Click the video above for 2 minutes of background waves while reading.
I like to walk on the beach. It is good for the mind, body, and soul – and refreshing on my feet.
I enjoy being alone on the beach in the early morning. The air is fresh and crisp, plus fellow beach walkers are few and far between. The sun is low in the sky, therefore not intense. My mind is clear because the day has not filled it with clutter.
These conditions and looking over the vast water offer a time when the mind can contemplate deep thoughts – even philosophical ones. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Where are we going? Is there life after death? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of humanity? What makes humans unique? What qualities make humans human?
The last two questions occupy my mind as I stroll the packed sand while waves wash over my feet. What qualities distinguish us from other living things? On the other hand, let us not forget the many characteristics we share with other living things.
My biology background influences my thoughts. Biological classification comes to mind. Do you remember kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? How about its mnemonic device: Katy put cat out for getting smart? Biologists use this system to classify living things based on similarities and differences in structure. Do you recall seeing scientific names (in Latin) at zoos, botanical gardens, and plant nurseries?
I think about how humans are animals first, but far from the only ones. We also join other animals as vertebrates and mammals – and we are not the only primates. We finally get to the genus Homo, but we aren’t the only members of that genus. Have you heard of Neanderthals?
We, humans, are Homo sapiens – a unique organism. Let us not forget that the living world is full of organisms having their uniqueness. After all, red maple trees’ unique characteristics separate them from other maple species. Each of the different clam species is also unique. Uniqueness is not exclusive to humans, but we have our uniqueness.
I walk the beach with two feet and swinging arms to help maintain my balance. My upright spine, bowl-shaped pelvis, and specialized feet do free my hands to do a multitude of tasks. These are uniquely human.
Most of our cells have 23 like-pairs of chromosomes composed of DNA. More pairs are not better or worse. Besides, a handful of other organisms also have this chromosome number – so that does not make us unique.
Comparing DNA shows our commonality with the crabs, fish, birds, and jellyfish that I see, but small DNA differences lead the way to make us human – and our uniqueness.
Some will say our language is part of our uniqueness. However, we know other animals have verbal and nonverbal communication. I think about the many words and vocal fluctuations we use – let alone the number of different languages and dialects. Surely our voice box structure must be unique.
We not only can learn other languages, but we can also express ourselves through writing, symbols, many art forms, and a variety of technologies. After all, I’m posting this on a blog to be read and commented on by others around the world and in real time.
I pass a small sand crab with uniquely specialized structures diligently working to construct a hole. I wonder if the crab uses any tools. Then again, maybe its unique structures are its tools.
We know that using tools is not uniquely human. Cracking open a nut with a rock is one thing, but how many other organisms can redesign the tool to improve it? What other organisms can make a tool to make other tools? How many other organisms can design and construct a complex machine that is a series of tools?
I think about how we humans have a sense of morality – a conscience of right and wrong – a sense of fairness, cooperation, and reliance on others with accompanying reciprocity. We aren’t the only social organisms, but do other social organisms take interaction to our level?
I think about how humans not only have a culture, but a variety of cultures fill the human world. Cultures are about shared attitudes, values, social norms, conventions, goals, behaviors, beliefs, celebrations, and social practices shared by people in a time and place. This includes aspects of life such as language, food, dress, customs, arts, music, rituals, mannerisms, behaviors, attitudes, and more – even laws. Humanity has many cultures today – and even more when looking through the lens of history.
The past six paragraphs lead me to that gray and white wrinkly mass between our ears. The human brain isn’t the largest – so size doesn’t matter. Other animal brains also have extensions of nerves and senses detecting their outer and inner environments. However, our more developed outer cortex allows us to understand and interact with our world. Human interaction requires communication, reasoning, problem-solving, social relations, imagination, emotions, creativity, and culture. Yes – the human brain is much of our uniqueness.
What other organisms can build a museum to display their creations or look back at history? What other organisms can ponder deep philosophical questions and even establish meaning? What other organisms can think about these thoughts while walking on the beach, then record them for publishing on a blog to be read globally? These feats are due to our uniqueness – uniqueness courtesy of our brain. No wonder we are Homo sapiens: the one who knows – who is wise.
We are pretty good at developing many technologies, but also at enhancing technologies and dealing with a wide variety of its problems. Of course, I must also recognize that history shows that many of these uniquely human traits also have a lengthy list of downside possibilities. Let us also not forget the negative displays of humanity’s dark side we see daily.
While walking today, I saw dolphins in the sea, pelicans diving into the water, seagulls soaring, sanderlings scampering, and a heron staring out to sea. All of them with characteristics that are uniquely them. However, I do not doubt that our ability to be philosophical and think about and develop meaning is something they can’t do. Toss in theological and philosophical aspects complicates any discussion, but those thoughts are abstract enough, I question if any other living organism can deeply ponder these thoughts.
Focusing on human uniqueness has been deep and worthy of my time. For me, the day is still young, so I will be returning because I like walking on the beach, which is good for the mind, body, and soul – and refreshing on my feet.
See what other bloggers have posted about Humans
- What is Human? (an essay)
- All Humans are We (a poem)
- A Meditation of Being Human in an Endless World of Possibilities (an essay)
- What Separates Humans from Animals (an essay)
- Bond of Humanity (a poem)
Next Post: Humans v2 – Wednesday 16th November @ 1 AM (Eastern US)