Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Human Animal: Are We Different?

Is The Human Animal So Different From All The Others?

"I am not an animal!" John Hurt declared as the embattled creature in The Elephant Man. But that just begs the question: how different is the human animal really? I mean, once you get passed the hubris and ego?

Or maybe it brings back a funny scene from Animal House where a condemned fraternity brother, the cornered human animal, demands respect. Drunk, of course.

Apologies to The Elephant Man, but what that declaration reminds me most of is Jerry Seinfeld in the episode about picking his nose. Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) has an hilarious scene with Calvin Klein, posing as an underwear model and, course, making a pratfall.

The Elephant Man, 1980
The Elephant Man, 19808 in. x 24 in.
Regardless of entertainment references, the fact is that not one of these prideful humans seems to be right. The evidence so far is perfectly clear that the human animal is just another species, legendary among ourselves, not more evolved or better adapted than many others. Only hopeful religions, myths and determined ignorance can save us. And, of course, as you've probably noticed, all three are already trying.

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 any reproductive prospects while two elegant cats relaxed quietly on our rug. I was also steaming a little over emails I read the night before. I believe they'd have been dismissed into the vaults of irrelevance by the cats already.

It's not only that cats and most other animals are consumed in their now moments, it's just as much about proportion and common sense. They just don't drag one thing into the next. If you're not hooked into "the story," as the human animal is, what good would that do? If that's an animal point of view, as I believe it is, it carries benefits we should consider for ourselves. Of course, we may only evolve it if it enhances survival or the females of our species find it sponge-worthy.

Smart Cat
Smart Cat
Chen, Hu
11.875 in. x 15.8125 in.

So what's wrong with accepting our rather obvious animal nature, aside from the fact that we eat a lot of them and treat some with even less consideration than people with whom we're at war? Among the many animal species we know well, admirable traits abound. Maybe we could learn from them, if being animal-like wasn't so harshly condemned.

The science

Here's one of those unpleasant facts flat worlders and idealists prefer not to notice. The genetic links found in the fossil record so thoroughly track our evolution from and among our primate brethren (monkeys, apes, chimps, etc.) that denial is the equivalent of 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 the species split off and differentiated, we get way under the primates and find that our ancient grandparents (with many greats in front) were reptiles. Hard as it is for many to accept our primate ancestors, this may be tougher. At least, monkeys are comfortably like us in some ways. But reptiles?

Ladies and gentleman, as evidence, I give you Congress or your choice of pharmaceutical lobbyists.

Cartoon: The Fight on the Floor of Congress Between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold, 1798

Cartoon: The Fight on the Floor of Congress Between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold, 1798
24 in. x 18 in.

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 at the evidence takes you to the conclusion easily that the human animal is one among many species, not better or worse, just evolved with different genetic wrinkles. The more interesting question is why this throws so many people into fits of denial.

But the human animal is different!

Of course, we are. That's what speciation is about, the branching off into particulars 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 can talk about what things make us different, but by different, I'm afraid most people are 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 in consideration of what we value. Cats, to bring these little masters of the universe back to the page, have exactly the brains and other 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 who have to make way for bowling ball sized heads? And they come without convenient finger holes too.

Human Egg Being Fertilized by Sperm

Human Egg Being Fertilized by Sperm
, Panoramic...
24 in. x 8 in.

Be objective, taking your cat as an example. 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 are generally settling in for a pleasant 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 that routine?

The only reason I ever came up with to make sense of human animals' 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 admit being part of.

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?

Other animals also 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.

Human and Animal Traffic on Dasaswamedh Ghat Road, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Human and Animal Traffic on Dasaswamedh Ghat Road, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
I'Anson, Richard
16 in. x 12 in.
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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 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. Oops!

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.

Didn't He?

Saving Grace
Saving Grace
Walker, Garret
16 in. x 20 in.
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Author Page: David Stone

To know. To find love. To be free.

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