It’s a beautiful, clear and calm December morning. As I pedaled my way toward some morning coffee, I felt a familiar sense of solitude even as I traversed city streets, dodged the slow-driving church traffic, and rode through passages of silence save for the cooing of mourning dove and the cawing of chatty crows.
I think it was both the exposure to nature that bicycle riding offers combined with the man-engineered machine of metal and rubber which carried me that put me in the mind of my complicated human relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom.
I’ve been thinking lately that it would be better if more humans thought of themselves as animals rather than as god’s special creatures. My assumption is that this would make us better humans: more humane, more humble and, therefore, more realistic and compassionate. I’m projecting, of course, because this is the effect such an understanding has had on me. (I cannot be certain it would have the same beneficial effect on everybody else, but I hope).
But as I rode and pondered that idea this morning, I realized the difficulty we have in seeing ourselves as just one among the myriad other living, breathing creatures that we share this planet with.
Perhaps an apt illustration for this difficulty might be a pendulum that slowly swings from one end of its arc to the other, with one end representing an awareness of all that we share with our animal cousins and the other end the great gulf of consciousness and culture that separates us from our barking, mooing and caw-cawing cousins.
I’m sure many of us have experienced those moments of awareness when a passage in a book or a nature program on television blows our mind a bit with a demonstration of the behaviors we share with other primates, for example, or our DNA links with everything from lettuce to mice. It is in these moments that I am overcome with a sort of global feeling that “I’m no different from any other animal”. But then I climb into my car, or open my refrigerator or take a dose of modern medicine and consider just how far this species of ape has come in the last few thousand years (or, in the case of cars, refrigerators and medicine, the last hundred years!), and I am suddenly swinging back the other way, away from my feelings of deep kinship with dolphins and whales.
But soon enough, I’ll run across another fact or witness another behavior in my self or in another animal, and the pendulum is pulled back in that direction.
It reminds me of a moment, years ago, as I was driving (not riding!) up University Avenue. Approaching an intersection, I was aware of catching some dim bit of light out of the corner of my eye — in my peripheral vision. At the time, I was well into my post-christian years, but was still working out what those years had meant to me, and how best to make sense of the phenomena that I had taken to be evidence for my beliefs.
It was through that moment of peripheral vision that I suddenly understood “where god lives”. For the idea of god lives in the peripheral vision, as it were, of our consciousness, like a faint star in the night sky. Meaning that whenever we look right at it, the light is too faint to be perceived and, therefore, is not available for full scrutiny. In the same way, if we turn our heads from it, it is gone as well. But in the space in-between the direct gaze and the turned head, god will always flicker like that faint star: impossible to prove or disprove, and impossible to ignore.
I say impossible because the more I learn about the subject, the more I have to accept that irrational belief is so much a part of the consciousness of our species that it would be only slightly less irrational to believe in its near-term eradication than to believe in UFO’s or the power of “aligned” stars to determine personality and whether one will have a four star day or not.
And so even as I begin to get my mind around the limitations of the human mind (and see in ever greater detail how much we over-sell the capacities of our primate brain even as we under-appreciate the evolutionary wonder of what we can do with the animal equipment we’ve got) I hold out less hope that a critical mass of humans will suddenly “come to their senses” and start making long-term choices based on reason and the best science and behave in the way I think they should.
Which, of course, swings my pendulum back to seeing humans as animals acting out of raw instincts that, in our present circumstance, are much more likely to get us killed than assure our survival.
In that respect we are first of all defensive and aggressive creatures, with friendship and generosity our secondary (albeit impressive) response to strangers and challenging situations. It is our reason that has allowed us to moderate our aggression and develop the bonds of social trust that allow us to live in cooperative communities both large and small.
Acknowledging this, my pendulum swings again toward our exceptional status in the animal world. Yet even within our social structure, the bared tooth and fang are ever ready to be deployed when we feel threatened.
And so back and forth it goes.
But that is the place of we humans in the animal world. We are both common and exceptional at the same time. (Just as we are unique personalities that feel both special and common as dirt at different times in our lives).
Our capacity to have such thoughts about ourselves is one of the things that makes not only the pendulum swing, but allows the internal “pendulum” to exist at all! And we can still assume that this aspect of our consciousness is one of the major things that sets us apart from our non-bicycle riding animal cousins. For now, at least.