Posts Tagged ‘humanity’

Superman could never be a part of humanity

May 22, 2016

Humanity – as applying to the human species – is something more than just the 7 billion individuals alive today or even the 110 billion (or so) members of homo sapiens who have ever lived. Humanity must include the 4 babies being born every second. It must include all those who have ever been, or will come to be, “human”. Any definition of humanity must transcend time. For any individual, to be “human” it is is not a case of just falling within a certain envelope of physical and cognitive characteristics, but must also include the individual’s behaviour.

Our genes determine our physical and cognitive capabilities – our potential. Nurture then determines how these are expressed in each individual case. While our genes may not determine specific, individual behaviour, they do define the envelope of all possible behaviours available to an individual. It is our genes which define the envelope of all possible human characteristics and also the envelope of all possible human behaviour.

The envelope of all possible human behaviour will – must – include all behaviour that many would consider “inhumane”. Hitler or Pol Pot or Breivik or ISIS fanatics are or were undoubtedly human, but their behaviour was or is “inhumane”. Their “inhumanity” does not remove them from the body of anydefinition of humanity. If not, it would mean that there could be some humans who – on account of their behaviour – were not part of humanity. That, I think, would be a contradiction in itself. Equally, if some entity exhibited behaviour which fell within the envelope of all possible human behaviour, but fell outside the envelope of physical and cognitive characteristics, then that entity would not be part of humanity.


The paradox is that what we call “crimes against humanity” are, in fact, part of humanity. Inhumane behaviour is an integral part of humanity.

If we wish to exclude certain types of behaviour from humanity, the inescapable conclusion is that we have to eliminate or modify the genes which allow the unwanted behaviour. But our physical characteristics and our behaviour are dependent upon the same genes. And if genetic engineering to change behaviour was possible, it would also mean that our physical and cognitive abilities would inevitably change.

Superman might pretend to be human but he could never be a part of any definition of humanity.


It’s silly season: Aliens and global warming “fun” paper picked up by the Guardian and others and the co-author apologises

August 20, 2011

It’s August and the silly season is on us.

Global warming >> detection by advanced aliens >> humanity exterminated

Even a science fiction author would have qualms.

The Guardian carried a headline: Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists saying Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report. They had picked up on a “fun” paper which was a couple of months old. It was attributed – now admitted by a co-author – quite wrongly to NASA.

Though the Guardian actually does say that one of the authors is a “NASA affiliated scientist” and does not explicitly say NASA was behind the paper the report does imply that this was a “formal” NASA paper. This was of course picked up by a number of other media outlets – Svenska Dagbladet among them – which merely carried the Guardian report headline and all. Not one of the journalists who reported the Guardian silly season story actually bothered to read the original paper which is here:

Acta Astronautica, 2011, 68(11-12): 2114-2129. Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis by Seth D. Baum-1, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra-2 & Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman-3

1. Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University.
2. Department of Meteorology, Pennsylvania State University
3. NASA Planetary Science Division

The third author, Shawn Goldman, who happens to work at NASA organising conferences and workshops, has been forced to explain and clarify that this was just a “fun” scenario done in his spare time and has nothing to do with NASA.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman is currently a postdoc at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. For 3-4 days a week he works in the astrobiology program office, organizing conferences and workshops. The other 1-2 days are dedicated to research focused on exoplanet characterization lessons from the “pale orange dot” that was the Archean Earth.

(Archean Earth was similar to but somewhat warmer than today, existed some 3800 – 2500 million years ago and is thought to have contained no free Oxygen. Bacteria were around. I suppose if you can get your mind around imagining the Archean Earth then imagining aliens picking up on global warming and emissions signals and destroying humanity is child’s play).

Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman

Alien expert?: Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman

He writes:

Yes, I work at NASA. It’s also true that I work at NASA Headquarters. But I am not a civil servant… just a lowly postdoc. More importantly, this paper has nothing to do with my work there. I wasn’t funded for it, nor did I spend any of my time at work or any resources provided to me by NASA to participate in this effort. There are at least a hundred more important and urgent things to be done on any given work day than speculate on the different scenarios for contact with alien civilizations… However, in my free time (what precious little I have), I didn’t mind working on stuff like this every once in a while. Why? Well, because I’m a geek and stuff like this is fun to think about. Unfortunately, there is not enough time for fun. Indeed, I felt guilty at times because this has led to a lack of effort on my part in my interactions with Seth and Jacob. Beyond adding some comments here or there, I did very little for the paper.

But I do admit to making a horrible mistake. It was an honest one, and a naive one… but it was a mistake nonetheless. I should not have listed my affiliation as “NASA Headquarters.” I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. …..

One last thing: I stand by the analysis in the paper. Is such a scenario likely? I don’t think so. But it’s one of a myriad of possible (albeit unlikely) scenarios, and the point of the paper was to review them. 

Perhaps the aliens picked up on Archean Earth and actually seeded the progression of the bacteria into humanity.

Oh well! It is August and we are all entitled to be silly – even the Guardian.

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