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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 49 - May 2006    
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NEST-PATHFINDER INITIATIVE
Title  Mapping the contours of humanity

The ability to understand and to express emotions, a sense of orientation and inventiveness, plus fear, suffering and a need for others are all most certainly human characteristics. But they are not necessarily unique to humankind. A number of interlinked multidisciplinary research projects supported by the European Commission as part of the NEST (New and Emerging Science and Technology) initiative are currently endeavouring to understand our evolution and what sets us apart from other species.

Mapping the contours of humanity
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
What is humanity? It is a question that could not have been posed until humans appeared on the evolutionary scale with the brainpower to formulate it. For thousands of years, mythology, religion and philosophy have sought to answer this ontological question. More recently, knowledge and scientific objectivity have adopted a radically different approach in this same debate. From Darwin to contemporary human genome sequencing, paleoanthropology included, the evidence points to a humankind that emerged from nature and that is one of the products of the evolution of life.

Science today possesses previously unavailable keys to understanding the big issues of life on Earth, and in particular the singular status of humankind on Earth. But this is not to say that this revolution – supported by genetics (especially with the sequencing of various genomes), molecular biology and neurobiology – claims to offer ‘mechanical’ explanations of the human phenomenon. There is more to gene expression than a DNA sequence. Equally determining is the complex interaction with environmental factors.

The technical sequencing of our genome proved something of a surprise in that it differed to that of chimpanzees by less than 2%. Whereas researchers were expecting to find we had about 100 000 genes, it seems we have no more than 30 000 and some even speak of 20 000. When it comes to the number of sequences, we are beaten by such humble members of the vegetable kingdom as the mustard plant! But although our genes are similar to those of our ape cousins, they are expressed in a much more complex manner. Our uniqueness is not down to quantity. 

The same is true of the brain. While the human brain is bigger and more developed than that of other animals, its structure is similar to that of other mammals in many respects. Its development is not merely a question of transmission between neurones but it is very clearly linked to the social and cultural context in which mental learning takes place. 

Mashing the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences
While the approaches of specialists in the ‘hard’ sciences are revolutionising our psychological understanding of human specificity, the ‘soft’ disciplines are approaching the question through more interpretative means. The cognitive sciences investigate and model processes of reasoning, learning and decision-making. Ethologists scrutinise the differences and similarities between human nature and animal nature. Paleoanthropologists investigate the genealogical tree of man’s ancestors and the environments that influenced their evolution and acquisition of skills. Linguists study humankind’s impressive capacity to invent and structure languages, an absolutely unique and universal mark of what makes us what we are. Finally, philosophers and psychologists – whose subject of inquiry is by definition anything to do with thought, consciousness, emotions and human behaviour in its context of evolution and culture – are among those most interested in this debate.   

"The common feeling is that it is now time to increase the exchanges and synergies that are absolutely essential between the players in the different disciplines,” explains Keith Stenning, professor and specialist in cognitive science at Edinburgh University (UK). “Also, when the European Commission launched its NEST-Pathfinder initiative to identify the emerging subjects of research that warranted priority attention over the next 15 years (see box), a partnership of European and international teams came forward to propose working on the subject of ‘What it means to be human?’"

Example of the possibilities offered by recording brain activity using Positron Emission Tomography (PET). © Inserm/J.F.Demonet Example of the possibilities offered by recording brain activity using Positron Emission Tomography (PET). © Inserm/J.F.Demonet Example of the possibilities offered by recording brain activity using Positron Emission Tomography (PET). © Inserm/J.F.Demonet
Example of the possibilities offered by recording brain activity using Positron Emission Tomography (PET). In this case, a study of dyslexia carried out by the Insem (FR).
a) A group of normal subjects when reading a sequence of words, in the framework of a study on dislexia
b) A group of people with dyslexia during the same exercise: a region of the left temporal lobe is seen to be less active.
c) The difference between the recordings for the control subject and dyslexic subject show that the left temporal lobe is less active in the latter case. It is this area of the brain that is responsible for converting graphic information (letters) into phonological information (sounds).
The comparative study on French, Italian and English subjects shows that the brain malfunctions associated with dyslexia are identical even if the disorder is expressed in different forms depending on the language.
© Inserm/J.F.Demonet


This vast field of interest is being investigated through specific lines of research: 

  • a genetic approach to human cognitive aptitudes – namely how “our species, despite its remarkable genetic resemblance to other apes, evolved and attained such an extraordinarily complex mental capacity” 
  • understanding of the formation of the mind “or how the varied life experiences influence the development, maturing and ageing of each human brain” 
  • an analysis of thought processes – reasoning, learning, memory – and the impact on them of education, communication and the development of intelligent technologies 
  • analyses of the processes at work in motivation (such as factors determining the ability to co-operate or, on the contrary, to resist) and decision-making 
  • the influence of the cultural context in regard to what is ‘inherent’ in an individual, the changes and constants of cultures, etc.


Knowledge and technoscience
All these fields of fundamental research relate to changes in society that are often grouped together under the somewhat vague title of an emerging ‘knowledge society’. These changes are linked to questions of coexisting in a human world that has an unprecedented relationship with technoscience. The latter is increasingly developing its own ‘intelligence’, bringing new forms of education, new questions regarding governance and ethics, and increasing responsibilities for humankind in the face of the natural world, etc.

“Many questions that humanity is going to have to face over the coming years cannot be resolved simply with technological solutions,” continues Keith Stenning. “We will also need to change our way of thinking and our behaviour, if we want to survive and develop in the overpopulated, polluted and busy global village we inhabit. These research projects can provide answers that will permit us to understand better the major problems we are now facing – globalisation, demographic change, racism and violence, corruption, the democratic deficit, conflict resolution.”

In a world which has fallen prey to new ‘crises of values’, could one of the new roles of science be to lay the foundations for a kind of humanism? “One must be very careful not to fall into such a trap. Science is not in any way equipped to define human values. On the other hand, it is essential that the increase in scientific knowledge about the specificity of the human brain, its workings and its development be translated in the most accessible way possible and made widely available to all members of society. But this knowledge is not there to ‘dictate’ values. On the other hand – and at the very least – it does constitute the material that is needed for reflecting on the vision we can have of humankind.”


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  NEST: opening up tomorrow’s research

A new activity launched under the Sixth Framework Programme (2002-2006), NEST (New and Emerging Science and Technology) aims to support visionary research that will make it possible to open up new fields of European science and technology and to uncover new questions. The initiative offers strong encouragement ...
 


   
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  NEST: opening up tomorrow’s research

A new activity launched under the Sixth Framework Programme (2002-2006), NEST (New and Emerging Science and Technology) aims to support visionary research that will make it possible to open up new fields of European science and technology and to uncover new questions. The initiative offers strong encouragement for multidisciplinary research and for the efforts of researchers in emerging fields. It has a total budget of €215 million.

NEST supports three action lines: Adventure (projects permitting new developments in fields identified by researchers), Insight (investigating new discoveries or phenomena that could pose risks or problems for society) and Pathfinder (focusing on challenges posed in the field of emerging science and technology and involving complementary project groups). The Commission has also launched an on-line inquiry to learn what scientists think of this initiative (Do we need a NEST Programme?), with a view to preparing the Seventh Framework Programme.

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