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EDCmooc – Ideas and interpretations


Defining Humanity

Professor Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, talks about the ambiguity of our notions of what is ‘human’.

In this lecture, Professor Steve Fuller (University of Warwick) takes us on a rapid ride through the history of how ‘humanity’ has been defined and made. By asking the question ‘have we always, sometimes or never been human?’, he draws our attention to the ways in which ‘humanity’ as a social category has been defined from ancient to medieval to modern times. ‘Let me tell you’, he says, ‘it is very difficult to define what it is to be human’.

What is it to be Human?

The first question of this talk is an interesting one. What makes us human?

Carolus Linnæus  classified humans among the primates. He pointed out both species basically have the same anatomy; except for speech, he found no other differences. Following pressure from theologians he later described humans as Homo sapiens although insisted in his classification of humans ans part of the animal kingdom.  In his book Dieta Naturalis, he said,

 “One should not vent one’s wrath on animals, Theology decree that man has a soul and that the animals are mere ‘aoutomata mechanica,’ but I believe they would be better advised that animals have a soul and that the difference is of nobility.”

There is little in our morphology that distinguishes us apart from well developed neocortex, prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes. Even in this aspect there is enormous diversity. In both mental and physical characteristics humans cover a very wide range.

We don’t need everything that we have to be human. I talked yesterday about artificial body parts not changing our humanness. The fact that we gain or lose some parts does not make us less human this includes differences in the brain and the ability to rationalise.

Professor Fuller then gave a history of how our self-perception and what people considered as humanity changed over the years. The increase in religious beliefs have had huge effects on what is considered “human.”

 Andrew Dickson White spent a lot of his life studying this culminating in his assessment of conflict theory which he published in “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” . 

The final part of the lecture was “The Six Arguments Against Humanity”

apparently there were another five slides and the lecture was cut short. Although I have looked extensively though the internet I have not managed to find the slides.


1.Why does Professor Fuller say (almost as a joke) that education is ‘a dying art’?

Because the concept of education as leading us towards some form of higher humanity has in his opinion been lost. He talks about teaching people to put sentences together, meet people in the eye and generally function human to human with rational thought. For many people today communication is not in full sentences but in abbreviated form. The advent of SMS and twitter has developed shorted communication styles that do not involve whole words let alone whole sentences. People don;t look each other in the eye. The communicate in written form far more often than face to face or even voice to voice. Even when meeting face to face some people find it very difficult to hold a conversation, look someone in the eye or concentrate on one thing at a time. Education is now more about feeding people information than raising them to be higher functioning.

2. He talks about the ‘modern artifice’ of enhancement: how might this notion of becoming more ‘fully human’ via enhancement impact on the project of education?

Human enhancementt refers to any attempt to temporarily or permanently overcome the current limitations of the human body through natural or artificial means

Human nature is competitive  People are always looking to improve what they can do by having better bodies, minds, tools etc. This is most evident in sport where recently there has been much in the press about taking performance enhancing drugs. The person doing this knows in himself that he is not better than his opponent but that competitive edge makes them want to win. This is true of events where there is no financial gain so it is not purely the compensation.

The use of memory enhancing or cognitive enhancing drugs has been known of for some time also. Scholars use them to get an advantage or to pass an exam. We use creams to hide our wrinkles and make up to enhance our features. People have being doing these things for a long time. It is not a new phenomena we are just getting better at it.

In education the competitive edge has been very diluted. There have been many debates on whether it is necessary in education. Some feel that competition leads to conflict, and conflict leads disunity. Others feel that it’s only when you have the drive to compete that you can reach your true potential.  The desire to do better has reduced but not been totally eradicated with the active reduction of competition in schools.

Those who search to compete will find ways of enhancing themselves whether through the use of drugs, technology or some other manner. Educators are attempting all the time to improve the  tools of education. Geneticists are trying to improve the human brain through genetic selection in order to be more susceptible to education.  Neural implants are still a developing technology with research focused on use where the brain has been damaged though stroke or accident for example.

In the 1995  film Johnny Mnemonic Keanu Reeves played a data courier, carrying a data package  inside his head. It was too large to hold for long  and he had to deliver it before it killed him. The same actor went on to play the part of Neo in The Matrix. In this film information could be “uploaded” into his avatar and he would have immediate knowledge of how to do karate or fly a helicopter.

It will be interesting to see the development of neural implants and see just how far they can be used. If knowledge can be immediately uploaded into the brain then the face of education would be changed for ever. Teachers would lose jobs to programmers.

3. Professor Fuller argues that there’s historical precedent for considering only some homo sapiens to be ‘human’: what are the political implications of this in contemporary times? And how might such a notion position education?

There are not only historical precedents that some parts of humanity consider other parts to be less than human.  We see terrorists dehumanizing their victims normally by referring to them as animals. We see people treating captured terrorists as sub human. In many societies women are used as chattels and are uneducated and un valued.

In contemporary times this dehumanization has caused political conflict and even genocide. In some society ethnic minorities and women are seen as disposable. It is not a good investment to educate them as they will have no use for this education in the future. Education in these societies is for the indigenous male and in some cases only the rich indigenous male. The caste system in India for example, although now outlawed, still exists. The Dalits are often used as slaves and are not considered worth educating.

4. He suggests that we are questioning the very existence of the ‘human’ because we have failed in the humanist project (for example, we are far from achieving racial, gender or class equality): do you believe this?

I don’t see being human in the same way as he does. I don’t think that being human is a project it just is like a tree is a tree. I don’t agree that there is a humanist project. Is he talking of the renaissance view of humanist or something else. The revival of learning and the interest in human welfare, value and dignity still exists. Saying it is a project demeans it greatly.

Do we question the existence of a tree because we once had them all over the countryside and now many have been cleared to make bigger fields for more crops? Or that we now grow taller, shorter, more exotic trees? It is still a tree.

There is a wide range of humans. He was hinting at the question when does an ape become a human or rather when does the intelligence and physical appearance of a man so resemble an ape that he can no longer be refereed to as human. In the same way we might ask when does a tree become a shrub.

Your average tree doesn’t need to consider whether it is a tree or not. It just carries on being a tree. The man on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t question its own existence. It gets on with life being a human.

So no. I don’t agree that the great ‘we’ are questioning this. He might be, top professors all over the place might be but I don’t and I would say the majority of people don’t.

5. In claiming that ‘the old humanistic project should not be dropped’, Professor Fuller links his talk to our key theme of re-asserting the human. His stance seems to be that ‘you can only be morally credible’ if you are addressing issues of human freedom and equality. Thinking about education specifically, might we see MOOCs as an example of an ‘old humanistic project’, particularly in the promise they appear to offer for democratisation, equality of access and so on?

That is a difficult question to answer. Yes in one way. MOOCS are offering hundreds of thousands of people free on-line courses. There is no restriction on who can access the course so that is an example of being humanistic, of wanting to give people the chance to access courses they would not normally be able to have  A couple of things detract from that premise. Those that register for MOOCs need to have a basic education and interest in education before they start and secondly they need to have access.

About 30% of the world has internet access (internet world stats). So the rest don’t. Those who don’t are  the ones that need education the most.  They might never have seen a PC let alone used one. They don’t speak English. They can’t read or write. So these people are in the main not included in “democratisation”. The figures on those that are are growing.  According to Edudemic there are 93 million American adults with limited reading skills. About two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women.

The courses offered on MOOCs tend to be higher learning. Course such as basic reading, writing and mathematics are not widely available and certainly not in all languages.

Additional reading

Dehumanization  –  (Wikipedia)

Dehumanisation and terrorism (Cities in Conflict)



  1. […] didn’t find Fuller’s argument vere convincing as you can see from my previous post. I tweeted Robert Read for a response to the TEDx Warwick talk. He was kind enough to respond to […]

  2. […] films. As a dystopian science fiction action film this film would have fit the bill. The Steve Fuller video on defining humanity is also interesting to come back to after this film. How much less human […]

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