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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Honors College hosts a panel discussing what it means to be human

As a part of their week-long series of events celebrating the transition of the Honors Program to a College, the Honors College hosted a panel on April 15 titled, “What Does It Mean to be Human?” The event was a series of lively interdisciplinary conversations from experts in their fields. The diverse panel featured Biological Anthropologist Richard Wrangham from Harvard University, Maestro Julius Williams of Berklee College of Music, Professor Lynn Andrea Stein from Olin College of Engineering, and University of Massachusetts Boston’s own Professor and Laureate Lloyd Schwartz.

Each panelist offered their own unique perspective on what they believe makes us human. Opening the conversation, Professor Wrangham spoke of his own experiences of working closely with chimpanzees and what they teach about human evolution. He also gave the audience some food for thought: he believes it is the act of cooking our food that makes us uniquely human.

True to form, the professor broke down this idea for through a series of slides outlining this hypothesis. Cooking dates back to around 1.9 million years ago, just about the time when humans were evolving into more complex beings. The act of consuming cooked food allowed early hominids to develop more complex brain structures because less energy was used in chewing and digesting food, thus allowing more energy to go toward brain development. Wrangham joked, “We can be human — write poetry, make music — while other animals can’t because they spend too much energy chewing.”

Maestro Julius Williams, Professor of Composition at Berklee, says it is something a little less tangible that makes us human: our ability to create music. He said, “Animals are able to communicate through sounds, from a bird singing to a cat purring. But only a human can convey all of the textures of life through sounds and rhythms. Music is truly the sound of humanity.”

To prove this, Professor Williams played one of his own compositions he wrote shortly after Sept. 11. The piece incorporates heavy percussion instruments that are used to elicit the feeling of dread and chaos as the buildings collapse, artfully placed silence that implies the collective shock shortly following the collapse, and string instruments meant to pull at the heartstrings of listeners. Looking around at the audience members, most of whom listened with their eyes closed, it is clear that music has the power to connect a room full of strangers. Williams says it is exactly this capacity for empathy that makes us entirely human.

The next speaker, Dr. Lynn Andrea Stein, took an entirely different approach towards humanity by drawing on her experiences of working with artificial intelligence. She believes it is our ability to project our own humanity and emotions onto one another — which artificial intelligence devices fail to do —that makes us entirely human.

She explained that while these devices display an astounding human-like intelligence, they lack empathy. Dr. Stein said, “They are just stimulating intelligence… they lack the critical thing that makes us human: our spirit, consciousness, and soul.”

All of these speakers took different angles on defining humanity — at least until Professor Lloyd Schwartz offered a reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.” On the surface, it is merely a poem about a little girl waiting for her aunt at the dentist, but the poem voiced the overarching theme of empathy prevalent throughout each of the speakers’ presentations.

Both faculty and students alike were able to take something away from this illuminating panel. Professor Jeslyn Medoff of the English Department found connections to her own classroom lectures in all of the speakers’ presentations. “This panel has prompted things I have said in the classroom, and this is a beautiful thing that shows what this university truly has to offer. Sometimes we get so caught up in the cages of our brains, and we forget to discuss things as obvious and complex like what makes us unique as humans.”

This panel exhibited all of the academic values that the Honors College holds dear. Honors Curriculum is marked by interdisciplinary topics and lively discussions, and that is exactly what this panel had to offer.