Is the biologically defined human of the humanists' (and STS) fears really in the mind of the public?

Speaker: Prof John H. Evans # University of California San Diego

22nd Sep 2014

15:30 - 17:00

Conference Room, David Hume Tower


What it means to be human is one of the central debates in Western thought.  Yet, there has been no comprehensive empirical study of what people in a wealthy Western nation think a human is.  An empirical study is important because many STS scholars (and humanists in general) claim that if the public holds the wrong notion of the human, the public will treat humans poorly.  Of the disputed definitions of the human, the bete noire is the biological version which is claimed to make us think of ourselves as more object-like.  In this talk I start by discussing three dominant academic definitions of the human.  Then, using data from a study of the U.S. public, I focus upon the difference between the biologically defined human feared by academics and how the public uses biology to define the human.   I finish with some tentative empirical conclusions about the link between the public holding particular notions of the human and human treatment.

Speaker Biography

John H. Evans earned his B.A. from Macalester College and his Ph.D. from Princeton. He has been a Post-doctoral Fellow at Yale, a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and has held a visiting professorial fellowships at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Muenster. His research focuses on religion, culture, politics and science. His first book, Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate (2002, University of Chicago Press), won the Distinguished Book Award from the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association. Playing God? offers an explanation for the emergence of the profession of bioethics in public bioethical debate, and an explanation for why these debates are structured as they are. His second book, titled Contested Reproduction: Genetic Technologies, Religion and Public Debate (2010, University of Chicago Press), examines how ordinary religious people in the U.S. talk about reproductive genetic technologies. It also is a contribution to one of Evans’ other interests – polarization in public debates – in that it examines whether or not people will want to debate this issue in the future, or whether they will consider it to be a hopelessly polarized issue like the abortion debate. His third book, titled The History and Future of Bioethics: A Sociological View (2012, Oxford University Press) takes up where his first book ended. The book uses sociological reasoning to examine the history of bioethics in more detail and, unlike the first book, he offers a solution to what he sees as the crisis in bioethics debate. In addition to these books, Evans has written over 35 articles and book chapters on topics in religion, culture, politics and science.