What does it mean to be human?
I've been carrying that question around since a weekend I spent sequestered at home reading and watching movies. I read a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert, Sleeping with the Enemy: What happened between the Neanderthals and us? I followed that with the 1982 movie Blade Runner. Both deal with the question of what makes us human in very different ways, and though we've been kicking the question around since the time of Socrates, we still haven't agreed on an answer. But in Kolbert's article and in Blade Runner, the question resonated with me as an Aspie.
In her article, Kolbert writes about the attempt of a paleogeneticist at the Leipzig Zoo, Svante Paabo, to sequence the Neanderthal genome. Paabo is halfway there. So far, he has discovered that the DNA of all non-African modern humans is one to four percent Neanderthal DNA. Kolbert gives a thumbnail portrait of Neanderthals. They had thick bones, "and probably [were] capable of beating modern humans to a pulp." Scoring on Neanderthal bones suggests that they practiced cannibalism. They also tended to their wounded and weak; skeletons of Neanderthals in their fifties bear evidence of broken bones healed over, and of arthritis. Kolbert then moves on to scientific matters. After she writes about mtDNA, nucleotides and their four bases, and enzymes, she gets into specific genes that appear in Neanderthals and modern humans. The genes CADPS2 and AUTS2 are associated with Asperger's and autism in modern humans, and they appear on the Neanderthal genome.
Cut to Blade Runner. Rick Deckard, a blade runner, is charged with hunting down artificial intelligence beings called replicants, and "retiring" (killing) them. They are model Nexus-6 replicants, and on sight they're indistinguishable from humans. They're also much stronger physically and more intelligent than humans. To prevent replicants from forming their own emotional responses over time, the manufacturer programmed them to have a four-year life span. The replicants know this. To detect replicants, Deckard must use a device called the Voigt-Kampff test, which measures reactions like pupillary response, and also emotional response when the subject is asked questions intended to evoke an emotional response. Replicants show a slightly delayed emotional response, which exposes them as replicants. The discovered replicants are shot on the spot. Aspies also can show slight delays in emotional response. In this fictional Blade Runner world, an Aspie would be deemed not human, and "retired."
Kolbert's article and Blade Runner raise the perplexing matter of what it means to be human in different ways. Kolbert reaches a conclusion. I gasped when I read her claim, "clearly [Neanderthals] were not human." The emphasis is Kolbert's, not mine. Blade Runner was inspired by the science fiction book by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This author doesn't draw conclusions, but he shows us that the question of what makes us human isn't settled easily. When Deckard refers to replicants he has just gunned down as "it," that jolts the viewer. The replicants in the story have bolted from a colonized planet and come to Earth illegally to find the man who created them. Their goal: to plead with him to program a longer life into them. They have an intense human will to live. And two of the replicants, Pris and Roy, share a deep emotional bond. Philip K. Dick challenges our ideas about the limits of what we deem human.
I disagree with Kolbert. I see humanity as a spectrum, and though Neanderthals have been extinct for thirty thousand years, they're entitled to a place on the spectrum. And scientists have found evidence of other breeds of humans: most recent skeletons are of "hobbit people" dating to about seventeen thousand years ago, found in Indonesia in 2004; another hominid group that lived more than forty thousand years ago, the Denisovans, has been discovered in Siberia. "Modern New Guineans carry up to six percent Denisovan DNA," Kolbert writes. The remains of more kinds of humans likely will be found. We modern humans have shared the Earth with more distant cousins than we have realized. The human family is more expansive than we've realized, too. As for the cruelty inflicted on the replicants in Blade Runner, it rises to the level of crimes against humanity.
The criteria we've laid out as requirements for admission to the club of humans is as varied as the many kinds of hominids discovered. For instance, some argue that Neanderthals weren't human because they didn't adorn their cave walls with stunning paintings, as modern humans did; the creative impulse, they argue, must be present for a species to be deemed human. But I know modern humans lacking even an interest in art, much less an impulse to create art. Paabo notes that Neanderthals didn't venture across vast bodies of land in search of---well, no one knows exactly what modern humans hoped to find when they set sail. Neanderthals stayed put when they came upon a staggering obstacle, like an ocean. But again, plenty of modern humans fear the unknown. They live their entire lives in the communities where they were born. Does that make them less than human?
And about Asperger's and autism. We Aspies and autistics share two genes associated with Neanderthals. We could be the shadow of Neanderthals living among modern humans. That doesn't make us any less human. It puts us on a part of the human spectrum where we don't have a lot of present company. That makes us unique. And human.