier planet. But as I read the news of the day, and of the last quarter century, I discern little preparedness on the part of human beings to accept a lesser niche, let alone to follow Neanderthals into obscurity. And so I anticipate the news of tomorrow to highlight human resistance to fundamental alterations in our makeup and, quite possibly, open warfare among old and newly emerging creatures. But there’ll be one difference from times past: rather than looking for insights in the writings of novelists like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell or Anthony Burgess, we’ll be eavesdropping on the conversations among members of the Third Culture.