When I hear the expression, “I’m only human,” I think, “Compared to what?” Of course the expression is an idiom and I don’t take issue with it in the context of everyday conversation. But I do object to the prevailing superstition that the only difference between humans and other animals is a matter of degree, not kind. My objection is not based on a snobbish notion that we are ‘superior’ to animals. Superiority is not an issue. Few are we who don’t have a sense of equality with animals when we hug them or just admire them for a variety of reasons, including the constancy of unconditional love. They are not ‘only animals’ anymore than we are ‘only human.’
But there is a distinction between animals and humans that escapes scientists as well as an overwhelming majority of ‘ordinary’ people. That distinction is realized in both science and art.
Darwin (and Lamarck before him) revealed the evolution of life. The Scopes trial was necessary and inevitable. Necessary, because education requires freedom; inevitable, because evolution was a concept waiting to be discovered with or without a trial. But the trial is not over. The ‘missing link’ appears to be more than just a matter of bones and opposing thumbs.
Scientists of different stripes, ranging from neurologists to cosmologists, posit a surfeit of theories related to the origin of life. Neurologists probe complex combinations of primordial nerve cell activity, especially in the brain; cosmologists talk of ‘habitable zones’ that allow atoms to link and form complex molecules that result in living matter. Absurd and brilliant theories cohabit academia.
The study of humans as animals is legitimate of course. But there is an enormous disconnect between authentic scientists who probe biological facts and others whose agenda is to diminish the human psyche. The former enjoy nurturing whatever intelligence they can glean from animals they often come to love; the latter are fixed on the premise that there is no fundamental difference between the psyche of animals and humans even though there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Ironically, science itself provides us with major evidence that animals and humans are different in kind. Animals survive by instinct alone. Humans survive by a hint of instinct, but our major tool for survival is rationality. Animals are not speculative nor do they deal with complex abstractions. Humans constantly deal with them. Some individuals surprise the rest of us with fire or a wheel or E=MC2.
Science is an exclusively human attribute. It is not subjected to the limitations of evolution, i.e., the static status of individual animals from generation to generation is constant over millions of years until the species is extinct. A defined species has one shot in evolution’s splendid parade. A lizard’s psyche is no different from that of its primordial ancestors however many adaptations the species has undergone. The difference between other animals and humans is our unique genius for creativity. No aspect of that genius is more evident than it is in art.
While all sorts of experiments are conducted to demonstrate that the difference between other animals and humans is no more than a matter of the degree to which self-awareness and intelligence is part of our respective species, the essential difference between us is a matter of kind. Degrees of intelligence and experiential activity can be measured and codified. Apparently, primates and seals (like humans) have characteristics beyond sheer instinct. However, these characteristics do not include art. Evidently, some cave dwellers were artists. There is no evidence of art created by seals or chimpanzees, notwithstanding primate paintings hanging in questionable art exhibits.
Unlike theoretical science and intuitive religion, art is unequivocally real. Here. Now. Accessible. Although art is sometimes regarded as a phenomenon of enhanced instinct, it is a distinctly and exclusively human attribute. Yet, there are many individuals at all levels of intelligence who are not receptive to art in any form. For them, art is as unknowable as theoretical science or religious entities. As a result of this vacuum in the psyche of many scientists, they are limited to collecting and probing only data that is applicable to biological and purely instinctive characteristics shared by all animals to some degree or another. The essential distinction in kind between humans and other animals is entirely missed or simply ignored as irrelevant.
Those of us who are comfortable with the distinction between other animals and ourselves, are accused of being naively anthropocentric. But, exactly what is it that they believe is more than ‘only human’- – -gods, aliens, machines?
While questions about the origin and destiny of life drag on, answers to the meaning of life are most likely to be found in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michelangelo’s Pietà, the Parthenon, Tschaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet (choreography by Petipa), Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Verdi’s Otello, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Shakespeare’s wisdom, and a host of other equally exquisite bursts of human expression.
Yes, the idiom ‘only human’ is meant to be an explanation for a specific fault, lack, or error. But it also implies that being human is less than what we should be. I, for one, am comfortable with being ‘only’ human.