Evidence is mounting the anatomically modern humans (AMH) interbred with archaic humans, such as Neandertals, within the past 80,000 years and perhaps as recently as 30,000 years ago. Not only that, but in the view of some experts, this interbreeding was widespread, possibly more the rule than the exception.
The title of my talk was “Finding the Human in the Genome.” I presented visual images of early human art, including the recent report of the discovery of the 100,000 “artist workshop” in South Africa.
Looking at ancient art can be inspiring and moving, but for us today, the question comes back more forcefully than ever. What are we? Where are we going as a species? Are we in danger of destroying ourselves, not by violence but by modification, by engineering future humans that are not exactly human anymore?
I suggested that our past is somewhat more complex than we thought. Our future, likewise, is a bit more open-ended. We are not clearly defined at either end, either in our origins or in our destiny. As science discovers a complex past, technology opens an uncharted future.
At that point in the talk, I turned to the prescient words of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the author of the Oration on the Dignity of Man. Writing in 1486, Pico praises the greatness of the Creator, the “Great Artisan,” who creates human beings with no defined or determinate nature, except the need for self-creation:
Finally, the Great Artisan mandated that this creature who would receive nothing proper to himself shall have joint possession of whatever nature had been given to any other creature. He made man a creature of indeterminate and indifferent nature, and, placing him in the middle of the world, said to him "Adam, we give you no fixed place to live, no form that is peculiar to you, nor any function that is yours alone. According to your desires and judgment, you will have and possess whatever place to live, whatever form, and whatever functions you yourself choose. All other things have a limited and fixed nature prescribed and bounded by our laws. You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature. We have placed you at the world's center so that you may survey everything else in the world. We have made you neither of heavenly nor of earthly stuff, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with free choice and dignity, you may fashion yourself into whatever form you choose. To you is granted the power of degrading yourself into the lower forms of life, the beasts, and to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine.According to Pico, God speaks these words to the newly created Adam and Eve and, in effect, to all of us. Then Pico comments: “Imagine! The great generosity of God! The happiness of man! To man it is allowed to be whatever he chooses to be!”
Now, thanks in part to recent science, we can see just how far Pico was right.