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John Evans on what it means to be human

Evans spoke about humanity Thursday.
Photo contributed.
Evans spoke about humanity Thursday. Photo contributed.

Everyone reading this article is (probably) a human. But what exactly does that mean? On Thursday, sociologist John Evans gave a talk on campus on what it means to be human. This week, the S&B’s Cassidy Hilburn talked with Evans about his research.

The S&B: How would you describe your presentation? What is your visit encapsulating?

John Evans: So there’s this basic concept of human rights, freedom from torture, freedom from starvation, people have expanded this into broader ways — freedom of education, etc. but these are the basics. To think of a human as having human rights, you have to think of that person of having unlimited worth of some kind, some sacred status … Philosophers have long been looking for a reason as to why you would treat an individual as sacred. For the past hundred years, philosophers, social scientists and various humanists have been concerned that a lot of things like biomedical technology and the like are slowly making us think of a new definition of what a human is and moving away from definitions of the human that allow for the sacredness and into thinking of humans as more like objects.

The S&B: What is your background? What led you to this topic of research?

JE: I was an undergraduate at one of your rivals, Macalester College, and I was a political science and philosophy double major. I then went to graduate school and I have a PhD in sociology, but focusing on the sociology of religion. I’m a card-carrying sociologist of religion … My entire career has been dedicated to identifying the parts of those humanistic traditions that are actually, secretly, implicitly, social science questions and trying to examine them. So an earlier book I did was on what people think of reproductive technologies. Bioethicists would say religious people would be opposed to genetically modifying the human species, but the answer is that’s not correct: There are certain people who are completely against the destroying of embryos, but moving beyond that there are certain people, very limited population, who believe that any reproduction that happens outside of the body is wrong, but the majority of ordinary religious people in America aren’t opposed to genetic modification per se, but the difference between secular and religious people are that secular people say we should decide what these modifications should be and religious people say what would God want us to do? And typically, it’s that God would want us to cure these horrible diseases. So again, it’s taking these theological, bioethical debate and saying what can a social scientist contribute to this? And this book is in that same vein.

The S&B: What do you gain from your interdisciplinary discipline — that is, applying a sociologist’s lens to issues generally studied by philosophers, theologians or bioethicists?

JE: I think it’s incredibly exciting be doing something that’s really novel and new, yet based upon existing ideas that have been around for a hundred years. For example, in theology — Christian theology, more than Judaism or Islam — they debate between ‘are we created by God’, ‘co-creators with God’, ‘co-created creations with nature’ … That said, there’s a downside to this, which is that disciplines do not take timely to interlopers. There’s no way, no matter how prepared I am, that I have a PhD level understanding of philosophy, of theology, etc. I don’t. So someone will always say, ‘you aren’t characterizing the problem properly,’ or ‘you don’t understand what we mean by this.” And when I say, I totally accept that — I don’t have a PhD in philosophy but I’m doing my best. That interdisciplinary conversation, especially across what I would call a normative empirical divide is very difficult. But I think it’s of critical importance, it’s like all social science is only relevant if it’s at least implicitly connected to some humanistic concern.

The S&B: What are the potential effects of the finding of your research on the changing perceptions of humans is on society?

JE: A lot of the concern by bioethicists and sociologists and feminist critics of technology over the past 50 years has been about what is called ‘geneticization,’ which is thinking of the human as a sequence of genes that lead to certain capacities. The concern is that the more people who talk about human in genetic terms, the more you are teaching the public this genetic version of the human which is theorized to have pernicious effects on how you view regular, walking around humans you interact with. The genetics revolutions in reproduction is essentially accelerating, with all these new technologies like CRISPR-Cas9 and different ways of interfering with genetic sequences. People are going to be hearing more and more about ‘designer babies’ or things of that nature, and this is not a joke — you can already design a baby … at present I think most of the design we’re taking of, people would morally approve of.

The S&B: What was the process of writing this book, and what came out of it that surprised you?

JE: The process was that I conducted 90 in-depth interviews with Americans and a 3,000 person public opinion poll and matched that data together. A couple things surprised me. One is that I was frankly surprised that I did find evidence of this effect, that thinking of a human in particular ways would lead to thinking of humans like an object … Another was, I saw inductively in in-depth interviews the rise of type of perspective on the human that doesn’t exist in humanistic literature at all which is that humans are those we decide are humans. That has some potentially negative ramifications, so socially on the one hand that’s probably exactly how it work; we in a social group, collectively, have decided that dogs are not humans and are currently in the process of reevaluating chimpanzees and such, and we have decided that the people around us are humans. But to take that on as your normative position, that that’s the way it should be, raises issues like ‘what if we collectively decided that that person is not a human?’ … So, it worried me that there was a subset of the population that endorsed this view of ‘human,’ not that they’re going to go out and commit genocide but it seemed to me a very dangerous and touchy aspect of my research.

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