With the global pandemic that has us all in a lockdown, I decided to enroll in an online course to retain and enhance the capabilities of my last two brain-cells. The course is titled HOPE, ironic given the times we are in, but it is actually an abbreviation for Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism. It’s a self-paced course conducted by Princeton University. HOPE offers to help understand humanity better – by delving into distinctly human characteristics and borrowing ideas from philosophers and political scientists to augment these claims. Allow me to take you on this journey with me.
Let’s begin with what is it that makes us distinctly human.
Apart from all the monotheistic religions teaching us that we were made superior to other creations, how can we support this rather tall claim? Genetically we are identical to chimps and bonobos, our social complexity and intelligence is also exhibited by dolphins and apes, we can cooperate en masse but so can ants and chimps. Is our divergent array of emotions unique to us? Animal behaviorists shatter this myth by proving that animals experience joy, grief, jealousy, anger and display moral behavior patterns such as empathy, trust and reciprocity.
A female gorilla in a German zoo spent days mourning the death of her baby. Aristotle, in all his wisdom, claimed that it is rationality that sets human beings apart from other species and many philosophers followed suit. However, this notion is now rejected by biologists.
Animals have depicted perfect understanding of causal relationships, e.g. why else would a gazelle run away from a lion? Chimpanzees have proven themselves to be rational maximizers in various psychological experiments. Besides, to state the obvious: machines are and will always be the epicenter of rationality till the end of humanity (which could be sooner than we all anticipated).
So perhaps it’s our ingrained political nature that sets us apart? That depends partly on how we define politics. If it’s a public struggle over power, such that one wants to have their way despite resistance, as observed by Max Weber, then is politics not just as dominant in animal kingdom as it is in human beings?
The point for us to ponder, perhaps, is: can we conceive of a kind of politics that foregrounds our humanity? Do we have it in some parts of the world? If not, what all can we do to achieve it?
Animals possess these characteristics individually, but only human beings possess the combination of all of these mentioned above. Additionally, the difference lies in the degree of variation: animals have a primitive and limited capacity to hold these traits but human beings can do so in abundance. So how do we make the most of our genetics, social complexity, intelligence, ability to cooperate, rich emotional lives, rationality and political values?
We create art and culture. Animals can only transmit evolution via genes but we humans possess the unique ability to project and transmit knowledge through creative means.
Yung Pueblo observes that real freedom is not just doing what you want or the ability to fulfill your goals
Even in this pandemic, we have a newfound love for culture – perhaps, even, now more than ever. A lot of us have taken respite in colours, shows and games to avert the focus from the constant hassle of news around us. What a time to be alive!
With everyone practicing social distancing all over the globe, the rat race has come to a halt. The meetings, the deadlines, the late hours are all perhaps a necessity to survive but they also leave us with no time to sit with our thoughts and monitor how our brains work. When you are not consumed to your core about ticking off the checklist that will ensure a “successful” life, you may have to do the harder thing and embrace the liberating uncertainty that comes from letting go.
Before the lockdown, we had endless possibilities and the freedom to choose. The possibilities may have been taken away from us, but we still have the freedom to choose. Yung Pueblo observes that real freedom is not just doing what you want or the ability to fulfill your goals, but is in fact in not causing yourself unnecessary mental stress or falling into delusional thinking.
How can we structure our lives to consciously shift our focus to thoughts that make our day better? Instead of projecting our own anxieties and fears onto other people, we can try to practice mindfulness. How about we look inward and try to cultivate a sense of clarity, an objectivity that teaches us that we don’t need that much scaffolding to survive? How can we become more self-sufficient? Why must half the population’s life revolve around serving the other half?
Human beings were just one of the many species put on this Earth but we lived and thrived at the expense of all others. So many natural habitats were destroyed to sustain our lifestyles without any care for consequences. Could this pandemic be our comeuppance?
Now would be a good time to start thinking about these questions. Here’s to hoping that we learn our lessons of the harmonies of coexistence, and when life returns to some measure of normal, may we come out as an evolved and more compassionate species that do not use the weaker members or other branches of life as the steppingstone to supplement their own.