“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” – Mark Twain
Homo sapiens: That’s the scientific name of the primate group of animals we humans belong to. Its translation is “wise man*,” though the suitability of the designation has often been called into question. Mark Twain is one who had quite a lot to say about the failings of humans, including this: “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.”
For quite a long time there has been consideration and debate about what essential characteristics set us apart from other creatures. It has been argued that humans occupy the very pinnacle of earthly life – a link between “lower” animals and angels. The appeal of that kind of thinking is obvious, in part because we recognize behavior in our kind like that of “brutes” (in the sense of savagely violent animals) and also like that of “heavenly beings” (co-operators with the creative forces of the universe). We can think of currently newsworthy examples of each sort and, for most of us, even detect tendencies within ourselves toward both extremes.
Shocked as I have been by the brutality of such as ISIS, my recent readings of more distant historical accounts have been similarly disturbing. A relative with roots in Ohio got me to read, for instance, a book (That Dark and Bloody River by Allan Eckert) about the settlement of the Ohio River Valley. The cruel violence the between the settlers and the Natives surely justifies the description, “dark and bloody.” And any reading of thorough accounts of colonization of Native people by weapon- and sickness-carrying societies will leave the reader aghast at the treatment “different” people inflict on one another (see Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel). Even more obviously, examining the long and continuing practice of enslavement of some humans by others leads to depressing views of what humans can consider to be appropriate. ISIS may be as bad as the worst but they are not isolated or unprecedented examples of humans practicing brutality.
Astonishingly evil as some conduct of Homo sapiens may be, we can be grateful and relieved that our species engages in some radically contradictory actions as well. While the “news” is clearly unbalanced toward the negative to meet and encourage our fascination with threat and misfortune, there are stories every day of unselfishness and kindness extended by humans. Those sorts of actions are much more evident in our daily personal experiences, too. As we go about our ordinary activities we all practice and observe actions aimed at making the circumstances of others easier and more pleasant. Hans Selye, whose research created the radically new foundation for the recognition and treatment of stress, said that a strong motivator of his unrelenting career-long efforts in that area was the gratitude it drew from others. I often find inspiration, something to admire as I read the details of scientific work. It’s similar to the feeling I get when watching exceptional athletes, such as Olympics competitors: I didn’t know humans could do that! What more are we capable of?
The MIT Technology Review website (technologyreview.com) reliably has such intriguing and often uplifting reports; at (http://video.mit.edu/watch/explained-optogenetics-26357/) – or just search for “optogenetics MIT” – you will find, for example, an account of a procedure in which light-sensitive molecules are extracted from one-cell organisms and transplanted into nerve cells. The result is the capability of turning specific nerve cells, or groups of them, off and on with light. This hold great promise for advancing our understanding of the fundamental structures and processes of disease and damage, as well as healthy functioning in the brain. How do humans even get the idea to try something like that, much less to accomplish it? What a species!
If that doesn’t put you in awe of what humans can do, consider this: There is a red object in the sky these nights known as the planet Mars. It was much closer to earth’s orbit in May and so appeared much brighter. It will, beginning in late August 2016, be near Saturn and Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Kamakau-nui-o-Maui (known outside Hawai`i as Scorpio). Its reddish color makes it relatively easy to spot. Please do go out some night soon and have a look at it, and as you do, reflect on the fact that there are nine vehicles (plus several more non-mobile instrument packages) from our planet on Mars’ surface. Until I did the research for this article, I did not know there were so many, but just the fact that there were any at all gave me a feeling of pride and wonder in our species’ abilities to dream up, plan, and execute such marvelous achievements. Compare these accomplishments with the fact that little more than 100 years ago, many knowledgeable and serious people thought the Wright brothers’ efforts to leave the ground in an aircraft were the extremes of foolishness.
Dazzling as technical accomplishments are, distressing as cruelty is, the less tangible qualities of our species are equally powerful. “Wisdom” is an elusive concept, though it is generally admired and appreciated as one of those things of which it can be said, “you know it when you see it.” Stephen Hall has written an excellent survey of traditional and contemporary views of wisdom in his book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. Some of the qualities associated with wisdom will resonate as familiar and attributable to a few people in the public eye and, hopefully, more of our personal acquaintance: emotional stability, a slight bias for optimism, broad understanding of social relationships and the world in general, not taking oneself too seriously, humor, simplicity, a broad and long perspective on life, focus on what deserves priority, generosity, and patience are among terms attempting to capture the essence of wisdom. It is clearly not the same as knowledge; as Hall says, wisdom is not about knowing the best answer, it’s knowing the best approach to an answer. An adage that has stuck with me for many decades: “In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained; in pursuit of wisdom, every day something is dropped.”
Let your memory, your imagination and your observations roam among those you know and among the elements you think of as constituting wisdom. I’ll bet you will find much to admire in them and in yourself as you do so. After all, you are a member of an astonishing species. We must do what we can to live up to our name, Homo/Feminae sapiens.
*I apologize for the gender differentiation. I assume this translation is based on the long-accepted, now embattled practice of using masculine terms as all-encompassing. It could as well be Feminae sapiens.
© Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD, 2016