A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
Oh, the Humanity
What is it that makes us human? Shakespeare called us ‘the paragon of animals,’ and many define us as the apex animal species of our world. Why is reasonably self evident, with all of our wondrous tools for reshaping our environment and humbling the other creatures with which we grudgingly share the globe. We’re blessed with opposable thumbs, like tarsiers or raccoons, and big brains, like dolphins, but those are not only what sets us apart. Maybe language makes us what we are -- our staggering ability to share complex knowledge back and forth even long after the individual that first discovered it is pushing up daisies -- but recent research into animal language consistently indicates that the birds and beasts around us are saying more than we think. The lowly chickadee can tell his buddies volumes about what he’s observed nearby without our being able to distinguish his peeps, and no one’s come close to guessing the plot of countless hours of humpback whale opera. There are creatures that are faster or stronger than we are, that live longer, grow bigger, are harder to kill. Really, without all of our props and costumes, we’re wimpy. Our senses are a joke. An eagle can spot a moving rodent from a mile away, and a dog or a bear can smell 40 to 50,000 times as well as any man. Rover knows what the substitute mailman had for breakfast before he showed up two days ago and could still show you which route he took. By contrast, we can lose an hour looking for the set of car keys we left in clear sight on the table beside the coffee cup.
If you’re a proponent of intelligent design, you might claim that we are the only animal with a soul. My biggest problem with the way the bible distinguishes us from the birds and the beasts is the passage in Genesis where God effectively says “Here, I made all these creatures for you to use as you see fit. Go to it.” I’d rather we read “Your job is to care for this ecosystem, to serve lovingly as stewards of it, and if you lay waste to it, it’s going to bite you on the ass.” But I digress. Let’s say humans are the only terrestrial entities with a soul, and not to leave out Bambi and Thumper, we’ll say that their animating force is instead a spirit. So, we return to the age old question of now that we’ve got a soul, what is it good for? Kant wrote that man is the only moral animal. If he was right, then ethical behavior is the defining quality of mankind.
There were many years when I would have said with great conviction that what distinguishes humanity is our ability, or willingness, or terrible joy at being cruel. An animal will lash out if it’s hurt enough, or hungry enough, scared enough, or desperate to protect its young. What it won’t do is twist the knife just to watch the pain in your eyes – animals do not experience joy at the suffering of others, that which we call schadenfreud. As an amateur naturalist, however, I’ve seen the way cats toy with helpless rodents before they kill them. I know that pods of killer whales will kill a baby whale apparently merely for the thrill of hunting relatively helpless prey and then swim away without eating the carcass. Humans may have invented novel means of torture well beyond Garfield’s conception, but even in this, we are not alone.
The animal kingdom has mostly all of our weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and self-defeating strategies, too. Lemurs chew poisonous centipedes to get high on the poisons, and monkeys develop alcoholism. Every behavior the moral majority decries as unnatural has plenty of examples in the animal kingdom – homosexuality, for instance, exists in a broad variety of species from insects up to mammals, and it’s only an uptight handful of homo sapiens that imagine it’s any kind of problem. I have fun watching the intelligent design community ignore all that stuff. It’s only when we reach the concept of genuine depravity that humans start showing actual ingenuity. Animals don’t sink into the depths we do in one specific way: humans will do things that they personally feel are unnatural or wrong and take perverse pleasure in it. I’m pretty sure that when the neighbor's dog tries to hump your leg it’s because he’s identified himself as part of the human pack and it doesn’t seem wrong to him. When some wanker searches the internet for video of a woman and a german shepherd, it’s precisely because it’s wrong.
H. L. Menken wrote, “It is precisely at their worst that human beings are most interesting.”
I think that it’s really that capacity, that tendency, even, to do the wrong thing that makes us unique as a species. Every parent on the planet has confronted a child about something boneheaded or backwards or mean spirited that they’ve done and asked them why, and we’ve all seen the shrug, the glance at your shoes or out the window, and something between a wrenchingly heartfelt and a callously noncommittal, “I don’t know.” Very little is more infuriating than trying to deal with a negative behavior that has no apparent origin or purpose. You can’t approach it logically, can’t deconstruct it or be methodical about it. It seems to me we remember in some deep inner crevasse all of the selfish and dishonest human things we’ve done, and when we’re making choices that work against us, we’re subconsciously punishing ourselves. Of course, that’s less universal observation than leftover childhood guilt talking.
What pisses me off the most is the way I do it to myself. Recently I was sick and exhausted and depressed, and because I was depressed I wasn’t eating right and I was staying up late and generally doing all of the wrong things to improve my health. Collectively, the list of things we know as a society we shouldn’t be doing is legion. Maybe plenty of species do things that harm their survival chances, but only humans do it with conscious knowledge. When we exhort our children to be good, their response is tempered by the knowledge that they themselves are not always good, nor do they wish to be. So it’s a mistake when we do it, an impossible task, but we do it anyway.
I guess that’s human.
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