If I’m to be honest with myself, and sometimes I feel like I might, I’d have to admit I’m fairly impressive. Really. When I consider the things I can do, I am forced to concede I can do a lot – and if I really think about it, it turns out that the abilities with which the human body has been endowed are awesome… In the original meaning of the term, like, awe-inspiring; though it’s all pretty rad, too.
Before I get into why exactly I am thinking like this, I might as well address the inevitable here: Yes, I’ve been a blogging recluse lately, and no, I am not proud of it. I’d like to reconcile that fact, starting now. My Grand Re-Opening feat will be a series, so I shall be forced to continue whether I like it or not. The topic with which I will attempt to leap back in, reclaim my writing, and try to engage those who have given up on me, is one I believe addresses the core of many of my most-encountered questions… What are we? What are we supposed to do? What am I supposed to be doing? What’s the reason I do all these other things, even when I don’t really want to?
A little background should always come first. One must develop the characters of a story before they become believable; one must create their history and illustrate their environment and the pressures therein. We must begin to understand the world from their perspectives, and in light of both their strengths and limitations. This can be especially hard when one is part of the story, when the teller and the tellee are the same and yet so different, when the body and mind would weave such extraordinarily different tales…
When I get to thinking about what it is all animals have in common, well, I get bored. I’ve noticed my students do too, by the subtle nodding and bobbing of heads and the fog which glazes their eyes as I discuss blastulas and homeobox genes and lack of rigid cell walls. Not that these things aren’t fascinating in their own right, just that I want to know MORE. Because I am human, and I feel special, and I’d like some scientific evidence to the fact. I know I can do things other creatures cannot. Both what makes me unique and what makes me care is that I can actively seek understanding of these things.
So I will start where things become relatable* (incidentally, how is this not a word?? as in, ‘something that can be related to’) and universally – I’m taking a liberty here – thought-provoking. Mammals. We know we are mammals because, in addition to having coined that term to describe ourselves, we have genes for hair, a brain part to regulate homeostasis, bones in our ears, and glands to sweat and produce milk (mammary glands!! ..there’s a discussion in here about nipples on men, but I’ll leave that to you). Other than that, mammals are to all appearances an interestingly varied set of multicellular critters. But we know we belong with them, rather than in some other group of organisms, not just because we can classify and categorize and hypothesize – we know because we just feel it. I guarantee you could squash a toy chihuahua in a way not dissimilar to a ginormous cockroach, but under most circumstances I can also guarantee only one of the aforementioned situations makes you feel morally corrupt. Further, I might also surmise that if you had said cockroach in a tank with a plant, you’d feel poorly about killing one of these two creatures for lack of food and water, but mostly indifferent to the other. So again, we can presume which one is more like us in this subjective way.
And herein lies the trouble in answering questions about ourselves: Articulation, vocabulary, and separation of bottom lines from the tugs of our emotions. How do we, and should we, disengage from ourselves enough to objectively analyze ourselves? During the beginning of class each semester, I can reliably and predictably draw gasps of horror from even the most stoic of self-proclaimed uninterested, texting co-eds present only in body and because of state requirements simply by implying I might place a kitten in a blender. However, even those who might beforehand have declared titles of debating champion, logic king, or witty cynic find themselves in the ultimate conundrum when challenged to convince me why I shouldn’t hit “frappe” even for the tiniest fraction of a second. Tongues become twisted, hands are wrung, faces fraught. It is urgent, and crucial, and yet they cannot convey the point their body feels so strongly. It’s still a cat, I argue calmly, the parts are still all there. Do you know how hard it is to break a cell? With due diligence I could even arrange them back into the pattern from which the pieces came. And so on.
And it becomes apparent; the study of life is no more clear than the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description… and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” When it comes to purpose, and intent, and the junction between choice and insight and instinct, we have many feelings and few concrete concepts. Many facts, many opinions, and yet the inability to justify one with the other. The best, and only really, place to start is by laying a foundation of historical context and functional understanding and building upon that to create an idea of what might be right. For us, here and now, and in light of the fact we are a fleeting intermediate in some larger picture, the details of which are gloriously unavailable for our scrutiny.
Primates are alike because we are all adapted to climb trees. No joke. But yes, I said “climb.” No mention is made here of descent. Many humans, quite obviously, have somewhat lost the capacity to actually get down from those trees intact. What we lack in physical prowess, however, is the tradeoff we made for increased mental aptitude and the upright stance which made our hands available for things like advanced communication and making clever gadgets. But climbing is important. It is one of the first clues to some of our most innate reflexes and attributes, as we shall see…