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BIO Magazine - Thoughts of a Biologist on Human Dignity Δεκέμβριος 2015
Δεκέμβριος 2015 No38

BIO Ethics

Thoughts of a Biologist on Human Dignity
Thoughts of a Biologist on Human Dignity

There are many ways to define human dignity, religious, philosophical, psychological and legal. We consider it self-evident, God-given, uniquely human, a pivotal part of our soul. But how does a biologist see dignity? What is it, where is it formed, which are the factors that influence its development, how important is it for our psychological and physical health, and why it should be fostered and protected as a mainstay value of our humanity? In this brief essay, I will provide the perspective of a physician-scientist who has done biomedical research for many years.

Πολλά τα δεινά και δεινότερον όλων άνθρωπος

The wondrous things are many and the most wondrous of all is Man”. More than 2000 years later we come back to the words of Sophocles. With our exquisitely complex brains, us humans, both as organisms and as societies, are the most complex systems we know of and, as such, unique in our Universe. Our complexity goes well beyond our astonishing quantitative differences from other such systems, nonliving and living, to produce emergent qualities that make us completely different even from our genetically similar primate relatives. We are sentient, self-aware, logical and extremely social. We not only experience the present, but remember our past and imagine our future. We plan, accept and expect delayed gratification, write poems, build civilizations. We have souls, we strive to discover the truth, we extol virtues, we devise complex technologies. Our subjective sense of self worth and its recognition expected by our fellow human beings is a major ingredient of our identity and an essential component of life satisfaction and function as authentic and autonomous, yet extremely social individuals.

The visit of names is the beginning of Science”It is instructive to follow the 4 century BCE Athenian philosopher Antisthenes and start from the word roots. The Latin means “worthy” or “valuable” and “dignity” is our subjective sense of our own worth or value as members of the human community. Our sense of dignity is part of our self-awareness, part of our identity and how we see ourselves as constituents of the human society. The Greek equivalent from , “worth” or “value” and , “ought to” (be respected), expresses even more clearly the same concept. Our sense of dignity is “”, i.e., self-evident and valued on its own right. Dignity sensed subjectively by both the individual and other persons that interact with her or him, is a strong feeling that shapes our overall emotional tone or mood and has genetic, constitutional (developmental, epigenetic) and environmental, mostly socio-cultural, underpinnings. Recently, self-awareness was located in a large area of the midline medial, anterior and posterior cortical territories of the brain; by logical inference, the subjective feeling of dignity should not be far from that area. Obviously, two other areas of the brain must play key roles as to how dignity is felt when attacked or perceived as attacked. These are the amygdala, the salient emotional center of fear and anger, and the dopaminergic reward system, the center of reward and punishment that serves our conscience to keep as morally upright.

One could think of all humans as interconnected units of larger wholes, the family, the school, the job, the tribe, the nation, the country, the world. Our connectedness is of course cognitive, but most importantly, is also emotional. Over the span of millions of years of our evolution as a species, cooperation between members was key for survival and exerted a major selective pressure towards the development of neurobiological processes that subserve such intercommunication and, furthermore, allow the creation and expression of exalted feelings, such as empathy and altruism. Recently, “mirror neurons” were described in the brain that resonate synchronously between individuals in proximity. A defect in the function of these neurons has been suggested to prevent emotional connection between individuals and be responsible for the inability of patients with autism to communicate with the persons they come into contact with. Of course autism is an extreme example of pathology; emotional intelligence is a continuous property, part of the human temperament, with a wide normal range in a population of humans. With the advanced technologies of our century and the massive ability of inter-individual communication in vicarious proximity, we have started talking about “emotional epidemiology” when studying population mood swings, such as those regarding wars, vaccinations, economic conditions, etc.

«Συμπάσχει η ψυχή τω σώματι νοσούντι και τεμνομένω, το δε σώμα τη ψυχή»

We have excellent clinical and epidemiologic evidence that cacostasis is a major factor in the development of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and psychosomatic disorders on the one hand, and in the promotion of the so-called chronic non-communicative diseases that plague contemporary societies, including obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, dislipidemia, diabetes mellitus type 2, osteoporosis and atherosclerotic cardiovascular and neurovascular disease, on the other. Chronic cacostasis was also recently linked to accelerated aging as evidenced by shortening of the chromosomal telomeres, a biologic process of cell aging.

Encounters with Medicine and Authority Figures

The same may be true in encounters with different types of authorities, such as the teacher, the job supervisor, the policeman. dabuse of any kind and Granted the crucial nature of human dignity as the mainstay of mental and physical health and as a key factor in life satisfaction, one should accord it its dues. It should not be surprising that all three Abrahamic religions consider humans and human dignity sacred. The sanctity of human dignity should be considered a given if we want citizens and societies based on the pillars of virtue and happy, creative, and providing love and care to its youth, the sick, the aged. This improved, higher level, superior human homeostasis associated with excellent mental and physical health and prolonged healthy longevity or “hyperstasis” is possible and people should strive for it. Respecting the dignity of others is a key feature of such a strife.

George P. Chrousos, MD, Professor and Chairman, First Dept of Pediatrics, University of Athens and John Kluge Chair in Technology and Society, Library of Congress

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