A Guest Blogger on Human Exceptionalism or Exceptional Humans

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Creed.jpgGuest blogger Daniel Creed is a PhD student in the Comparative Studies program at Florida Atlantic University and teaches first-year composition and sophomore level literature courses for the English department. His current research focuses on genre fiction, mythopoesis as postcolonial healing in twentieth century literature, and theoretical constructions for reading fantasy literature. His work has been featured in The Explicator and North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies and is under review in three other journals.

I’d like to begin this post with a confession. I have read everything in the Emerging textbook more than once. I’ve taught most of them more than once, and for years (and multiple editions of the textbook), Francis Fukuyama’s “Human Dignity” has flummoxed students. The essay is one of the longer ones in Emerging, and it is full of complex thoughts and ideas that many first-year composition students have difficulty grasping with any depth of understanding. It was a nearly impossible first reading in my courses, and often still confused students when I placed it at the end of a sequence. The essay, like all of the essays in the textbook, leeches out into various ideas and subjects, but what has been most promising with regards to my students has been focusing on ideas of human exceptionalism and exceptional humans with the text.

In “Human Dignity,” Fukuyama asserts the idea that one of the greatest dangers to civilization is the future of biotechnology and the movement towards transhumanism. It is an idea that he extended in an interview where he cites the social and economic inequalities that could arise from artificially enhanced human beings in our near future. Within the context of the interview, he argues that Western society is less likely to develop these technologies because of the Christian morality that dominates social thought, noting the same passage in Genesis that situates humans above the animal kingdom that Jacques Derrida cites in “The Animal that therefore I am (more to follow).”

This originally led me to create an activity for students where I crated small slips of paper with different dollar amounts on them which the students blindly pulled from a sealed container. The students were then given a worksheet that gave them categories of “enhancement” (for make believe children) and the corresponding costs for doing so. As students filled out their sheets, allocating their very limited or nearly limitless wealth, they began to shy away from those not like them. Their self-segregation was furthered when I asked each of them to locate a mate for the “pretend child” they had created with their dollar amounts. In a perfect parallel to Fukuyama’s teachings, the genetically wealthy mated their children and the genetically poor were forced to mate theirs. This allowed them to see how generational pairings would further increase the stratification until the idea of human would either need to have multiple meanings, or cease to have meaning for one group or another.

It is the explanation of this moment through their own experience that allows them to clearly understand Fukuyama’s ideas regarding biotechnology and transhumanism, which begins the conversation regarding whether the highly modified or less modified beings are the “true humans” and what social problems those ideas could result in for future generations. This conversation works well with the following essays:

  • Brian Christian, “Authenticating” – discusses transhumanism and cyborgification
  • Patricia Churchland, “Networking: Genes, Brains, and Behavior” – looks at genetic causes for cooperative traits and the roots of morality
  • The Dalai Lama, “Ethics and the New Genetics” – considers the need for a rethinking and balancing of ethics regarding biotech
  • Tom Vanderbilt, “Shut Up, I Can’t Hear You” – discusses how cyborg identities and mechanization can be linked to aggression

However, the conversation also opens into ideas that have little to do with how we determine humanity and more to do with how we participate in human exceptionalism. This conversation leads into a sequence that could include David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” Michael Pollan’s “Practicing Complexity,” Elizabeth Dickinson’s “The Future of Food,” and Hal Herzog’s “Animals Like Us.”

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About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.