Current Book Project: What Makes Us Human? From Neurons to the Sistine Chapel

The core aim of this book project is to provide a synthesis of contemporary research on human nature and human personhood, rendering this forbiddingly complex topic accessible and appealing to a broad audience of college-level readers. I seek to integrate the most recent findings of the natural sciences, medicine, and engineering with the state of the art in the humanities and social sciences. My book will identify the core features and capabilities of human personhood, showing how those distinctive qualities emerge from the biological and social contexts in which they are embedded. Such a synthesis is urgently needed, I believe, because the specialization of knowledge in both the sciences and humanities has left too many persons in our contemporary world ill equipped to grasp the uniqueness and preciousness of the qualities that make us human. While respecting the inherent complexity of the issues involved, I wish to write a book that reaches beyond academia, offering the general reader a bird’s-eye view of where the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities currently stand on this topic.

I envision a book divided into five parts, along the lines of the provisional chapter outline that follows:

Part I: Emergence: a necessary paradigm
1. How new forms of complexity arise from patterns in the interaction of simple parts
2. Emergence and human biology
3. Emergence and human society

Part II: The human panorama
4. What the anthropologist saw: core human traits across time and space
5. Human nature: six dimensions of our being
Embodiment, Cognition, Affect, Community, Identity, Engaging the world
6. Key attributes we share with animals and machines

Part III: The biological infrastructure of personhood
7. Genomes, epigenomes, and environment
8. The brain in the body in the society
9. How evolution contributed to shaping us

Part IV: The social infrastructure of personhood
10. Language, mind, and culture
11. History and human nature: how our civilizations have changed us
Economies, institutions, laws, morality

Part V: Seven emergent qualities of personhood that set us apart
12. Divided within: the experience of being a personal self
13. Creativity (and unpredictability)
14. Intrinsic value
15. Free will and moral choice in a world of constraints
16. Our shadow side: the distinctively human failings
17. Intimations of transcendence
18. Dignity

We are entering an era of heightened controversy (and anxiety) over the impact exerted by science and technology on our lives. Over the coming decades, our informatic machines will become ever more powerful, challenging some of the age-old boundaries that have separated us from them; at the same time, our advanced biotechnologies will allow unprecedented forms of modification of human bodies and minds. In this emerging historical context, the question of “what makes us human” will become an increasingly challenging and pragmatically urgent one – not just for the philosophically inclined, but for all of us, as individual citizens, as families, as members of a social whole.