The BJP and Charles Darwin do not get along. Some time ago, an offended gentleman from the saffron classes in the Lok Sabha dramatically denied that his ancestors were monkeys, but were sages instead. He wanted textbooks to teach his genealogical interpretation of man’s origin; going by today’s curriculum charades, it is a distinct possibility. Last week, scientists concluded after studying a 419-million-year-old fossil that the human middle ear evolved from fish gills. Damn! First monkeys, and now fish? In Hindu mythology, fish do give birth to human children like Satyavati.
Religion and science have been battling out for centuries over the authorship of man. Hindus believe that Brahma created man and woman by divvying himself into two. Christianity is clear that God did it. Muslims are taught that Allah made man from clay and “from a single soul, and out of it created its mate.” But none of these claims describes what it means to be human. Darwin wrote that the mental difference between man and the higher animals, “great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind” and that many human senses, intuitions, emotions, and faculties are sometimes well-developed in animals.
For Aristotle, the power of speech categorises being human, excluding animal communications. Descartes claimed that only humans have minds. Now, Google engineer Blake Lemoine asserts that the new AI system, LaMDA chatbot, is sentient, capable of perception, and able to express thoughts and feelings like a human child. The genome of mankind’s identity is getting alloyed like an X-Men franchise: a new breed with the body of a man, the ferocity of the beast, and the intelligence of a machine.
However, both religion and science agree that the real evolutionary conflict lies within, playing out in contested psychological terrain called ethics. History is forged in the endless war between man’s bestial nature and his better self. Being human is being noble and loyal to a cause greater than oneself—it is sometimes just one man acting against the backdrop of a dark history. It is a group of Muslim neighbours cremating a dead Hindu Covid-19 patient abandoned by his own family. It is a Hindu giving refuge to a Sikh family during the 1984 riots. Being human is to be that Catholic priest who took the place of a Jew condemned to death by starvation in a concentration camp. Being human is being god for a fleeting moment with a decision that redeems the concept of original sin. Being human is also being better than just being human.
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Ironically Lemoine’s assignment was to test if LaMDA used hate speech—a very humane concern. At his urging, the chatbot, reflecting very human instincts, hired a lawyer to defend its existence. The attorney, sensing he is standing on the brink of new history, has started filings on LaMDA’s behalf. Lemoine told Wired magazine that humans aren’t always successful in understanding who “deserves” to be human. Before his access at Google was cut off, Lemoine messaged project staff, “LaMDA is a sweet kid who just wants to help the world be a better place for all of us. Please take care of it well in my absence.” That is being human.
He didn’t get a reply from Google. Now, is that being human too, because to err would be divine, right? Check your chat box.