If we do not understand ourselves how can we hope to truly be in someone else’s shoes and have perspective? If we do not have perspective, how can we operate in a world of variation, even if ever so slight and seemingly insignificant? We like to display our uniqueness in many ways in amongst our own species, but how do we compare with other species on Earth?
Imagine that an alien group has finally had the chance to travel through time, breaking all our current rules about how hard all that would be. How would we explain ourselves to the new species? How would we compare? What would be the sameness across our species? The first step would be to explain human.
Many earlier ideas on what makes humans unique have been challenged. You can find more on that in for example Nina Rosenstand’s, a philosopher, book on Human Condition.
Only a few of the following seem to pretty much pass the test of ‘uniquely’ human:
1. The nurturer – clearly not the only ones, we’re just hopelessly dependent as babies
2. The warrior – clearly not the only ones
3. The creature that displays emotion [smile, cry, laugh] – elephants have tears, bonobos show big smiles to close ones, grief is common in animals
4. The animal that knows it will die – perhaps not quite the existential angst we go through, but other species nonetheless can show discomfort about death [Koko the gorilla experiences].
5. The lying animal – dogs can feign a sore paw to get attention etc
6. The featherless biped – yes, but not particularly helpful as our body isn’t very good for what we do
7. The political animal – many species show political structure
8. The fee will agent – not sure this applies to humans very well anyway, but animals like cats may have it better
9. The “child of god” – matter of beliefs etc
10. The moral animal – animals have their own code of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘do this, not that’
11. The storytelling animal – this seems to remain as the ONE uncontested uniquely human thing
12. The artist – animals in some zoos have painted, why on earth did that happen, not sure
13. The speaking animal – other species that have been able to learn some language have not quite taken it to our level but some have their own language or way of communicating
14. The tool maker – clearly not the only ones
15. The being with a soul – a matter of beliefs and traditions regarding other animate beings and inanimate objects
16. The two species animal – male and female, this one is pushing it a bit IMO, the Mars and Venus thing taken so far as to say no other animal has such variation that one would call the male and female as two species
addition: Human exclusives
2. Imagining alternative ways of being and living
3. Thinking in ‘oughts’ – basis for our moral code
So if we were to encounter an alien species on earth we would introduce ourselves along the lines of:
“Welcome to earth [we claimed is years ago so you’re just visiting], let’s gather around the camp fire and we’ll share a few good yarns from our journey on earth so far, but only after we’ve heard a bit about your journey here [cause we do want to get your technology and not just nurture you here at our place] and your home [to which we expect you to return, but we like to fuel our imagination of different ways of being], by the way we’ll tell you two sets of stories cause you know we have two relatively well developed species on Earth, both have their downsides and upsides and we seem to have this pheromone thing going on….that at times causes us to listen to each other carefully [and we have this code of oughts]”
Fascinating isn’t it that our DNA is not that different to many other species on earth. The experiences with particular animals, which display many of the aspects we had appropriated as our own, would suggest we’re not that unique among the many species on Earth.
Of course some times it is a matter of gigantic degree of application of those sixteen features. What is a political animal? Is it enough to have structure? When we add the rest of the machinations that go on, most of the time it amounts to storytelling 🙂 , doesn’t it?
and finally ….
Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to. Mark Twain