Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Man and Beast

Human beings think they're better than other animals.

When we want to insult someone for acting crudely, we accuse him of behaving like an animal. Almost no one uses beastly as a compliment. Some religions describe the superiority of the divine by arguing that God is as far above us as we are above the beasts.

The problem is that we're not better than the animals. We are animals.

This is why biologists and the biologically sympathetic work so hard to argue that man is an animal, not to be treated as better than other animals but as a peer. Over the years, some of us have taken this too far and made the mistake of treating man as identical to the other animals, not different at all.

That exaggerated position overlooks the obvious. After all, no other animal is exterminating other species at the pace we are nor changing the face of the Earth as dramatically as we are. Nor has any other animal developed the technology to travel to the moon and back. Certainly, we are animals, with seemingly endless similarities to our species-cousins, but at the same time we are also different than they are in myriad ways we find difficult to characterize.

Here's my first attempt.

We are not better than the other animals, nor as some animal-rights activists would have it are we worse. We are to the side of them, on a different scale. It is foolish to say human beings are either better or worse than the other animals. The reason is simple.

Biologically we are animals, but psychologically we are something else entirely.

Psychologically and behaviorally we are more variable than any other animal. We are both better than the other animals and worse than them. Lumping all human beings together behaviorally is deeply misguided, let alone comparing them psychologically as a whole to any other species. We may or may not all be created equal as Jefferson asserted, but we sure don't end up that way, as Dr. Mengele and Dr. King demonstrated. Our legal equality is not the same as being psychologically or behaviorally identical.

That variability is our essential character, as Shakespeare noted.

At heart, human beings are actors able to assume many roles in the world rather than a single role. As I wrote in Sleepless almost two years ago, it was our evolutionary neotony that made us so flexible, freeing us from the frame of our old instincts to create the widest range of psychological and behavioral possibilities of any animal on Earth. That wide range created both the possibility of behaving far better than any other animal but also far worse. We can be angels or demons or anything in between.

Our freedom from instincts and our dependence on nurtured culture to replace those instincts is both our heroic strength and our tragic weakness. It is precisely that one evolutionary leap that makes it possible to be passionately consumed by the quest for the truth or to have a complete disregard for it.

What I posted yesterday described the downside of that flexibility where the truth is concerned. What I post tomorrow will describe the upside.

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