Putting aside the intelligent design and evolution controversy, let us explore what makes us different from all the other creatures on the planet.
In a fictional novel titled, “You Shall Know Them” by Vercors, a pen name for Jean Bruller, the author introduces several possible reasons for our uniqueness.
The story begins with a newspaper man discovering a tribe of New Guinea cliff-dwellers who smoked their meat, walked upright, and buried their dead.
The newspaper man decides upon an experiment where he artificially inseminates one of the females and she gives birth to a human-like child he names Debbie. He took her back to England, murdered her, and confessed his crime to the police.
The case goes to trial to decide whether, if the Debbie was human, he should be charged with first degree murder. If she was an animal, it would be a minor crime.
During the trial, several experts are called as witnesses to answer the question, “What makes someone human?”
A priest, biologist, psychiatrist, anthropologist, and experts from various other disciplines each offered their definition of being human. The jury retired to decide which definition was correct and, needless to say, it was a hung jury.
The answers given by the experts included having a spoken and written language, a soul, a distinct anatomical structure, an ability to think abstractly, the largest brain among the primates, a concept of self, a neo cortex, DNA, erogenous ear lobes, and a belief in a supreme being.
In our reality, primatologist Frans de Waal at Emory University tells us that we share 98.8 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and that they are emotionally and socially most similar to us.
The biggest difference is language. While they are capable of learning a few symbols in a lab, it pales in comparison with what a young human child can do.
The research in this area raises more questions than it answers. Each discipline offers an explanation that reflecting their individual biases.
Perhaps the most popular explanation of what makes us human comes from religion. The New Testament offers believers answers to all questions pertaining to our humanity and how we are unique and different from the animals.
Quite possibly, the qualities that make us human are liabilities, not assets. For example, humans are the only creatures possessing the ability to feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment.
These are uniquely human traits. Conversely, only humans can experience the calm or elation of spirituality, see things from another person’s perspective, and have an emotional connection with the Divine.
Ironically, a curious thing happens when we humans look into a mirror. We see what we want to see. When a chimpanzee looks into a mirror, it sees a chimpanzee. Perhaps this simple distinction is what makes us human.
— Professor Eisenberg was born in New York City and now lives in Belleair Bluffs. His career consisted of teaching interpersonal and intercultural communication, public speaking, organizational and nonverbal communication, group dynamics and persuasion at four major universities including Pace University and Manhattanville College in New York. His publications include 19 textbooks on various aspects of communication. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.