What makes us distinctly human? It is a question that has been discussed and debated for millennia.
We are all animals in a sense, of course, though human beings aspire higher. But when you turn to current events or the heated threads of social media, our behavior reflects more of an animal nature. People have forgotten all we have in common and what we are capable of achieving together.
Instead, we have retreated into personal silos, blocking out opinions that make us uncomfortable and even bullying those we don’t like or who are different. At our worst, we shoot into crowds, loot stores, and storm the U.S. Capitol. We should be better than this.
The 18th-century botanist, Carl Linnaeus, deemed modern humans to be above the rest of the animal kingdom, giving our species the scientific name “homo sapien,” or “wise human.” But as we survey the actions of humankind over history, both ancient and recent, have we really lived up to that appellation?
Human beings are capable of great acts of kindness, selflessness, heroism, and altruism. Yet, we can see some of these characteristics in animals, too. So, what does it really mean to be human?
Exploring that question was the topic of a recent webinar co-hosted by the Cura Foundation and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, with the support of the John Templeton Foundation and Sanford Health. The forum featured renowned experts in philosophy and neuroscience, as well as the world’s top expert on chimpanzees, ethologist, anthropologist, and conservationist, Jane Goodall.
Genetically, we differ from the primates Goodall has studied by just over 1%, but in that small difference lies all that is possible within our lives. Chimpanzees can be taught to communicate, but it is language, the words we use to teach our children “about things that aren’t present,” as Goodall said, as well as the ability to “make plans for the distant future,” that set us apart from the apes.
Humanity can look ahead, dream, and shape its environment in ways other primates cannot. We can choose altruism over selfishness or good deeds over evil.
With these distinctive abilities, “Humanity is uniquely suspended between the animal and divine,” philosopher Georg Theiner of Villanova University said during the forum. “On the one hand, we are biological organisms rooted in the natural world just like other animals. And on the other hand, we’re not part of nature in the same way as they are.”
As humans, we have behavioral control and free will, the ability to weigh pros and cons and to choose. While animals surely communicate and chimps can learn to understand hundreds of words, only we can exchange ideas to find common ground. That requires us to make good-faith efforts and listen closely to our friends and neighbors, something that more recently seems to have been forgotten.
Many of the processes in our brains occur in animals, even in invertebrates, as William Mobley, an associate dean and neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, noted in the forum. The structure of our brains may not be so different, but our genetic difference from other primates allows us to “search for meaning in our existence,” he said, in ways other animals cannot. We consciously “think about what we think about.”
German philosopher Markus Gabriel discussed with us our ability to ponder the biggest of pictures is infinite. “We think about the universe as a whole,” he said. “We think about God and gods, and we have religions on this basis.”
In other words, we grapple with the question so often asked it’s become a cliché: What is the meaning of life?
On Jan. 18, our nation celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Throughout his lifetime, the civil rights icon offered his vision of what life is about: values of forgiveness, nonviolence, reconciliation, and unconditional love.
Today, we very much need the traits and values King preached about to shine brightly at a time when instinctual violence and destruction have shrouded our nation in darkness.
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