Drawing on a range of disciplines, this provocative program looked at how discoveries in areas like fundamental physics, anthropology, and genomics are influencing our understanding of uniquely human characteristics. As science increasingly tests these boundaries — from the roots of morality and our capacity to contemplate our own existence to the emergence of artificial intelligence — what will it mean to be human?
The event was moderated by Charlie Rose. Participants include philosopher Daniel Dennett, artist Jonathan Harris, anthropologist Ian Tattersall, geneticist Francis Collins, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, philosopher Patricia Churchland, sociologist Nikolas Rose, embryonic stem cell biologist Renee Reijo Pera, and Nobel Laureates Harold Varmus and Paul Nurse.
This program is part of The Big Idea Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.
Image © iStockphoto.com/urbancow
Emmy award-winning journalist Charlie Rose has been praised as “one of America’s premier interviewers.” He is the host of Charlie Rose, the nightly PBS program that engages America’s preeminent thinkers, writers, politicians, athletes, entertainers, business leaders, scientists and other newsmakers.
Daniel C. Dennett is a University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, as well as Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He previously taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since. His books include: Content and Consciousness, Brainstorms, Elbow Room, The Intentional Stance, Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Kinds of Minds, and Brainchildren; Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, Breaking the Spell and Freedom Evolves. He’s the author of over four hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind. His most recent books are Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking and, with Linda LaScola, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. Dennett received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard.
Antonio Damasio is one of the world’s leading neurologists and neuroscientists and has made seminal contributions to the understanding of how the brain processes emotion, decision, and consciousness. Some of these have been described in his books Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, and Looking for Spinoza, which have been translated into over 30 languages. Dr. Damasio is the recipient of numerous academic honors and awards, including the 2005 Asturias Prize in Science and Technology and the 2004 Signoret Prize, which he shared with his wife Hanna Damasio. He is David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.
Francis Collins is known for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and leadership of the Human Genome Project, an international project that culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book. For his accomplishments, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2007. Acknowledged for his consistent emphasis on the importance of ethical and legal issues in genetics, Dr. Collins leads the effort to ensure that this new trove of sequence data is translated into tools for the advancement of biological knowledge and improvement of human health. Dr. Collins was appointed Director of the National Institutes of Health in 2009. He previously served as Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health from 1993-2008. In addition to his achievements as the NHGRI director, his laboratory discovered a number of important genes, including those responsible for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington’s disease and most recently, genes for adult onset diabetes and the gene that causes Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a dramatic form of premature aging. He is the author of The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine and The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Combining elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art and storytelling, Jonathan Harris designs systems to explore and explain the human world. He has made projects about human emotion, human desire, modern mythology, science, news, anonymity, and language, and documented an Alaskan Eskimo whale hunt. He was commissioned by Yahoo! to build the world’s largest time capsule, and by MoMA to build an interactive installation about online dating. He studied computer science at Princeton University, and was awarded a 2004 Fabrica fellowship. The winner of two 2005 Webby Awards, his work has also been recognized by AIGA, Ars Electronica, and the State of Vermont, and exhibited at Le Centre Pompidou and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Reijo Pera is a professor and the Director of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Education Center at Stanford University. Her research is aimed at understanding the developmental genetics of human germ cell formation and differentiation. Her early work resulted in identification of one of the first genes specifically implicated in human germ cell development. Subsequently, her laboratory has established techniques for differentiation of human embryonic stem cells to germ cells and genetic manipulation of the pathways.
Reijo has received numerous awards throughout her career and most recently was cited as one of twenty influential women in the US by Newsweek. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin (Superior), her doctoral degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and her postdoctoral training at the Whitehead Institute for BioMedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Neuroethicist Patricia Churchland explores the complex philosophical and ethical impact that the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience has on society. She is the President’s Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla.
Sociologist Nikolas Rose is interested in how genomics affects personal identity and the social and legal ramifications of studying the human genome. He is the James Martin White Professor of Sociology and the Director of the BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society at the London School of Economics.
Sylvester James (Jim) Gates, Jr. is currently the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland-College Park. In spring of 2009 he was appointed to serve on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the Maryland State Board of Education. Gates is a theoretical physicist and received two BS and a PhD degree from MIT, the latter in 1977. His thesis was the first at MIT on supersymmetry, part of string theory. In 1983, Gates coauthored Superspace, or One Thousand and One Lessons in Supersymmetry, one of two comprehensive text books in the field to this day. Gates has been featured extensively on many NOVA PBS programs on physics, most notably The Elegant Universe in 2003. In 2006, he completed a DVD series Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality and a book, The Art of Physics (in Italian). Gates is strongly committed to education. In the summers of 1971 to 1985, he returned to his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to work with freshmen in the same minority student program by which he had entered that university. He was instrumental in the development of Ph.D. physics programs at Hampton University in Virginia, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, and Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Marvin Minsky is one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence and had made numerous contributions to the fields of AI, cognitive science, mathematics and robotics. His current work focuses on trying to imbue machines with a capacity for common sense. Minsky is a professor at MIT, where he co-founded the artificial intelligence lab.
Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel Laureate and the President of Rockefeller University, where he continues to do research in cell biology. He is the former Chief Executive of Cancer Research in the United Kingdom. Nurse was knighted in Great Britain for his contributions to cancer research.
Ian Tattersall is a prominent anthropologist whose work focuses on the evolution of humans and other primates. He is a curator for the division of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the City University of New York.
Harold Varmus, M.D., co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer, joined the Meyer Cancer Center of Weill Cornell Medicine as the Lewis Thomas University Professor of Medicine on April 1, 2015. Prior to joining Meyer Cancer Center, Dr. Varmus was the Director of the National Cancer Institute for five years. He was also the President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for 10 years and Director of the National Institutes of Health for six years. A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard University in English literature and Columbia University in Medicine, he trained at Columbia University Medical Center, the National Institutes of Health, and the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), before becoming a member of the UCSF basic science faculty for over two decades. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine and is involved in several initiatives to promote science and health in developing countries. The author of over 350 scientific papers and five books, including a recent memoir titled The Art and Politics of Science, he was a co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a co-founder and Chairman of the Board of the Public Library of Science, and chair of the Scientific Board of the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health.