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
- 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
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
The physical similarities between humans and other mammals are quite
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
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.
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
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
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.
For views, reviews, encomiums, and brick-bats: