The terms person and human appear to be interchangeable. How could a human not be a person? How could a person not be human?
In fact, a person is not required to be a human. There is the concept of corporate personhood. In statutory and corporate law, corporations and other legal entities can be considered legal persons with standing to sue or be sued in a court of law.
Any and all humans appear to be persons by definition. How could this not be so? It depends on the definition of a human. How is a living being defined or declared to be a member or the human race, a member of the human species and not a member of some other animal species?
The term species is used to identify that group of animals or other living organisms that can interbreed, reproduce and have viable offspring. As humans (Homo sapiens), our species is a member of a larger group of primate mammals, namely Hominidae or Great Apes. Humans and apes cannot interbreed and reproduce. Yet we share a significant amount of DNA with other apes. In fact, human DNA is 98.8 percent identical to chimpanzee DNA.
We also share a significant amount of genetic material with extinct species of animals that are considered evolutionary ancestors of humans. An analysis of the genetic variation showed that Neanderthal DNA is on average 99.7 identical to human DNA.
It’s also true that no two humans are genetically identical. On average, in terms of DNA sequence, each human is 99.5% similar to any other human.
Ninety-nine point five percent.
That’s significant considering that Neanderthal DNA is on average 99.7 identical to human DNA, and chimpanzee DNA is on average is 98.8 percent identical to human DNA.
Genetically, there is not much that separates us from Neanderthals and chimpanzees. Yet why are we considered persons, while they are not?
A person is recognized by law as such, not because they are human, but because rights and duties are ascribed to them. The person is the legal subject or substance of which the rights and duties are attributes. An individual human being considered to be having such attributes is what lawyers call a “natural person.”
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a person is:
In general usage, a human being (i.e. natural person), though by statute term may include a firm, labor organizations, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, or receivers.
This is potentially a slippery slope. One may state that a person is recognized as such “because rights and duties are ascribed to them.” The question then becomes what rights and which duties? Across cultures, countries, and societies, people do not have equal rights. Nor do they have equal duties as those duties are attributable not only by innate capabilities but also by age, society, family, employers, and the government under which they live.
Certainly, a child has different duties and responsibilities than an adult, but is no less a person. The concept becomes malleable. Personhood can be conferred upon a human regardless of how their duties and responsibilities may be assigned. When conferring personhood, expectations are considered based on the obvious physical and mental capabilities of the human in question. No one expects a human with Down’s Syndrome to have equivalent physical or mental capabilities as a typical human, yet those with Down’s Syndrome are considered to be persons, to have personhood nevertheless.
That brings this discussion back to the matter of DNA and genetics as a measure of “humanness” as a factor for determining eligibility for personhood. Those with Down’s Syndrome possess an extra chromosome; specifically chromosome 21, which contains 200 genes. When measured against the total number of genes in a human genome (21,000), the additional genes result in a variance of just under 1%.
That means that on average, a Down’s Syndrome human and a typical (normal) human share 99% of their DNA. This genetic variance is nearly identical to that of Neanderthals and chimpanzees, yet personhood is conferred upon the Down’s Syndrome human but not upon Neanderthals or chimps.
Could it be appearance? Unlikely as there are considerable obvious and marked variations in appearance among humans. Facial reconstructions of Neanderthals also indicate a remarkable similarity to humans to the extent that if a Neanderthal was given a haircut and shave and a new suit, they would easily blend into a crowd in New York City.
It also could not be duties or the ability to survive without assistance. No one would expect a Down’s Syndrome human to independently survive, let alone thrive and prosper. Such a person is always in need of a support group unlike typical humans beings. They require a specialized environment tailored to their innate physical and mental capabilities.
The same could be said of chimpanzees. Not one would expect a chimp to survive independently in New York City or within any modern human city or society. Yet when placed into their natural habitat, they will survive, thrive and prosper. Place a human in the same environment and such expectations would not be the same. Does that mean a human stops being a person if living in a chimpanzee’s natural habitat? Of course not.
If a human can be conferred personhood based upon the rights and duties are ascribed to them within that society and environment in which they live, then a chimpanzee may also be conferred equivalent personhood based upon the rights and duties are ascribed to them within their society and environment.