It all started with a bang. Or did it? Prof Luke O’Neill on what it means to be human

Professor Luke O’Neill, Trinity College Dublin, talked about our amazing existence and the future of humankind as part of the Trinity Long Room Hub’s new discussion series ‘What does it mean to be Human in the 21st Century?’

In the first talk of the series following a launch in December, Professor Luke O’Neill addressed the Edmund Burke Lecture Theatre in a tour de force talk on what it means to be human from a scientific perspective. Looking at the origin of life on Earth that led us to evolving on the plains of Africa some 200,000 years ago, Professor O’Neill covered topics such as love, sleep humour and music in answering some of the biggest questions on life.

Professor Luke O’Neill holds the Chair of Biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin where he leads the Inflammation Research Group.  His research is in the area of the molecular basis to inflammation with a particular focus on innate immunity, and in 2018 he was named by Clarivates as one of the world’s most influential scientists, being in the top 1% in Immunology.

In 2018 he published the book Humanology: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Amazing Existence, it’s chapters providing the signposts for his recent talk. “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

Taking the audience on a “rollercoaster ride” through existence, he firstly tackled our “eco-centric” nature as humans to ask questions like “what does it mean to be human?”

Outlining some startling facts about our species, Professor O’Neill put things in perspective: “We make up point 0.01% of life on earth as a species. Even worse we’ve made 83% of animals extinct in our time and 50% of plants.” “What is the purpose of life?”, he asked, stating that for a scientist “the only purpose of life is to copy DNA. The earth is awash with DNA; it’s a biological thing that happened 4.2 billion years ago”.

Putting our existence in further perspective he spoke of the 40 billion planets and man’s first walk on the moon. “There’s no doubt we’re a speck on a speck on a speck. Life has no meaning. How do we deal with this? Thankfully we’ve got our friends in the humanities to help us! That’s their purpose, is to give our life meaning”.

“Life evolved through random chemistry,” Professor O’Neill explained and when it comes to attraction and love, “the truth is, we’re just a bunch of hormones”.

Discussing the combination of hormones which create desire, attraction and attachment he also discussed sleep, ageing, and why some people in the world live longer than others.

Finally coming to extinction and the question ‘where are we going?’ he talked about driverless cars, education and the future of science.

“The reason I became a scientist is because I wanted to see something for the first time”, he reflected, stating that a lot more discover is needed.  “If we follow science…we might finally reach the ultimate ambition which is to live long and prosper.

Next up in the series “What does it mean to be human in the 21st Century?” is Professor Ian Robertson, clinical psychologist and neuroscientist who will speak on the ‘The Era of Mind.’ For further information and registration details click here.

This series is organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in partnership with The Dock, Accenture’s global research & incubation hub in Dublin.

Media Contact:

Fiona Tyrrell, Press Officer for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences | tyrrellf@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 3551