It struck me last Wednesday, on the Web. The Associated Press was reporting how scientists had discovered in Kenya a second genus of pre-humans some 3.6 million years old. It raised new questions, they said, about the origins of our species. For me, it raised a simple, familiar question: Who, what am I?
The paleontologists Meave and Louise Leakey told Reuters the hominid they found "revolutionizes the way we look at human ancestry."
Said University of California-Berkeley anthropologist Tim White of the find: "If you think of a family tree with a trunk, we're talking about two trunks."
This and the zoo, and the lone rhinoceros nodding as it chewed. Then another from behind a boulder, flapping its ears, and elephants, over the fence, covered in the red dirt of North Carolina. I felt as I watched them sleep and chew, or the monkeys sitting pensively, or hooves marching forward up the knoll, one after the other, curiously unlike.
Life is an instinctual filling of needs, or so I thought. Yet what knew these oblivious herds of the drama of their filling? Better still, what knew I?
Wild as it seemed to me, I could not shake the blasphemy of the notion of a domestic animal kingdom. Still as I read the captions, one after the next with the words "human encroachment, danger" and "extinction," the reality, bleak as it was, revealed its urgency: Would someday children listen as I told of an old phantasm?
"The animal, my children, was a fine creature, but sadly ... "
There at the last refuge my former assumption was shaken. Something about cages, even the open land capped by fence, made for division. After all, wasn't I on one side and they on the other? But why?
Perhaps, I told myself, the question is one merely of complexity. Humans, like other animals, fill needs. They seek food and shelter. They reproduce.
From our wailing beginning to the unquestioned end do we quest for fulfillment. The method, however, by which our needs are fulfilled involves a thing rarely utilized by other animals, namely the tool. Our tools varied and plenty have led us to an end where competition from our animal counterparts is no longer questioned. Rather is our ability to preserve them despite us.
Thus do we divide not by the point of fulfillment but by its method. Like animals do our lives have a birth and death, a waxing then waning, but our theory of fulfillment differs by its complexity and abstraction. Such a theory, like others and like all things made of hands, lips, or minds, holds the requisite influence. First is whether the question is one of rationality or one of empiricism. Surely are there, in an empirical world where the almighty datum is assessed with a supposed rationality, pieces of both.
Next is our tradition, by way of the tool and the opposable thumb, which seems a progress to world dominion. Dominance over things, the human will to power, reaches its apex where humans themselves become things capped by the power.
Hell, then, is other people.
Time is an illusion, likewise the framework of reality, passed on from the dead. The only real knowledge is recollection not of the simple life but of the life before life, which entails a thing beyond the animal self, beyond data, beyond reason, namely, a soul.
The soul is the crux, the conceptual manifestation of the theory that there is something unique about the human. It must hold true, in one form or another, if animals are to be seen as economic products. To lend them souls would pull them into our social world, and deprive them of their utility.
Just as such a theory on the nature of a thing is subject to the influence of the past, so is it validated by the acceptable method of reasoning of its time. Our time is rife with pronouncements on a diverse number of things, many backed by the strictures of the scientific method.
Without the validation of the scientific method, theories eloquent or crude, noble and ignoble, fall flat. Theories fail not because they are packed with inherent weaknesses, though most, it could be said, are. Theories fail because people don't listen to the words, or if they do, the words are incomprehensible when not spoken within the framework of the recognizable. Thus is the artist, the theorist, the governor confined both to the strictures of the past and to those of present thinking.
Any theory, therefore, on the nature of the human in relation to animals, must take into account at least the basic underpinnings of evolutionary theory, for only there does the answer to the question of our difference lie.
We evolved, they say, but how, where, and most importantly, why?
After the zoo, on the highway, in the tool of an automobile, I passed a herd of cows beside the road. Some were grazing while others looked at me. What was my conception? It seemed to say: "I am an animal with the mystery of an unproven soul, something sensed, merely, but unproven." There were no equations to be made that would equal a mind, or the thought of one, no observation of the process of a thing that would render me true.
All I had, truly, was a history with other things, many trunks, many roots, and skin and bones. The rest, I thought, was abstraction.
Paul Tharp is a first-year law student. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.