Prof. Caroline Levine, English, produces the new podcast.

October 4, 2017

A&S Podcasts Explore Different Interpretations of Being Human

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A new podcast series led exclusively by Cornell faculty and researchers — each episode fewer than three minutes long — brings together pockets of wisdom from experts who study what it really means to be a human being.

The series, titled What Makes Us Human, released its first episode on Sept. 25 and will subsequently upload a new podcast every Tuesday throughout the fall semester.

Each podcast is a two-to three-minute interview that gives leading Cornell faculty and researchers an opportunity to share their academic findings with a broader audience. Interviews featured in the podcast have offered insights into some potential misconceptions about personhood, as new research at Cornell constantly redefines what it means to be human.

All of the researchers who have taken part in the podcast cast light on a handful of questions that we all use to make everyday decisions, said Prof. Caroline Levine, English, the podcast’s producer.

She emphasized the importance of thinking about what researchers in different fields have to offer, rather than searching for the “best” version of the answer from a single discipline.

“What if we look around at all of the incredible work that is being done here at Cornell? We have a tremendous range of disciplines that you wouldn’t find at a lot of other universities,” Levine told The Sun. “How do we put that together into something that builds a richer picture for some of these really fundamental questions?”

Levine said she had briefly considered searching for experts around the globe to interview, but quickly realized that there was already a wealth and variety of expertise at Cornell.

She explained that this podcast accurately reflects the direction in which most universities are headed in that it proposes interdisciplinary solutions to previously considered one-sided problems.

“Do we bring special knowledge from each discipline that we then use to collaborate or do we actually mix the disciplines in the process of asking the question?” Levine asked. “I think for some of the really big social challenges, like climate change or obesity, we do actually need a lot of different disciplines to bring their particular expertise to the table.”

For any given problem that has been assigned a scientific solution, Levine said, there are a handful of cultural and economic issues which are not addressed.

“We do actually need the disciplines to stay knowledgeable in their own ways,” Levine said, but also “to bring that knowledge to these common questions.”

Limiting each podcast to approximately three minutes encourages interviewees to stick to what is most important in defining how their research aligned with questions about human individuality, Levine said.

“This is really a project that is for everyone,” Levine said. “We’d like to get it as far and wide as possible.”

So far, What Makes Us Human has released two episodes. The first episode, called “A View from the Science of Non-Humans,” draws from animal behavior studies to question if our being human situates us above other species.

In the podcast, Prof. Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, psychology, neurobiology and behavior, explained that recent behavioral discoveries have cast new light on the individuality of our own species. Studies in animal science have revealed that humans share a large percentage of their genome with distant relatives, such as frogs and birds, according to Adkins-Regan.

“Much of our most prized and supposedly unique behavior is special only in magnitude, perhaps and not in kind,” she said in the podcast. “The realization that all those other animals are our cousins under the skin is powerfully humbling.”

The second and most recent podcast, called “The Future of Human-Robot Interaction,” featured Prof. Guy Hoffman, mechanical and aerospace engineering, who talked about a future with robots based on mutually beneficial relationships.

Hoffman explained there is a growing debate surrounding artificial intelligence, which has raised concerns that robots will make human labor obsolete.

He said that people often ask him if, in the future, robots will take meaning away from human life and act as singular, self-sufficient entities.

“Many roboticists don’t see the future as the classic narrative of humans against machines,” Hoffman said in the podcast. “Instead we envision a world in which humans and machines work together.”

The two podcasts explore what the future of mankind might look like, reframing prominent theories about what constitutes being human.

“We have to be open-minded when it comes to understanding what it means to be human, because there are a lot of unanswered questions,” Levine said. “If we make decisions with too rigid a notion, we can make some pretty big mistakes.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the podcasts will be released on Mondays throughout the semester. In fact, they are released on Tuesdays.