Animal crackers

Posted: Jun 15, 2006 12:05 PM
I suspect that from the moment that Homo sapiens first stood erect, two questions have plagued mankind. The first of these, I’m willing to bet, was, “Does everybody’s lower back hurt like heck, or is it just me?” and the second was, “What’s that special something that makes us so much better than the other animals?”

Over the years, the answer to the second has changed as the human race has evolved. Our earliest ancestors probably made a big deal out of the fact that they could scratch wherever they itched and could, in certain cases, wiggle their ears.  

At other times, much was made of that all-important opposable thumb. As people became increasingly domesticated, they no doubt began emphasizing the use of handkerchiefs, silverware and after-shave lotion.

With the coming of religion, people began talking about their eternal souls and dismissing as heresy even the suggestion that a four-legged creature could possibly possess such a wonderful thing. Frankly, that’s always struck me as the height of gall, simply because I’ve known so many more dogs than people for whose purity of character I would unhesitatingly vouch.

We humans are never shy about patting ourselves on the back when it comes to our accomplishments. We explore the sea bottom and send a camera to Mars, and we never stop talking about it. The same is true when we build bridges that span rivers and erect structures that soar into the clouds. Not bad, I grant you, for folks who were still riding around on mules, thinking the earth was flat not so long ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if birds marvel at how fast we can fly, and bumble bees probably go nuts trying to figure out how we even manage to get off the ground. But, unlike most of the animal kingdom, we murder for the hell of it, we abuse our children and, for reasons nobody has ever determined, we unleash computer viruses on perfect strangers, we spray graffiti on other people’s walls and, just to be annoying, we blast our horns while driving through tunnels.

One of the chief differences that people point to when they’re feeling particularly superior to the other species is our use of tools. It’s the one example that really gets under my skin. That’s because there isn’t a muskrat alive who doesn’t know his way around tools at least as well as I do.

I know that tools have different names, which strongly suggests they’re used for different purposes. I just don’t know what those purposes could possibly be. In a contest with a clam to determine our relative positions on the evolutionary chart, assuming we finished all the other competitions in a dead heat, I believe I would win the tie-breaker because I could manage to spell “wrench,” even if the clam was more proficient at actually using the darn thing.

Much has been made about the idea that man, alone of all God’s creatures, can contemplate his own mortality. How presumptuous! I’ll wager and even lay odds that when a zebra is being pursued across the veldt by a hungry lion, his own mortality is uppermost in his thoughts.

I think that people are on much safer ground when we puff ourselves up over the fact that only humans are capable of things like parallel parking and making a halfway decent grilled cheese sandwich.

When it comes to summing up what makes us unique, just so doggone exceptional, I find it hard to argue with Mark Twain’s observation that man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.