What does it mean to be “human”?

“Koko,” my gorilla cousin, died this week.

Why do I make this the opener for my blog post this week?

Koko lived to the ripe old age of 46 … ancient by the standards of any Western Lowland Gorillas who lives a much less privileged life in the wild (Koko was treated like royalty by the scientists who studied her). But this isn’t the reason I’d give for taking a second look back at this primate.

She had learned to use 1000 hand-signs based around the American Sign Language system, and understood roughly 2000 English words. Some critics minimize her achievement as not so remarkable, accusing her of not using syntax (she might say “Koko banana hungry” rather than “I want a banana”), and that her language level was on par with “only” a young human child. It’s a shame those critics miss the bigger picture: they’re still comparing Koko to a human!

And more than being able to communicate to/with humans, she could feel like a human. She adopted a kitten and treated it like her baby. When later told that the kitten had been killed (by a car), she signed “Bad, sad, bad” and “Frown, cry, frown, sad.” She then adopted two other kittens, and gave them names (Lipstick and Smoky).

But perhaps the biggest of Koko’s accomplishments was that she made us look inside ourselves and ask some pretty humbling questions. “Are we humans just exceptionally advanced apes?” … “Are we really any different from animals?”… “What is it that makes us human?”

Human exceptionalism is a pretty big subject for some people. A sacred cow, in fact, because they relate it to the “image of God” of which Genesis speaks (aka, the imago Dei), not realizing that the ancient Hebrews had a completely different understanding of that concept before its meaning was radically altered by Greek philosophy and became Christianized. I know that some readers will be quick to quote the Psalmist:

What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. (Psalm 8:4-8).

Let’s not forget who wrote that: a human.

Sure, you can point out that the human was divinely-inspired, not that either of us can clearly define what exactly that means. But another human, presumably also divinely-inspired, had a very different view. The writer of Ecclesiastes surveyed the full breadth of what is the human condition. From the pitiable on the one hand (“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race”) to the admirable on the other (“He has also set eternity in the human heart”). After sifting through his observations, he eventually concludes,

As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-21).

Which one of them is right? Perhaps both of them? The truth is somewhere down the middle? Or do we just pick the one extreme that makes us feel better about ourselves?

What really makes us exceptional? We once thought it had to do with our brains: our ability to reason, or to make and use tools, for example. But we’ve since learned that many other species do that: go ahead and search for YouTube videos of crows solving puzzles, or birds fishing with pieces of bread, and prepare to be amazed.

Is it something more abstract like a capacity for conscience, morality or empathy? Many dog owners will swear with absolute conviction and certainty that their pets “know” when a rule has been broken. Experiments show that dogs and primates have a sense of fair and unfair, and exhibit forms of empathy.

A sense of free will? Again, many pet owners are convinced that their pets will choose to do certain things, whether those be right or wrong, selfish or altruistic. People who work with dolphins will say the same thing.

Self-awareness? Experiments with dolphins and primates using mirrors show they’ve got that too. One common test is to attach something to a part of their body that they can’t see, like the back of their heads: the animals promptly make their way to the mirror to get a look at what that was, showing all the signs that they recognize the image in the mirror as themselves and not some other animal with the annoying habit of copying all their moves. Many conversations that Koko had with her handlers undeniably reveal a self-awareness.

Creativity?  Many birds will decorate their nests with brightly colored objects, and there are elephants that can paint pictures. Even though this is obviously a trained behavior in those elephants, the quality of their paintings clearly shows a sense of abstract thought, appreciation of form and an artistic ability to reproduce the images they see.

The more we look, the more the lines which once seemed to separate humans from animals become blurred and even fade from view. Increasingly, it seems that humans and animals exhibit the same characteristics and abilities, it’s just that we often do so to a greater degree. We simply occupy the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to certain measures of ability.”Human exceptionalism.”

But we’re not always superior to them: our ability to do certain other things pale in comparison to that of the animals. We marvel at how Monarch butterflies can navigate thousands of miles using the stars, Earth’s magnetic field and the far off sounds of oceans as navigational clues, and how the ‘maps’ appear to be pre-wired into their tiny brains. We’re amazed at the abilities of some animals to hear frequencies of sounds, see wavelengths of light, and pick up trace scents, which completely elude us. The ability of a bat to navigate through a cave or the tree branches at night and chase insects solely using echo-location. I’m guessing that animals might find us quite inferior because we so easily get lost in the woods, or are incredibly weak or fearful, or have such poorly developed sensory skills.

Might claims of human exceptionalism, and even of how that pertains in some way to the imago Dei, be only emphasizing characteristics that we hold in high esteem, ones on which we put greater value because we’re particularly good at them? Perhaps lions would describe God in more lion-like terms. A dolphin might see the imago Dei in being able to dive to incredible depths, to distinguish the different types of fish based on their sonar signature, to catch fast moving prey in the dark, and to have tremendous acrobatic abilities both above and below the water’s surface.

Besides, if it’s enough for some to say “sure, we may be on the same ladder as animals, but we’re much, much higher up than them,” what will we do when our technology far exceeds us?  Which it will soon do!  It seems to me that the past few years have seen some amazing advances in robotics and artificial intelligence.

If you’ve already seen the videos from Boston Dynamics of machines made of pistons, pulleys and gears walking and running like any wild deer or dog and have since grown jaded, then you absolutely must see their latest in the series: a humanoid running up a hill and jumping over a log. My jaw just drops!

Siri or Alexa now have conversations with people.

It used to be a big deal that IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in a chess match, something which critics dismissed because all the best chess moves were programmed into Deep Blue. But now we have artificial intelligence running on neural networks that have invented chess moves that humans never thought of!

This week there was a head-line in the news of IBM’s Project Debator “winning” a debate against a human: the software was given the question at the start of the debate and then essentially ran Google searches while its opponent was speaking. If you dismiss this by saying the software still had to use information that had been entered previously by humans (those who posted material to the internet), then answer me: what’s one of the first things you do when you write a speech or prepare an essay … you do some Google searches!

Self-learning machines are taking over ever more important tasks like interpreting CAT scans, diagnosing cancers, and deciding which prisoners should be given parole.

That technology will someday overtake us, and far surpass us, in many respects. Likely within our own lifetime. Will we still take such pride in our human exceptionalism and have such a dismissive attitude about the animals further down the ladder when our machines start to climb above us on that ladder?

At this point, some readers might play the “soul card.” That we humans have a soul while the animals below us on the ladder and AI above us on the ladder do not. How do you know that animals don’t have a soul, or that AI could not have a soul? For those who would point to the story in Genesis of God breathing into the lump of clay, you’ll need to do a little more researching, because the animals were also given the breath of life.

What exactly is the human soul? For that matter, what is the mind and personality?

Koko put some really big questions on the table this week. Let me know what you think …


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