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A few years ago, Wired magazine reported on what it called "a star-studded panel of scientists" at the World Science Festival in New York City. The scientists had gathered to discuss what it means, from a scientific perspective, to be human.

Marvin Minsky, artificial intelligence pioneer, said the one thing we can do that other species can't is remember; we have cultures, ways of transmitting information. Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett said we are the first species that can reason with one another. Physicist Jim Gates said we are blessed with the ability to know our mother; that is, we are conscious of more than ourselves, and that just as a child sees a mother, the species sees mother universe. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said that the critical factor was language. And on it went. Some were excited that science might be the key to unlock what it means to be human, while others doubted science's ability to do that.

The forum was typical of our age but unusual in the history of humankind. For most of history, philosophers and theologians, not scientists, have asked this question. But this question—What does it mean to be human?—does not puzzle only scientists and philosophers. It's one we all ask ourselves in one form or another.

Sometimes the question is couched in the language of the human potential movement: "How can I be all that I can be?" Sometimes it's a moral question: "How can I act like a decent human being in this situation?" Sometimes it centers on meaning: "What is life all about, and what is the place of a human being in it?" or, "Am I just a carbon-based biped, an evolutionary accident?" or, "What is the purpose of our short life on this planet?"

These are old questions. The psalmist, centuries ...

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In the Magazine

January 2012

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