British academy


What it Means to be Human:
New Perspectives on the Boundaries of Human Nature

Thursday 8 March 2012, 2.00-6.00pm
The British Academy, 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH

This afternoon seminar was hosted by the British Academy’s President, Sir Adam Roberts, and consisted of two sessions.(Click on blue links to download presentation slides.)

1)  The Human Animal: new perspectives from Cognition, Neuroscience and Evolution

Questions addressed included:

  • What new insights do recent developments in these areas variously offer on the question of where the boundaries of ‘being human’ lie?
  • What has set us apart, and continues to set us apart from other species?
  • What do new discoveries about the workings of the brain tell us about how humans, in particular, ‘work’?


Professor Nicky Clayton FRS

Professor Andy Whiten FBA
"The Human Socio-Cognitive Niche and its Evolutionary Origins" (PDF file - 4.2 MB)

Professor Steven Mithen FBA
"What Does It Mean to be Human?" (PDF file - 7.1 MB)

Professor Chris Frith FBA FRS
"Metacognition and the social construction of reality" (PDF file - 177 KB)

Chaired by Professor Cecilia Heyes FBA

2)  The Cultural Animal: Human Society, Culture and Technology

Questions to be addressed will include:

  • How has ‘what it means to be human’ been shaped by the evolution of human cultures?
  • How has it been shaped by new technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence and the internet?
  • What do the physical evidence of the past and the development of modern cities tell us about human behaviour patterns, minds and needs?
  • Will new technologies make some ethical standards that have been important in the past obsolete?


Professor Robert Foley FBA
"What it means to be human" (PDF file - 2.3 MB)

Professor Lord Colin Renfrew FBA
"Being Human: the dimensions of the symbolic" (PDF file - 8.2 MB)

Professor Sir Alan Wilson FBA FRS

Professor Margaret Boden FBA

Chaired by Baroness Onora O’Neill FBA HonFRS

This afternoon seminar was followed in the evening by a panel discussion on 'What it means to be human' held at the Royal Society.