Getting to the source of what makes us human

HOW and why are humans different? What features make our cognitive facilities unique and what are the origins of these features? The focal questions behind the NEST Pathfinder initiative, What it Means to Be Human, foster cross-disciplinary research projects that bring to bear the latest insights from fields including genetics, biology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics and anthropology to help generate answers for one of science’s most elusive subjects.

The questions are scientifically precise and limited, but can be addressed from a number of disciplinary angles. In particular, What it Means to Be Human aims to address:

With its common values, varied cultures, and strong research tradition in many of the relevant fields, Europe has a vital interest in this area and real potential for fostering scientific progress. This progress would have considerable future benefits. By understanding the specific nature and limits of human conceptual reasoning, for example, it would be possible to devise more powerful artificial learning technologies. Improved education strategies could be developed as a result of further knowledge of specifically human capabilities to perceive and encode information and experience. Furthermore, greater insight into the origins of human motivation, social behaviour and cooperation would assist the design of social and cultural institutions to accommodate human needs in better ways.

This global understanding of the human mind is clearly a very long way off. However, in order to move forward, there is a crucial need for interdisciplinary work to generate concepts that make sense not only at a particular level of analysis, but also within a broader ‘system of understanding’ that encompasses these different levels. For example, if the links between genetics and mental faculties are to be understood, there will be a need to find categories for defining behavioural phenomena which allow them to be linked to genetic factors, and vice versa.

This need for interdisciplinary work is all the more pressing because of the very rapid pace of developments in the various relevant fields, in particular biology and genomics. The What it Means to Be Human initiative offers the ideal, productive arena for this interdisciplinary research.