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Sunday, 28 September 2014

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What makes us, us

"Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safer; the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."

- Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton, an English fashion, portrait, and war photographer; painter, interior designer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre.

With an inspired thirst for knowledge, it was but natural that my interest in human origins remained insatiable.

This interest, led me through paths untrod by average humans. I was eager to know everything there was to know, and to my utter amazement, a humbling truth emerged. Our DNA blueprints are nearly 99 percent identical to the common chimpanzee.

That is, of the three billion letters that make up the human genome, only 15 million of them - less than 1 percent - have changed in the six million years or so since the human and chimp lineages began to diverge.

I also found that the evolutionary theory holds that the vast majority of these changes had little or no effect on our biology. Yet, somewhere in the midst of that, approximately 15 million differences between the human genome and that of the chimpanzee, lay the differences that made us human.

Thus, what makes us, us and different from our closest relative - the common chimpanzee - may seem as not very much when we look at the two DNA. Yet those few tiny changes made all the difference in the world.

One does not have to be a biologist or an anthropologist to see how closely the great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons, and Orangutans - resemble us. Even a child can see that their bodies are pretty much the same as ours, apart from some exaggerated proportions and extra body hair. Apes have dexterous hands much like ours but unlike those of any other creature. And, most striking of all, their faces are uncannily expressive, showing a range of emotions that are eerily familiar.

Queen Victoria, on seeing an orangutan named Jenny at the London Zoo in 1842, declared the beast "frightful and painfully and disagreeably human."

Hence the question remained, are human beings really - biologically, socially - different from the rest of the evolved world? Are there definitive characteristics that separate humans from other forms of life, or are humans simply an improvement on the body plans of other animals, the result of random processes that have occurred over millions of years? The answers to these questions may seem obvious to people who believe in the theory of creation; but defining what characteristics separate man from the animals that closely resemble him, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, still has not been completely resolved by secular science.

Plain

The physical similarities between humans and other mammals are quite plain.

We are made of the same flesh and blood; we go through the same basic life stages. Yet reminders of our shared inheritance with other animals have become the subject of cultural taboos: sex, menstruation, pregnancy, birth, feeding, defecation, urination, bleeding, illness, and dying - messy stuff.

However, even if we try to throw a veil over it, the evidence for evolutionary continuity between human and animal bodies is vast and undeniable. After all, we can use mammalian organs and tissues, such as a pig's heart valve, to replace our own malfunctioning body parts.

A vast industry conducts research on animals to test drugs and procedures intended for humans because human and animal bodies are so profoundly alike. The physical continuity of humans and animals is incontestable.

However, the mind is another matter. Our mental capacities have allowed us to tame fire and invent the wheel. We survive by our wits.

Our minds have spawned civilisations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while even our closest living animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their remaining forests. There appears to be a tremendous gap between human and animal minds, yet the precise nature of this gap has been notoriously difficult to establish.

There have been many attempts to answer this question and the result is that different people have different theories to the question: "What makes us human?" Some say that it is the ability to ask questions, a consequence of our sophisticated spoken language.

Yet others say, emotions are what make us human; but as explained above, it is not so.

Animals too feel emotions, even if expressed differently. Yet others will say our actions define us.

However, I wonder if we are actually the sum total of everything we have experienced - beginning in the womb? Most certainly, in the life experience, we are the product of our experiences, and the consequences of all of our choices along the way; including our beliefs; but they may at best, influence our actions, but do they define us?

Our evolving intelligence has defined us through thousands of years. Our conscience as well, for it is there to discern what to do, how to think, how to act.

Our lethargy defines us, as does our participation in the issues in life, which affect us. Our actions and reactions define us. Our religion or absence of religion defines us. Our communication skills define us. Our technology defines us. Our ignorance, stupidity, prejudice define us. Our relation to our own kind and to other living creatures defines us. Our respect or disrespect, define us. What we do, and what we do not do, adds to making us what we are.

Our morality or lack of it is a product of our examining conscience. Yet, in spite of all this, are these what makes us human? At some point, if we look back at the things that we have done over time, we wonder if this is what we are: simply a mesh of what we have done.

Comparisons

Why is it that we are drawn to some types of information over others. If our experiences shape our present-day judgments and our emotional and physical state, and affect the choices we make; then every one of us is different to the other.

For most of us, though, it is the grand question about what it is that makes us human that renders comparisons compelling.

As scientists keep reminding us, evolution is a random process in which haphazard genetic changes interact with random environmental conditions to produce an organism somehow fitter than its fellow beings.

After 4.5 billion years of such randomness, a creature emerged that could ponder its own origins and revel in a Mozart adagio or a Premasiri Khemadasa song.

Within a few short years, we may finally understand precisely when and how that happened.

But for the time being, we continue to lie, steal, cheat, murder, go to war, gossip, go into fits or range, destroy our world, use words or technology to hurt each other. We believe at the end of all things that some how we are in control of everything when we actually are not.

Increased intelligence has only made humans far worse than all the other animals.

Though our intelligence liberates us from animal limitations, we seem to have lost the ability to be logical, and to love and forgive. Perhaps, at the end of it all, what makes us human is our irrationality.

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