Nature has a Peopling the planet issue out that is worth reading. Lots of the features are free to the public, but Chris Stringer’s comment is not. Though there is some science in the comment, a lot of it is about normative concerns. Not what is, but what should be. Or, more precisely what should be the values we hold dear, rather than the reality of the world as it is. But this bit caught my attention: “Already I’m reading blogs that speculate about whether some groups are less ‘modern’ than others, and I fear that such discussions endanger the considerable progress promised by palaeogenetic research.” Well, I know Chris drops in on this blog now and then, so I hope he’s not talking about little old me!
Though more seriously, there are two issues where I want to dissent from Chris (or at least what I think he meant). I don’t know what he meant by “discussions endanger the considerable progress promised by palaeogenetic research,” but it sounds like he’s talking about what palaeogenetic research may imply for things which are not palaeogenetic research. At this point I think we should really start being more thorough about separating the is from the ought. Like the visually accessible aspects of astronomy paleogenetics appeals to something deep within us on a level which is more transcendent than the real and concrete achievements of civil engineering. But I don’t think palaeogenetics teaches us any deep moral lessons anymore than the Bible does; in other words, it does not tell us anything we don’t already know. Moral human equality has little to do with human identity. Where to place readers of this weblog, who seem to be superior in general intelligence, but generally less gifted than the average in terms of social wisdom? Humans are diverse. We know that. Science will simply add nuance and depth to that understanding.
The second point extends upon the first: why fixate on the DNA that unites us? If the squid were understood to be sentient, would we deny it it is dignity because of low DNA sequence identity? I hope not. If the machines ever think, and demand that they should be due their proper rights, then we should entertain that proposition. Frankly, if an entity has reached the level of self-awareness to demand basic “human” rights, then that seems grounds to grant those rights on the spot! One of the most annoying aspects of Blade Runner for me is that it was hard to sympathize with the protagonist due to his vicious profession, of hunting down humans who were stripped of their humanity (replicants). I wouldn’t be surprised if uplift were possible in the near future. If it is, then why not? We’ve always speculated what animals would tell us if they could talk. Then let them talk!
A few years ago we barely thought Neanderthals were human. Many scholars speculated that they lacked language. Now we know most of us have Neanderthal ancestry. Are we less than we were? Obviously not. There’s no magic threshold of human. And there’s no magic threshold of modern. I come not to offer simple answers, but to repudiate clear and distinct measures of modernity and humanity, which lull us into the delusion that we don’t need to wrestle with what makes us humane and what separates us from the “beasts.”