Humankind: a Brief History.
We used to think we understood what separates humans from the animals, we walk upright. We have big brains. We're capable of speech and reason, we are conscious beings. Now, advances in genetics, paleoanthropology, and artificial intelligence have begun to call into question just what it is to be human. After all, we now know that the human genome is only slightly different from that of a chimp. Machines that emote and rival our intelligence and decision-making skills are emerging in computer laboratories. Fernandez-Armesto argues that such scientific advances threaten to undermine our traditional concept of humankind as well as our distinctly human values, and therefore humanity as a whole. With a sense of urgency, he considers what it has meant to be human and how that idea has shifted. He explains how paleoanthropologists and primatologists have identified other animals, both in the fossil record and in the modern day, that possess at least some of the traits that we have used to define ourselves. From a philosophical perspective, he explains how the animal-rights movement has derailed Descartes' belief that animals resemble machines but people are machines with a spirit, or ghost, inside. Descartes' most zealous followers argued that the yelps of a beaten dog were no different than the sound of an organ when the keys are pressed. Today, we are more likely to identify kindredness between ourselves and animals, and Fernandez-Armesto considers the implications of that change. OUP, 2004, 190 p., hardcover, $23.00.