“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Bertrand Russell
What does it mean to be human? This was not my question, but that of my seven year old granddaughter at the zoo when we saw a family of Silverback gorillas. She was amazed and asked why they were behaving so much like humans? Some of the answers were actually noted on the displays about the gorillas, like the fact that they have 98% of the same DNA as humans, are herbivores, highly social but fearfully avoid humans, and apparently with good reason as they are near extinction. This last point confused my granddaughter because if they are so much like humans, but not human, then what does it mean to be human?
Now if you think there’s an easy answer to give a seven year old as to what it means to be human, be my guest, but think very carefully; according to Buddha, “What we think, we become.” My granddaughter was the thinker when she observed their behavior, and that is one of the primary characteristics of being human as she saw them as they were, i.e. Silverback gorillas acting like humans, but that’s as far as it goes. As the exhibit explained, gorillas form social units, each needing about 10 to 15 square miles for foraging in order to live. In the gorilla habitats in the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo, the African people are expanding agriculture so they can feed an ever increasing population. Over the course of the last century, this expansion has depleted gorilla populations more than 80%. It is no surprise that the trend of human population growth is supplanting the habitats of these animals. If you ask the African people what needs to be done, they will tell you that they need food more than they need gorillas.
So what does this have to do with what it means to be human? The answer is everything as the natural evolution of humans is based on thinking about and acting on that which provides for the propagation and preservation of our species, and therein lies the balance of the DNA that Gorillas don’t have. While that does not necessarily mean the reduction and destruction of other species, it seems more often than not to be an unintended consequence, but is it inevitable? Does this really define what it means to be human? I do not think that is the case.
The exhibit went on to say that here have been studies that show humans can communicate on a primal level with gorillas and teach them behavior; gorillas can’t think to do that with us. I’m talking about just thinking like my granddaughter about what you observe. Granted she was making a reference to other observations about how humans acted, but that’s the same thing. One of the beautiful things that thoughtful people do is not just dream of things that could be but actually find a way to do them. Art and science are all about thinking and not being afraid that what you think may be different to what other people believe, or being afraid of making a mistake. This is the essence of being human; you may never reach perfection, but you will never be human if you don’t try. Ultimately, I think that humans will find a way to provide for the propagation and preservation of our species without the destruction of others.
Mark Twain once observed that “The two most important days in your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.” Well that first day is obviously critical if you are ever to get to the second important day when you realize what it means to be you; that day will either make you a happy human being or a fearful shadow of what it means to be human. Often the difference is between being a thoughtful person, or one burdened by beliefs forced on you. It’s often said that belief is when someone else does the thinking; if you accept that, then you have become someone who does not think for themselves, and perhaps does not think at all.
It should concern us all that the world has become driven by fear; social justice, climate change, and pandemics are issues addressed not with civil discourse and consideration of various ideas. These fears are more often than not the imaginings of those in our society who present themselves as experts in just about everything, often based on perceptions with no subsequent thought. Consequently, these beliefs become a mantra promoted in social media and government policies. It’s not the issues themselves that these beliefs address that should concern us, but the negativity and absolutism in how they are approached. There seems to be more fear incited than thoughtful and civil discourse on solutions. This is not what it means to be human but it is not that new a phenomenon; as Montaigne observed, “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”
The worst consequence of the proliferation of fear through social media and government policies is the indoctrination rather than the education of our youth, providing a perpetuation of this fear mentality; this is not conducive to the propagation and preservation of our species as it reduces us to the level of the Silverback gorillas. Conformity to fear beliefs is the message and the medium is pervasive; these fear beliefs create a dystopia where thinking differently and free expression are disdained. The very nature of being human, of being a thinking person, seemingly no longer has any value. We would be well advised to consider Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”