The Seven Things That Only Human Beings Can Do
The seven things that most distinguish us from other animals.
Posted Aug 27, 2012
It struck me the other day as I was watching a sunset and feeling mellow that human beings are very special animals. These are, in my opinion, the seven things that most mark us apart from other animals. Can you think of any others?
Language is not necessary for communication, and many animals communicate effectively by using more primitive forms of communication. However, language is able to give rise to symbolism, and thereby to emotionalism and to creative activity. These unique assets not only make us by far the most adaptable of all animals, but also enable us to engage in pursuits such as art, music, and religion, and so define us as human beings.
Freud himself noted that there is really ‘no such thing as a joke’: if human beings are the only animals to laugh, with some going so far as to turn laughter into a form of art and source of employment, then this is no doubt because they have by far the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies; the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death; and incongruity, absurdity, and meaninglessness. These are all deeply human concerns and challenges: just as no one has ever seen a laughing dog, so no one has ever heard about a laughing god.
All animals shed basal and reflex tears, but only human beings shed emotional tears. There are those who believe that some animals, in particular elephants and chimpanzees, can also shed emotional tears, but this is difficult to verify. On the other hand, we can be pretty sure that crocodiles do not cry. The expression ‘to shed crocodile tears’ has its roots in an ancient Greek legend according to which crocodiles pretend to weep to either lure or mourn their prey.
Plato’s pupil Aristotle held that it is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can best understand its essence. For example, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’. Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique capacity to reason. Thus, the Supreme Good for human beings is to lead a life that enables them to exercise and to develop their reason, and that is in accordance with rational principles.
Schizophrenia affects about 1 percent of the population. The idea that the genes that predispose to schizophrenia also predispose to creativity—and thus confer an adaptive or evolutionary advantage— may help to explain why such a debilitating illness remains so common. As Aristotle put it more than 2,400 years ago, 'There was never a genius without a tincture of madness'.
6. Falling in love
Idealization involves overestimating the positive attributes of a person, object, or idea and underestimating the negative attributes; but more fundamentally, it involves the projection of our needs and desires onto that person, object, or idea. The classic example of idealization is that of being infatuated, when love is confounded with the need to love, and the idealized person’s negative attributes are not only underestimated but turned into positive attributes and thought of as endearing. Although this can make for a rude awakening, there are few better ways of relieving our existential anxiety than by manufacturing something that is ‘perfect’ for us, be it a piece of equipment, a place, country, person, or god.
7. Believing in God
But even a god is not enough. According to the philosopher and theologian St. Augustine, man is prone to a curious feeling of dissatisfaction and to a subtle sense of longing for something undefined. This feeling of dissatisfaction arises from his fallen condition: although he has an innate potential to relate to God or the absolute, this potential can never be fully realized, and so he yearns for other things to fill its place. Yet these other things do not satisfy, and he is left with an insatiable feeling of longing—longing for something that cannot be defined.
The writer and thinker C.S. Lewis calls this feeling of longing ‘joy', which he defines as ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’, and which I like to think of—in the broadest sense—as a sort of aesthetic and creative reservoir. The paradox of ‘joy’ arises from the self-defeating nature of human desire, which might be thought of as nothing more or less than a desire for desire, a longing for longing.
In The Weight of Glory, Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty,
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.
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