Whether we’re plumbers for the average American household toilet, conEdison workers figuring out why the damned plug isn’t working, landlords complaining about the tardiness that magically overcomes their tenants when payday comes rolling around, or CEOs of prodigious companies overseas, we are all human.
Homo sapiens. A species prone to incomparable sensation, breakneck brain function, and authoritative decision-making capabilities. A species with quirks beyond imaginable and a drive genetically enhanced for optimum survival. But the fundamental life question still comes into play each time we look out the window at any vast expanse of greenery or sweeping plane of water. Why are we human? How are we different than the deer that roam about on highways, the dogs we have domesticated, the pigs and chickens we slaughter for their meat? How are we different than our college dorm mates, that random passenger on the bus, our grad school English Literature professor? Why am we who we are? Why am I me?
Some argue that it’s science that defines who we are. Anatomy. The inside of a human is so pungently distinctive from that of an ape’s, or a chimpanzee’s, or even another human’s. Firm advocates of science focus on the brain, a human’s proudest organ, when searching for an answer to the basic philosophical query. The human brain is the largest of all animals when it is compared to the corresponding body size. One-tenth of our entire body is comprised of this one organ that operates for us, thinks for us, prepares for us, reacts for us.
Human brains have about 5 main sections. The right and left hemispheres are split by the corpus collosum, a wide length of fibers bridging between the two sides. In front is the aptly named frontal lobe, which harbors personality and association areas for thoughts and memories. On the top of our skull lies the parietal lobe, maintaining speech and understanding. Above our ears are the human temporal lobes, coordinating the sensory sites for hearing. Hidden underneath the back of our skulls, like an unpolished gem, is the occipital lobe, in charge of visual acuity and corresponding sensory phenomena. The final and perhaps most important part of the brain sojourns beneath all the lobes, decisively leading down into the spinal cord. Our limbic system and brainstem, made up of some seemingly insignificant organs that don’t look it, but contribute a huge amount to our overall wellbeing and survival. The amygdala, managing all the nasty emotions like anger, fear, and surprise. You don’t want this to be triggered, especially not in a hormonal female. Gentlemen, take note. On a more serious note, the medulla oblongata, a funny name, a not so funny function. If disturbed, this thing could mess up your involuntary bodily functions, such as your eyes blinking, your nose breathing, and yes, your heart beating. Next up, the cerebellum, commonly (and jokingly) referred to by many biologists as the “little brain,” it controls basic motor skills and balance. More fine-tuned motor skills are managed by the central nervous system, through the passage of motor neurons firing after receiving ‘messages’ from sensory neurons located throughout your body.
This collaboration of organelles and cells make, as scientists so fervently claim, humans human. They claim it to be science that can explain why we are smarter than other animals, why we can form civilizations, why we can utilize technology to its fullest potential. And that part may be true. But then you ask. Why is it that we don’t practice cannibalism most of the time? Why is it that we have specific gender roles, some more severe than others? Why is it that we have a hierarchy where the poor and deplorable suffer while the rich and sometimes undeserving benefit? Those questions can’t be answered by science, and while biologists and chemists may sit scratching their heads, you can be open-minded. Since science can’t answer all of our philosophical uncertainties, let us look for a different approach. See the human through another lens.
Language. Humans have a written and spoken language, unlike the animals. We are unique in that we can speak, record, and manipulate a conjoined set of strokes on a piece of paper to gather meaning from it. Global evidence can be seen in the studies done by renowned professors and researchers worldwide on children raised without human contact, either in isolation or by another species. The studies proved that humans have a distinct learning age for language, proving right (or wrong) the hypotheses of both John Locke, who proposed the ability to learn language is possible despite age, and Noam Chomsky, who promoted the idea of an innate language acquisition device at birth. Speaking individually, a person’s language can set them apart from so many others.
Communication relies heavily on the ability to understand each other, and language is the primary factor in how we comprehend each other. We have over 100 languages in the world, not counting the hundreds of dialects (from different parts of the country where the mother language is spoken) that have formed over the years. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Russian, Hindu, Swahili, British, English, just to name a few. Thus we can be divided from the animals and into smaller groups, but how can each one of us distinguish one another from the next person who also speaks our dialect? Language is who we are, but if you think about it, is that all really you amount to? I believe that we are more than just the words that come out of our mouth and the way they come out.
Religion. After all, we fight great wars for it. Why wouldn’t it be able to explain why we are who we are? You are what you believe in, as so many great gurus have once said. A frame of mind. A set of values. We’ll never know if animals have religion like ours, but it can be affirmatively said that ours is the most intricate of them all. Religion has shaped world history so immensely during the era of the Earth. Animism that worshiped nature and spirits, Roman paganism that featured 12 gods and goddesses based off of Ancient Greek mythology, Confucianism that stressed filial piety and education, and a plethora of others. Religious ‘homelands’ were sacred to a specific sect of people and taking that away from them meant war. The Crusades, fought between Muslims and Christians, waged thousands of people against each other in order to secure Jerusalem, or the more current Palestinian-Israeli conflict for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Shi’a and Sunni Muslims constantly instigated clashes with the opposing party, reason being their dissimilar views on Islam. Hereditary disputes led to civil war in tens of hundreds of small city-states. Imperialism wasn’t much of a religion, but it can readily be classified as a belief that led countries to oppressive tactics in an attempt to satisfy their overwhelming greed. The Spanish believed that they were superior to the Native Americans, and so slaughtered and displaced them without so much a moment’s hesitation. White man’s burden was a similar belief that caused Arnold Kipling to transcribe the now famous poem under the same name as the ideology, then leading for European country after European country to go out into the world and force their way into lands that were already securely inhabited. Nevertheless, religion is only another part of your mindset, however dominant it may be in some people. It could never account for your entire being. Thus, our original question remains uncovered- and unanswered. Let us continue pursuing that elusive definition.
What about emotion? True, the joys and sadness of life do make up a lot of who we are. In various studies about ‘feral children’ from around the world, it has been derived that children who were raised without human contact whatsoever were generally incapable of experiencing emotion as fully as ‘normal’ humans do. Compassion, kindness, anger, happiness, depression, shame, guilt, sorrow, joy, the list goes on. And on. Ancient Greek mythology noted emotions such as revenge, spite, and envy to be illnesses that would plague mankind for millennia. Sumerian, Roman, and early Olmec and Aztec polytheistic gods were excruciatingly fickle, a quality given to them by the original creators of oratory myth, in what many historians believe to be an attempt to humanize them. Obviously, they play a huge part in the lifestyle of humanity, and contribute principally to how we can separate ourselves from other species that roam the planet. Each person can respond to the same stimulus differently. While you may start wrinkling your nose in disgust at a cheesy romance film, the next person can just as easily begin crying hysterically at the heartfelt tone of the movie. You might experience high indifference at a typical city landscape, while I might ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ with delight. Emotions make us the same, yet at the same time they set us apart from one another. Closely linked with personality, emotions are the silent but deadly catalyst of all levels of conflict: physical, mental, and verbal. However, they can only account for what you do in the present. Only your ‘now’ is affected by your emotions; only in your present can you react to the stimuli thrown your way. Almost there, but not quite.
Memories? Interesting take. We will never know for sure, but we can suppose that animals do not have the same encoding proficiencies as us. The sheer size difference in our brains gives further evidence that our memories as humans are much more detailed and vivid than those of the animals. As science would have it, we have much greater capacity for both trivial and substantial information; our power to retain knowledge of past events is unequalled in the animal kingdom. Each one of us has a unique collection of memories from our past; no one’s “full stack” is quite the same. Our hippocampus directs the short-term memory, before it is filed away into long term memories in the previously discussed association areas. We are generally able to remember our past after the age of 3 or 4. Before that is a blur scientists label the infantile amnesia period, where you really can’t recall anything because your brain hasn’t developed enough. After that, our memory spans anything and everything, but still varying depending on personal neurological characteristics. Usually flashbulb memories, or memories that stand out strongly because of their link to a particular emotion or feeling, make up the majority of what we can recollect from our earlier years in life. For instance, I can remember my first day in pre-kindergarten, when I met my best friend for the first time. I remember the colors of the foam puzzle carpet that lay strewn across the floor, the wooden smell of the individual cubbies, and even the tiny pink and white shoes I was wearing at the time. I can remember painting strange twisted roses with my childhood friend as a gift for our second-grade teacher, the pride I felt when the blob of red paint on the page took on a shape that resembled less an amoeba and more a flower. My best friend’s mom’s daycare; the white rickety stairs leading down to the basement; the soft luminosity of the bathroom light that he always claimed he would change but never did; the bleached lace-filled room upstairs he and I would go to study for an upcoming test by quizzing each other relentlessly. Just as how my memories reflect my life and the things important to me, my brother’s memories reflect his. Maybe he remembers with utmost clarity the first day he fell into the pond by our house, the frigid air, the laughter of his friends on the banks, the weight of his clothes dragging him down. Maybe he remembers the regret at being team captain and not choosing one particular boy to be in his group, because that boy was always alone, and then realizing that boy’s cousin had just died and he himself had a strong learning deficiency. Wait. That’s actually my memory, but you get the idea. Our memories make us who we are. And they define us from the other animal species. Personally, I think memories are a great indication of who we really are. They hold snapshots of our world: the things we hold closest to our heart, the stimuli from the outside world, our reactions to them, our perceptions of the thoughts of others, our personality, our family, our friends. Distinct from all else, your memories are something that can never be taken away from you by another person. They’re yours and only yours. They’re your gift from that greater being up there spinning our fates.
But then the argument claims that it’s only your past. The older you are, the more memories you will accumulate over the years, but the same also applies to the opposite: younger people have fewer memories. So the young look towards the future, which is not encompassed under the span of what you can remember. Therefore, memories alone can’t be the answer.
Alone. That’s the key. If just memories cannot answer the question of who we are, why not combine memories, emotions, physiology, language, and religion. Together they have the power to explain life’s greatest and most essential inquiry. Why are we who we are? What makes us who we are? Your emotions, paving the way sporadically with highs and lows. Your memories, cradling your past as gently as the barely-there touch of a mother to her newborn. Your language and your religion, boosting the emotive quality of the present. Your physiology, representing the foundation of your future, and your personality formulating the details along the road. Your world, your life, your… you.