July 03, 2002

It's become fashionable today in many scientific circles to question just what, exactly, makes us human. The more we research, the fewer things we find about ourselves that are truly unique.

For a long time, it was thought that tool making is what we do that nobody else does. It took sending a determined, if somewhat naive, 26-year old woman alone into the Gombe forest before we found out that no, we aren't the only ones using tools. And if you think sticking blades of grass into a mound and fishing termites out is just too easy to count as tool making, be sure to read this (taken from google's cache because the original seems to be down right now).

Perhaps abstract thought then? Well, no. Research is proving that at least some dinosaurs (birds) and mammals can solve very complex problems just by thinking about them. Octopus, which don't even have a spinal cord and have green blood, are able to solve remarkable puzzles as long as, apparently, there is a lobster involved in the mix somewhere (lobsters unfortunately do not seemed to be equipped for anything other than tastiness).

Our intellect? Aside from its ephemeral quality and our consistent inability to measure it with even a taste of objectivity, research has shown that up until about three years of age, chimpanzees actually develop faster than humans.

More and more documentaries and books are emphasizing that we are only different in degree, and not in kind. This attitude tends to make Christian fundies go bonkers. Bring this up at any tent revival1 or really in any conversation with a Christian fanatic and I can guarantee something along the lines of "God created man separately from the animals, and they were created for us to use as we saw fit" will come popping right out (as with most strongly held fanatic beliefs, this one's wrong2).

But the scientific belief that we're just a bunch of apes that happen to be a little brighter than the rest of the animal world is also every bit as wrong. What separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is not our ability to build better mousetraps, or think more complicated thoughts. It's our potential for nearly infinite love.

Don't roll your eyes! I'm serious! Humans will love anything. There are millions of people out there who feel deep, serious emotions about bits of glass, stitched cloth and stuffing that just happen to be bear-shaped or cat-shaped or soft and full of plastic beans. People give affectionate names to big hunks of metal containing enough flammable liquid to blow up a house and an electrical source powerful enough to weld metal.

Our intense love for living things lead directly to our earliest religious beliefs. It's an uncomfortable fact for pet lovers that their pets enjoy tormenting and playing with the living things they have caught and will kill. Predators all over the world look specifically for the weak, the helpless, the young, and only kill quickly when not doing so endangers them in some way. Orcas, "killer whales", routinely toss baby seals around until something important gets broken inside them and it stops being "fun".

And yet our own ancestors turned their hunts into religious events. Some of our earliest gods were the creatures we killed because killing them was the only thing that would keep us alive. Nearly all hunter-gatherer cultures paid homage to the spirit of the animals they had to hunt. Shrines to them can be found everywhere, and some of the deepest, oldest myths that survive are about their spirits.

And it doesn't even have to be a thing that we love. We have so much to go around that we've figured out how to love ideas, things that you can't even touch. Without this propensity, science would not exist. The inventions of writing and printing were in no small part attempts to immortalize our love of ideas.

Of course, it is ridiculously easy to pick out examples where we are most definitely not capable of infinite love. When you think about it, this is actually not all that surprising. Unthinking reflexivity and caring only for our own young has been a hallmark of evolution for hundreds of millions of years. A creature with such an amazing capacity for love has existed for just a few tens of thousands. We carry those instincts, those reflexes, along inside us, and our new capabilities fit with considerable discomfort.

Learning how to really love everything isn't impossible, but it's pretty close to it. Religions are, at their core at least, attempts to guide people, ease their way, into figuring out universal love. It's still not easy, but it needs to, must be, done. Because this capacity we have is a tool of unspeakable power, and like all tools it can, and quite regularly is, perverted and misused. In some ways religions are also an attempt, however prone to failure, to prevent this from happening.

Because hate is in many ways simply love turned inside out. We cherish the things we love, and wish to protect them, sometimes at all costs. Hate arises from the mistaken belief of that which is outside us is attempting to destroy us and the things we love. Hate is when we turn the ape inside us loose with the tools of a human in its hands.

The logical conclusion of universal love is that people who hate are deluded, and therefore must be pitied instead of destroyed. Of course, those that hate feel no such compunction and so life tends to be short, sharp, and colorful for those who truly follow and believe the doctrine of loving-kindness. Most of the past six thousand years of human history has been about trying to find a balance between loving all things and not getting the crap kicked out of you by them.

Fanaticism and Nihilism are the two real enemies of our modern age. Fanatics represent a failure of nerve in humanity, an inability to cope with the sudden overwhelming rise of the third leg of our existence, raw intellect. Their explosive, if otherwise essentially futile, lashing out at the "modern" world is in many ways an attempt to preserve the things that once worked for them, but can no longer stand in the way of the never-ending steamroller of progress.

Nihilism is the other end of this continuum, what happens when a society completely embraces raw intellect and the things it provides. By ignoring the spiritual part of our existence, which is older and more deeply rooted, we provide ourselves with a very pretty, very comfortable, but ultimately very cold and very frightening existence. Fanatics quite rightly point out that there are hidden brutalities in the modern world, shocking mechanized cruelties that aren't even remarked on by those who live around them.

Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.

But love of all things is the first, best, and in many ways only thing that really makes us human. No matter how you find your way there, you must find it.

If not love, then what else makes you different from a bright chimpanzee?

1. Yes, tent revivals do still happen in America. I think the last one I personally knew about was back in the late 80s in my fundie-infested home town in Arkansas, but I'm positive they're still going on today. Terrorists would do well to consider that large chunks of the US population think sitting in an un-airconditioned tent in the summer working themselves into a religious frenzy is fun.

2. The first Genesis account, from the "E" source, actually has man and woman created simultaneously at the top of a chain of creations. The older "J" account in Genesis 2, which is basically a retelling of an even older Sumerian myth, is the one with the waters and adam's rib and all that jazz. Yes, Virginia, there are two completely different stories of Genesis in Genesis, and they don't agree with each other one bit. Put that in your "jot and tittle" pipe and smoke it.

Posted by scott at July 03, 2002 11:06 AM

eMail this entry!

I completely missed the fact that this was one of your essays until this morning. I enjoy reading your "stuff" so very much. Maybe you should put a new icon on them that says"this way mom, you're going to like this one a lot"!

Posted by: Pat on July 4, 2002 09:10 AM

Um... well, actually, they do have their own icon. Whenever you see the pen-and-paper, that's an essay. :)

Posted by: Scott on July 4, 2002 01:08 PM

I know that I am usually just watching out for the XXX and forget to look for the essay.

Posted by: Pat on July 4, 2002 05:26 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?