Saturday October 6, 2012

Through my enrollment in my Advanced Placement Composition and Literature class, something has really sparked my interest. The deceptively simple question of humans, and if they are indeed animals.

Biologically, yes. Any grade school student could tell you that. However, in our current English vocabulary, "animal" refers to something wild, and in need of taming. In this case, we humans often separate ourselves from animals.

Only a few of the animal kingdom are suspected to have a cognitive capacity near humans. Dogs, dolphins, elephants and apparently some squids are a few of these assumed creatures. Other than these examples, humans are believed to be "sentient," meaning we have developed senses and consciousness. This is the main difference between humans and our cognitively underdeveloped counterparts. Our ability to partake in higher thinking, such as awareness of self, and our methods of intricate communication. Through this communication, we established methods of living. Our ancient ancestors had to learn to communicate in order to establish a basic society, even if only a hunter/gatherer society.

Once in this society, our ancestors would migrate along with animal herds for hunting, and they would learn to gather essential fruits, berries, roots and nuts. All of this was upheld by communication, and their forms of passing on information through simple oral noises.

A series of movements with one’s tongue and lips, combined with the air expelled from one’s lungs, could stand for anything from "husband" to "stink." Although these two particular words may have coincided often, the ability to infer a certain article from a series of sounds is the foundation for our modern society.

In our literature textbook, the concept of "extended nervous systems" was brought to my attention. Basically, the idea lies in that in modern times, if one were walking across the street and was unaware of a vehicle careening down the road toward them, another human could call out in warning, and effectively extend their nervous system to the person in danger. Receiving assistance from the bystander’s nervous system, the walker’s own system would kick into action, and escape the danger.

Were this situation replaced with two animals, the result would not be as cheerful, to say the least. However, this extension of the human nervous system is the sole reason that human technology and society continues to advance. Every time a human discusses with another, or reads a work, entertains any sort of social act, they are taking in the experiences and knowledge that has been gleaned through another human’s nervous system. Animals are unequipped with this cognitive ability and have changed minutely as a response.

Neither human nor animal has truly changed when it comes to reproduction. The only difference is that now, humans have grown much better at keeping both mother and child alive, thanks to their use of medicine. Thanks to its usage, humans are now ranked at the top of a biological graph known as a "survivorship curve." This curve describes the relationship between a particular animal’s offspring number, and how well they survive. A human has few offspring, considering that these offspring are expected to live full lives each and every time. In contrast, the shellfish has a vast quantity of offspring, as many of the young do not survive. This high mortality rate is the reason for such high numbers of offspring initially. This is how the species survives.

It stands to reason that early humans may have discovered the uses of herbs and therefore set the stage for modern medicine during their Agricultural Revolution. During this time, people settled down in homes due to their agricultural sustenance. The rest is history, but the point is that with the growth and steadiness of societal life, came a fundamental human emotion: Compassion.

Do animals have compassion? This question is another for the science books on the general scale, but it has been shown in several animal species that qualities of compassion do, in fact, exist. When I was young, I distinctly recall watching a documentary of a herd of elephants. As they trekked across the savannah’s harsh climate, a young elephant could take no more and eventually died. The mother was visibly distraught. She had stayed behind while the rest of the herd braved the heat and attempted to rouse her baby.

During this entire process, she became more panicked and stressed, as the narrator disclosed, and the mother began crying from her temples. The dark dampness paving a visible trail across her asphalt skin, this mother had displayed one fundamental fact for all to see; losing a child is a tragedy no mother should be forced to endure.

I now extend the question to you, dear reader: Are we humans or are we animals? Is biology correct in categorizing us along with other species we coexist with, along with the elephant mother? Or are we so societally and technologically developed beyond the simple creatures of the Earth, that we have created a category of our very own?

Chace Perkins is a senior at Bellows Falls Union High School. His column appears monthly.