What Does It Mean to Be Human?

(Biological Sciences, Biotechnology, and Other Considerations)
  • Barry B. Luokkala
Part of the Science and Fiction book series (SCIFICT)


Humans are the highest form of intelligent life on Earth. But what is it that makes us distinctly human? From a purely scientific perspective, what, if anything, sets us apart from other forms of life? Are there other important considerations, apart from the natural sciences, which might be necessary, if we want a complete picture of what it means to be human? In this chapter we will explore these and other questions related to our humanness. We conclude by focusing on the question, what can we learn from an android about what it means to be human?


Science Fiction Engine Room Geiger Counter Star Trek Hand Transplant 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Introduction: Being Human

  1. 1.
    M. Shelley, Frankenstein (Bantam Books, New York, 1975), p. 42Google Scholar

Bodies with Replaceable Parts

  1. 2.
    Frankenstein (James Whale, Universal Studios 1931). A scientist learns “what it feels like to be God” after successfully assembling and animating a living creature from dead human body parts [DVD scenes 5, 6]Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Mad Love (The Hands of Orlac) (Karl Freund, MGM 1935). A hand transplant more than 60 years before the first successful operation of this kind [DVD scenes 8, 9]Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    D. Hamilton, A History of Organ Transplantation (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2012), p. 291Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    D. Hamilton, op. cit., p. 142Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Star Trek (The Original Series) – Spock’s Brain (Marc Daniels, Paramount 1968). Dr. McCoy must acquire the delicate surgical skills necessary to put Spock’s stolen brain back where it belongs [DVD vol. 31, ep. 61, scenes 1, 2, 6 or full episode]Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    The Man They Could Not Hang (Nick Grinde, Columbia Pictures 1939). Cardiopulmonary bypass machine more than a decade before first actual use of such a device [DVD scenes 1, 2, 6]Google Scholar

Resistance to Disease

  1. 8.
    The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, Paramount 1952). Military weapons useless against invaders from Mars [DVD scenes 5, 9]Google Scholar
  2. 9.
    War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, Paramount 2005). The gruesome details of the alien invasion are faithful to the novel [DVD scenes 5, 6]Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, Paramount 2005). Cause of death of Martian invaders described using quotes from novel [DVD closing scene]Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, Paramount 1952). Martian invaders die from bacterial infection [DVD scene 13]Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    F.C. Clark, A brief history of antiseptic surgery. Med. Lib. Hist. J. 5 (Sept 1907),
  6. 13.
    Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, Warner Brothers 2011). An amateur’s explanation of R0, the reproduction number for a viral infection, misses the mark on the rate of progression [DVD scene 24]Google Scholar

Cell Structure and Radiation Damage

  1. 14.
    Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, Paramount 1982). Spock exposes himself to a lethal dose of gamma radiation, in order to restore warp-drive to the Enterprise [DVD scene 15]Google Scholar
  2. 15.
    The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, Paramount 1952). Geiger counter used to measure radiation from an object fallen from space [DVD scene 2]Google Scholar
  3. 16.
    xkcd Radiation Dose Chart,
  4. 17.
    Godzilla (Roland Emmerich, Columbia Tristar 1998). Biologist studies the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on worms [DVD scene 3]Google Scholar
  5. 18.
    Nature – Radioactive Wolves (Klaus Feichtenberger, THIRTEEN 2011) [DVD scene 1]Google Scholar
  6. 19.
    Them (Gordon Douglas, Warner Brothers 1954). “Lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb” causes ants to grow to gigantic proportion [DVD scenes 10, 11]Google Scholar
  7. 20.
    Crespo-Hernandez et al., J. Phys. Chem. A (2004),

DNA and the Human Genome

  1. 21.
    The Island of Dr. Moreau (Don Taylor, MGM 1977). The title character claims that he has “…almost proved the existence of a cell particle that controls heredity” [DVD scene 6]Google Scholar
  2. 22.
    History and goals of the Human Genome Project,
  3. 23.
    F.S. Collins, The Language of God (Free Press – Simon and Shuster, New York, 2006), p. 118 (Watson opposed to gene patents)Google Scholar
  4. 24.
    F.S. Collins, op. cit., p. 124 (size of human genome)Google Scholar
  5. 25.
    F.S. Collins, op. cit., p. 111 (on “junk DNA”)Google Scholar
  6. 26.
    Encyclopedia of DNA Elements,
  7. 27.
    Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, Columbia Pictures 2002). A high school student is bitten by a genetically engineered super-spider, and acquires spider-like abilities [DVD scenes 2, 3]Google Scholar
  8. 28.
    F.S. Collins, op. cit., p. 137 (similarity between human and chimpanzee genomes)Google Scholar
  9. 29.
    Cracking the Code of Life (Elizabeth Arledge, WGBH 2001). PBS NOVA series episode, focusing on the Human Genome Project, Genetic variation among humans [DVD scene 6]Google Scholar
  10. 30.
    I am Legend (Francis Lawrence, Warner Brothers 2007). A cure for cancer has been found by genetically engineering the measles virus. But the virus mutates with bizarre, if not lethal consequences [DVD scenes 1, 2]Google Scholar
  11. 31.
    GATTACA (Andrew Niccol, Columbia Pictures 1997). Natural birth, versus genetically screened and selected birth [DVD scenes 3, 4], Genetic discrimination and impersonation [DVD scenes 6, 7]Google Scholar
  12. 32.
    NOVA – Cracking Your Genetic Code (Sarah Holt, WGBH 2012). Eric Lander: 180 genes involved in determining the height of an individual [DVD scene 6], Jonathan Rothberg on genotyping vs. DNA sequencing, and Francis Collins’ genotype test results [DVD scene 3], Gene-based therapy for cancer [DVD scene 5], Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) [DVD scene 6]Google Scholar


  1. 33.
    Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, Universal Studios 1993). A theme park is created with living dinosaurs, cloned from DNA found in jurassic mosquitoes preserved in amber [DVD scenes 5, 6]Google Scholar
  2. 34.
    R.P. Lanza, B.L. Dresser, P. Damiani, Cloning Noah’s ark. Sci. Am. (Nov 2000)Google Scholar
  3. 35.
    The Island (Michael Bay, Warner Brothers 2005). Clones are created and sold as insurance policies to the wealthy [DVD scenes 8]Google Scholar
  4. 36.
    The Island (Michael Bay, Warner Brothers 2005). Some of the clones are found not only to be biologically identical to their “sponsors,” but also to have their memories [DVD scene 13]Google Scholar

Human Teleportation

  1. 37.
    The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, Touchstone and Warner Brothers 2006). Nikola Tesla is commissioned to build a teleportation device. The device succeeds, but with one small problem: it creates a duplicate in another location, but does not destroy the original [DVD scene 18]Google Scholar
  2. 38.
    Star Trek (original series), “The Corbomite Maneuver” (Joseph Sargent, Paramount 1966). The first showing of the transporter, as well as the debut of Dr. McCoy [DVD vol. 1, ep. 2, scene 7]Google Scholar
  3. 39.
    The Fly (Kurt Neumann, 20th Century Fox 1958). A scientist works to create a matter teleportation device. Initial tests look promising, but the ultimate test has disastrous consequences [DVD scenes 9, 10]Google Scholar
  4. 40.
    Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Ship in a Bottle” (Alexander Singer, Paramount 1993). “Heisenberg compensators” [DVD season 6, disc 3, scenes 1, 2, 7]Google Scholar
  5. 41.
    Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Relics” (Alexander Singer, Paramount 1992). Information loss: “pattern degradation” [DVD season 6, disc 1, scenes 1, 2]Google Scholar

Beyond Biology

  1. 42.
    H. Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998)Google Scholar
  2. 43.
    R. Kurtzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Penguin, New York, 2005), p. 7Google Scholar
  3. 44.
    D. MacKay, Brains, Machines & Persons (William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, London, 1980), p. 60 and p. 49Google Scholar
  4. 45.
    M. Dickerson, The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters (Brazos, Grand Rapids, 2011), p. xivGoogle Scholar

What Can We Learn from an Android About What It Means to Be Human?

  1. 46.
    Star Trek: The Next Generation – Unification, Part II (Cliff Bole, Paramount 1991). Dialog between Spock and Data, in regard to what it means to be human [DVD season 5, disc 2, scene 5]Google Scholar
  2. 47.
    Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Rightful Heir” (Winrich Kolbe, Paramount 1993). Data’s choice to be more than just a machine [DVD season 6, disc 6, scene 8]Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barry B. Luokkala
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhysicsCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

Personalised recommendations