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Dear Friend of KLICE,

We are pleased to present the latest edition of KLICE Comment.

This month John Wyatt writes on Human identity in a technological world.


John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College London and a member of the KLICE Advisory Council.


The Canadian philosopher George Grant argued that modern civilisation was distinguished from all previous civilisations because our activities of knowing and making had been brought together in a way which did not allow the once-clear distinction between them. Technology brought with it new ways of knowing, and the co-penetration of knowing and making in modern technological societies was orientated towards the mastery of nature, especially human nature.

If Grant was right, then we should not be surprised that the spectacular advances of biomedical technology of the last two decades are leading to subtle but far-reaching changes in human self-understanding - in our culture's understanding of human identity. What does it mean to be human in the light of modern scientific knowledge?

Advances in genetics and biology are leading to a blurring of the distinction between non-human animals and humans. Between 98 and 99% of the human genome is identical with that of a chimpanzee. It is frequently claimed that all the abilities, capacities and functions which were thought to be uniquely human can also be seen to some extent in non-human primates or other animals. Most of the recent therapeutic advances in the field of medicine depend on the extremely close relationship between animal and human biology, enabling the successful translation of therapies from experimental models to human treatments. Peter Singer and others have used these biological findings to challenge the traditional belief that the species Homo Sapiens should be treated as having unique moral significance. He is a strong supporter of the Great Ape Project which campaigns for basic legal rights to be extended to many primates.

At the same time the distinction between humans and machines is being blurred. The mechanistic understanding of human physiology has been extremely successful. Features of information processing technology are used to provide insights into human brain function. An undergraduate textbook of cell biology depicts a photomicrograph of a human brain cell growing on top of a computer microprocessor. The text states: 'The neuron is the fundamental information-processing unit of the brain, which might be compared to the transistor as the fundamental processing unit in the computer. However, the brain has 15 billion neurons, whereas microprocessors have only millions of transistors'. In the words of theologian Helmut Thielicke: 'Instead of man being the measure of things, the things he has made come to determine the lines along which man himself is to be structured.'

In the field of neuroscience new technologies are enabling us to monitor, control, manipulate and enhance our brain function. It is becoming increasingly possible to manipulate perception and memory, whether through neuro-pharmacology or cognitive prostheses. Active research projects around the world seek to find ways of improving interfaces between computers and the human brain. Much of this technology is orientated towards enabling patients suffering from profound disabilities to operate essential aids such as computers and wheelchairs. But the same technology is being employed by the military to improve the speed and efficiency of offensive weapons. The ultimate goal is a merging of man and machine so that weapons, aircraft and other hardware can be controlled by thought alone.

As animal-human and machine-human boundaries become increasingly blurred, the outlines of a new way of knowing, a new human ontology, become clearer and the challenges to orthodox biblical anthropology become inescapable. The pivotal significance of the Christian belief that we are made in the image of God is about to be tested as never before.

From the perspective of the biblical narrative, the ceaseless quest for technological mastery over our own human nature is doomed to futility. The meaning of our humanity is not constructed, it is given to us. We are reflections of a greater reality, 'lacking a very little of God' in the literal Hebrew of Psalm 8, yet formed from the dust of the earth, encompassing a terrifying vulnerability, dependence and contingency.

The challenge for Christian theologians and practitioners alike is to find new ways of articulating and defending human uniqueness revealed in the biblical narrative, as we confront the new ontologies of biomedical technology.


John Wyatt

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