Androids vs. Neandertals

15 May

Yesterday I gave my younger sister a Voight-Kampff test– just in case.  I never truly believed she was an android, but I figured it’s better to be safe than sorry, and letting my own emotions cloud my judgment of her potential replicant status would have been dangerous in the extreme. (Although, that very disregard for my emotions heightens the chance that I am a replicant…)

No fear– she’s human.    

Involuntary pupil dilation indicates empathy and increases the likelihood that subject is human.

Involuntary pupil dilation indicates empathy and increases the likelihood that subject is human.

For those who haven’t read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or seen the movie Blade Runner, a V-K test is an exam designed to provoke a specific emotional response in subjects– compassion.  It’s based on the premise that androids/replicants are incapable of experiencing empathy, and that emotion is the foundation of what makes a human human.

Sounds a little like David Hume, who wrote: “reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions.”

He explained this more fully in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

“Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice: Render men totally indifferent toward these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions.”

Basically, Reason (which androids have in abundance– and which the Nexus 7 model has in excess of human beings) may be useful for moral reflection, but is only subsidiary to sentiment.  What makes us human is this idea of benevolence, or “sympathy,” which prods us to desire the well-being of others– if we suffer when others suffer, and rejoice when other rejoice (no schadenfreude here, sorry), humankind’s going to turn out all right after all.  Androids, on the other hand, experience no such mudita, not even for their own kind.

Or at least not yet.

But speculation about the emotional capabilities of non-human life forms extends beyond science fiction or future technology– the idea is just as applicable to past non-human life as well.  And, as bizarre as it is to imagine, at one time in the history of Homo Sapiens, a co-dominant intelligence shared the planet: Homo Neanderthalensis.

[Note: Yes, I know, the “scientific” English pronunciation is NeanderTAL, rather than NeanderTHAL, but seriously, if you’re not an anthropologist and still use the former version, be prepared to sound like a jerk.  With that said, I’m going to be scientific…ish.]

Admittedly, there is some debate as to whether the Neadertals were a separate species or a subspecies, but let’s go with the separate species advocates here– if only for the sake of android parallelism.  Because if the Neandertal was indeed a separate species, then ancient man has already shared the planet for thousands of years with a non-human intelligence.

Unless it really is emotion which makes a human human–

In 1909, the skeleton of a Neandertal man (known as the “Shanidar” skeleton) was found buried on its side, in the fetal position.  Analysis of soil samples determined that the man was buried with flowers, most of which were types with medicinal properties (yarrow, hyacinth, and hollyhock, for example).  In the surrounding area, less than 10% of the thousand of flowering plant species would have had medicinal qualities, making it likely the flowers were not there naturally, but placed in the grave as a part of Neandertal burial practices.


Maybe, one of these days, an android will somehow pass the Voight-Kampff test.  I’m not too worried.  After all, I’m fairly certain a Neandertal would­– and they weren’t human either.


For more information on the Shanidar skeletons:


One Response to “Androids vs. Neandertals”


  1. All Computers Go to Heaven « The Scattering - June 11, 2009

    […] In an earlier post, I considered some similarities between the non-human life we as a species have shared the planet with in the past (namely, the neandertals) and the non-human life we may share the planet with in the future (androids, other denizens of science fiction).  At the time, homo neanderthalensis had intelligence comparable to homo sapiens, and, should it ever arise, artificial intelligence could rival or even surpass that of human beings. […]

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