Are humans really different? The answer is obvious but not simple
“I am not an animal!” John Hurt, an embattled creature, declared in The Elephant Man. But that just begs the question: how different are we, the human animal, really? I mean, once you get past the arrogance?
Or maybe it brings back a funny scene from Animal House. A condemned fraternity brother, the cornered human animal, demands respect.
Apologies to The Elephant Man, but that reminds me most of a Seinfeld episode. Jerry gets caught picking his nose, and Kramer (Michael Richards) has a hilarious scene with Calvin Klein.
But not one of these prideful humans gets it right.
The evidence is clear that humans are just another species, legendary among ourselves. We are not more evolved or better adapted than many others.
Related: Big things we don‘t know
So, what’s the point for your every day human animal?
Well, as I first wrote these words, I balanced my laptop on a pillow to avoid the unintentional incineration of my reproductive prospects while our cats relaxed quietly nearby.
I was also steaming a little over emails from the night before. The cats would have forgotten them already.
It’s not only that cats and other animals are consumed in their now, it’s as much about proportion and common sense. They don’t drag one thing into the next, blurring perspective.
Among the animal species we know well, admirable traits abound. Maybe we can learn from them, if being animal-like gets thoughtfully considered.
Are humans different? The science
Here’s one of those unpleasant facts flat worlders and idealists prefer not to notice. Links found in the fossil record track our evolution from and among our primate brethren (monkeys, apes, chimps, etc.) Denial is about the same as saying most of us don’t walk on two feet.
Now, here’s the really sad part for the “We are not animals” gang: When scientists track common ancestry to see where species split off and differentiate, we find that our ancient grandparents (with many greats in front) were reptiles.
Thats right. Not even primates.
Hard as it is to accept our primate ancestors, this is harder. At least, monkeys are comfortably like us in some ways.
Ladies and gentleman, as evidence, I give you Congress or your choice of pharmaceutical lobbyists.
If you’ve been able to wrestle that to the ground, consider that we share about half our genes with wheat.
Talk about a common ancestor. Just makes me feel like blowing in the wind (although not necessarily like an answer, my friend.)
Any objective look concludes easily that humans are one among many species, not better or worse, just evolved with different genetic wrinkles.
The more interesting question is, why does this throws so many into fits of denial?
But humans are different!
Of course, we are.
That’s what speciation is about, branching off into particulars and making one different from another.
This includes all the other animals, the ones we like and don’t like, and plants and the hard to classify too. We talk about what things make us different, but by different, aren’t most of us really implying “better,” not simply different?
How are we “better?”
Big brains? Got ’em. Reasoning? We do. Use of language? Plentifully.
But none of this makes us better, except when you think about what human values and virtues.
Cats, to bring these little masters of the universe back to the page, have exactly the brains and attributes nature designed to meet their survival needs, procreation, and playing with balls of yarn, just as it did for us.
The things we do with our big brains, like learn facts we don’t use and work jobs we dislike, are of no interest to a cat. So, why bulk up a cranium that makes giving birth hellishly painful for moms ?
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Separating one from another
If you don’t have a cat, a dog or a bird will do. (If you share your life with none of these, shame on you.)
Anyway, when you head out to work on Monday, grumbling if you’re like most and certainly not as cheery as you were on Saturday, what is your cat or dog or bird doing?
Same as yesterday, probably.
As I close the door behind me, our cats settle in for a mid-morning nap, willing to enjoy the pleasures of sleep until we return home to entertain and feed them. Aren’t you lucky you evolved away from their routine?
The only reason I ever came up with to make sense of humans’ unending demands to be recognized as different from other species (and a door swung wide open like the entrance to a candy factory by religions) is that there are certain animal traits and vulnerabilities we are loathe to accept as our own.
The big one, of course, is dying. We have spirits, don’t we, that survive our physical demise? We may fall apart and collapse in painful and disgusting ways, but we will just step outside that parcel into something more dignified.
But do elephants, for example, lack this ability?
Bad animal habits…
Some animals have unhealthy habits that promote dangers to their health. Yes, sir, they eat with their hands and don’t wash up before meals. Of course, they don’t smoke or drive without seat belts either.
We can go on with issues of violence and mayhem, social organization, etc. I will argue that we cling to many traits as uniquely human, even when they’re not, because when it comes to exceptionalism for the human animal, we’re driven by the same xenophobia and prejudice that sets nationalities, political persuasions and religions against each other.
It’s all about power, privilege and our freedom to exercise both.
It’s also, I’m afraid, primitive and animalistic. And I’m betting every species, to some degree, has similar practices, although most cooperate more effectively with the rest of nature than we do.
No respected representative of any other species has ever, to my knowledge, suggested obliterating an entire population by “bombing them back into the Stone Age,” (Curtis Lemay, circa1966, who had already organized a similar experiment by carpet bombing Japan) just to prove that our capitalism was better than their communism.
LeMay was the vice presidential choice on a national party ticket at the time.
Not so wise as us, cats probably don’t think of any lumped together thing called “animals,” but as cats, non-cats and those who can be useful to cats.
This may be a helpful example for us. You’ve got your humans, your non-humans and those we’re exploiting out of existence.
Back to the human animal drawing board
Maybe we could ask that divinity we’re always bringing up for all necessary occasions and ask that we be shown a way to live in nature as dependents in an intertwined environment. After all, He started it.
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