It’s the 21st of March 2022 and we have the fourth week of war in Ukraine. The red line of what is imaginable is shifting further and further away from what we thought we know for sure, and I’m wondering, what is humane? Is humanity desirable or a threat? We tend to use it for the good, but doesn’t that cover all the bad we cause?
What separates us from the animals, what exactly makes us superior?
Let’s compare ourselves to our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Some facts are well known, like they live in groups, they use and make tools, and they live in Africa. Our ancestors separated from the genetic line of chimpanzees a few million years ago, and we developed into the species Homo sapiens around 300.000 years ago, while on the other side Pan troglodytes, the chimpanzee, developed on another branch of evolution.
The more you read about them, and of course a lot is learned by the work of Jane Goodall, the more you might be shocked how humane they are. The question, how different we are from them, is a hard one. Chimpanzees not only have thumbs, large brains and use tools. They have social behavior, which is far more developed than just following the survival of the fittest.
Group sizes vary from a dozen to over 100, but they also form smaller groups (friends and family I guess) within those groups. Individuals also spend some time alone, or leave a group for good. This in-and-out-of-groups-behavior is called a fission–fusion society, and we would maybe call it just life. Friends, family, alone time.
There are leaders, and rivals, and there are individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy. But there’s also politics to gain power, and there are followers switching sides when a change is near. The leaders are almost solely males. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Chimpanzees are highly territorial and would attack and even kill intruders, or, will intrude other territories and kill members of another group. They are smaller than humans, but stronger. Read how dangerous they are as pets!
Chimpanzees make tools, and they modify tools according to the food source, e.g. using a longer stick for honey of stinging bees, and a shorter one for stingless bees. They sharpen sticks with their teeth. Ripe fruits are sweet, and it is their preferred food, but we also know that they hunt mammals, even monkeys. I must admit that I cannot watch documentaries showing an ape killing a monkey. Oh and male chimps eat more meat than females. I can’t see many differences to us. We all want a place to be, we need food, and safety. And we want our species to be continued. We have leaders to make decisions for the better and to protect us.
Feelings are a bit hard to measure. Mother Chimpanzees would carry a dead baby for days, I believe this is a kind of grief. On the other hand they might not feel bad for the monkey that got caught, because it is necessary food. Chimpanzees feel joy, they are ticklish. They can be jealous too. So are human feelings unique? I’d say no.
I think what we have in common with animals is, that we sell our own grandmother to fulfil our basic needs. We are all programmed to keep our species going, and there is a very small group of individuals around us that we really care about. When our territory is too small, or doesn’t provide enough food, we take someone else’s. When a new leader rules, we follow and forget the old one. This egocentric survival strategy is not human, but natural, or animalistic.
So what do we have on the other side, why are thinking we are better than animals?
First thing I can think of is the use of fire. All living beings are afraid of fire, and only we tamed it. But only we managed to make use of it. Or?
The “firehawks” in Australia knows the benefit of fire, they even spread wildfires to chase their prey of of the bushes. That is pretty amazing! Other predators also know that a bushfire is hunting season, and I guess this is also how humans started to benefit from fire. But none of those animals purposely creates fire, not to cook food, and not to keep themselves warm, not as a source of light. We do, so that is a plus point for us, and it makes our live so much better. We learned to make the most of an opportunity, and now we can hardly live without it. Of course we also use fire for the bad, to burn down rivals houses, to harden wood for weapons, to burn witches, in firearms. Many of our high tech tools wouldn’t be there without fire to melt metal, to fire engines and to produce electricity. But does fire, and the resulting technology make us humane? A war without fire and technology wouldn’t be less brutal, but just different. The reasons for the war stay the same, so I’d say we’re not humane though we have better tools than Chimps have.
How about culture? Is the concept of culture unique? Culture is what developed from our social live. Over the thousands of years we developed behaviors and norms. They form our history, and they provide a guideline how to live in a community. Culture is interesting, it varies even between small regions, and it is of high value. Cultural differences can be seen in very practical things like clothes, architecture, language, crafts, food. It tells you to honor the elderly, how to eat and what to say. Of course cultural differences are reason for conflicts.
Then there is social organization including education and politics. So far so good, but except for clothes, Chimpanzees have all this too, of course on a different level and without documentation. So how would we know if Chimpanzees have a history of a developing language? We already know that different groups show different behaviors, so isn’t that a different culture? Of course we also use technology and politics for the bad, to gain territories, power and wealth. To fulfil our natural needs. So none of those cultural achievements cover our animalistic behavior.
Sports are also part of our rich culture. In a world where physical activities aren’t necessary to gather food and protect the territory, sports offer a way to keep the body functions in order. No doubt sport has a positive effect on the mind, body and mind go hand in hand. Wild animals wouldn’t need that, because they have enough reason to exercise in order to stay alive. Young animals though play a lot, and this is how they learn. So is it human to create a world where playing during adulthood is not only possible, but needed to stay healthy? Does it make us superior, knowing that many people even don’t do enough sports, others prefer watching it, and some using it for aggressive rivalry? I’d say no.
The only things I can think of, what really divides us from animals, are religion and art. I’m not saying that animals wouldn’t believe in anything, perhaps we just haven’t discovered that yet. But I haven’t heard of signs for worshipping saints, or building churches.
Despite what organizations or smaller groups made out of religion, I want to believe that they are honest attempts to establish “humane” rules to social living. Rules that rule out the survival of the fittest, and support the weaker. Not only in the closest group, but in large scale. Of course, being in one group has been and still is reason for us to fight the other group. And other cultural differences also cause conflicts, so the establishment of religion, and our rich culture, did not solve the problems caused by “animalistic” behaviors. Religion came with discord, crusades, misconceptions, on one side, but also brought some degree of charity. It lacks the capability to unite all humans, maybe because of its complexity.
With the background of thousands of years of culture, we are still not living in a humane world.
Does art have the potential to divide us from the animals? Art is a way to express feelings, to share messages and to channel “animalistic” needs. Do birds or whales sing just for fun? Do they tell fictive stories just to entertain others? Do they form sculptures? Maybe.
To me art is a way to defuse animality. It is like a holodeck, or a virtual playground where nobody gets hurt. You can tell false stories about someone in the social media and cause an angry mob of mislead people. You write the same fantasies down as a novel, and people will call it art. An important message might not be heard, but can become a hit when sung in a beautiful song. You want to see yourself as an emperor, get it as a painting or make a film, and no one will get hurt. You lack the feeling of belonging to a strong group? Dance in a musical or sing in a choir. No need for an army fighting others. In arts you can do whatever you feel, without physically hurting anyone. If we would live out our animalistic needs in arts or games, we might have the ability to act more humane in the real world. It could be like parallel universe. We have all these forms of art, but still we have all kinds of issues. It is just a gedankenexperiment, could art stop us from crime? A great example I just found: The Fund for the Arts in Louisville, US.
To me humanity means to hold together, to care for the weaker, and to share. What we do in our families and with some friends. What Chimpanzees do in their group. It is one detail that makes the difference: Being human means to be more than a group of smaller and smaller groups competing, but forming one large social group. We are not one, when rich countries exploit the poor, when skin color is a criteria for anything, when we fight over boarders, and when we even do not share vaccines. Humanity will be something good, when it means all are equal, independent from gender, skin color or origin. Everywhere. We have some moments and places of humanity, but we are not consistent. Not with all the issues like armed conflicts, starvation, oppression. So long we struggle a lot with stepping out of being animals.
If Putin would have learned to control his animality, and if he would have learned that humanity is to seek improvement for all humans, instead of his small group (not even the Russians, but whatever he is close to), he wouldn’t have started a war. Instead he would have promoted his idea of a united region, he would have discussed and worked for a reunion of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or whatever he has in mind. Why not even joining the European Union? That would have been a step to more humanity. Instead, his human mind wasn’t stronger than his animalistic instinct, and he chose to fight for more territory. Who benefits from this war? Hardly anyone, except for the small group around Putin. See how important good education is?
As long as the leaders suppress this idea, to fulfil their own basic needs first, a minority won’t be enough to make the world a better place. We need to find leaders, who go hand in hand and share without rivalry. And we all need to understand, that the world is a better place when we treat ourselves equally. We all would benefit from freedom and peace.
What we all can do, is to work for the good. Constant dripping wears away the stone. Educate and support others, and select your leaders wisely.