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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

Print Price: $38.50

256 pp.
4 illustrations, 6.125" x 9.25"


Publication date:
August 2016

Imprint: OUP US

What Is a Human?

What the Answers Mean for Human Rights

John H. Evans

What is a human? Are humans those with human DNA, those in possession of traits like rationality, or those made in the image of God? The debate over what makes human beings unique has raged for centuries. Many think that if society accepts the wrong definition of what it is to be human, people will look at their neighbor as more of an animal, object, or machine-making maltreatment more likely. In the longest running claim, for over 150 years critics have claimed that taking a Darwinist definition results in people treating each other more like animals.

Despite their seriousness, these claims have never been empirically investigated. In this groundbreaking book John H. Evans shows that the definitions promoted by biologists and philosophers actually are associated with less support for human rights. Members of the public who agree with these definitions are less willing to sacrifice to stop genocides and are more supportive of buying organs from poor people, of experimenting on prisoners against their will, and of torturing people to potentially save lives. It appears that the critics are right.

However, Evans finds that few Americans agree with these academic definitions. Looking at how most of the public defines humanity, we see a much more nuanced picture. In a fascinating account, he shows that the dominant definitions are unlikely to lead to human rights abuses. He concludes that the critics are right about the definitions of a human promoted by academic biologists and philosophers, and are therefore justified in their vigilance. However, because at present few Americans agree with these definitions, the academic definitions would have to spread much more extensively before impacting how the general public acts. Evans' book is a major corrective to the more than century-long debate about the impact of definitions of a human.

Readership : The interdisciplinary and diffuse community of scholars who debate what a human is, and the impact of these definitions. These scholars are found in theology, biology, philosophy, human rights theory. Bioethics. Theology, Christian Social Ethics. Sociology of Culture, Sociology of Science, Sociology of Religion. Science Studies.

1. Introduction
2. Anthropologies and Human Rights in the Academic Debate
3. The General Public, Academic Anthropologies, and Human Rights
4. The Public's Biological Anthropologies: DNA and Analogies to Existing Humans
5. The Public's Philosophical Anthropologies: Autonomous and Social Traits
6. The Public's Theological Anthropologies: The Image of God and the Soul
7. The Public's Socially Conferred Anthropology: Humans Making Humans Human
8. Conclusion: Re-assessing the Academic Debate about Anthropologies
Appendix A Formal Statistical Analyses of the Survey Data
Appendix B Public Opinion Survey
Appendix C In-depth Interviews
Works Cited

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John H. Evans is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of two books that explain the origins of American public bioethical debate and one that examines religious people's views of reproductive genetics. He has also published many articles on religion and politics as well as science and religion.

Making Sense in the Social Sciences - Margot Northey, Lorne Tepperman and Patrizia Albanese
Human Rights and Human Well-Being - William J. Talbott
Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights - Edited by Rowan Cruft, S. Matthew Liao and Massimo Renzo
The Right to Have Rights - Dr. Alison Kesby

Special Features

  • The first ever study of the impact of how people define a human.
  • Makes a controversial finding that those who believe in biological and philosophical definitions of a human are less likely to be supportive of human rights.
  • Despite people making claims for decades or even hundreds of years about the link between defining a human and human treatment, this book actually provides evidence.