Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Human Animal

     Every so often, mostly when I'm feeling very comfortable with myself and my supposed role on the planet, I notice something that disturbs me a little. I work in a large office building, and people here are paid a lot of money to scurry around, moving paper from one stack to another, surfing the web trying to look busy, and generally enabling global commerce in the way that corporations do. It's all very important, and it's easy to lose yourself in the idea that you are a cog in a very large machine, single-mindedly focused on a task. Or the idea that you are a very important, modern cog, doing things that your ancestors 50, 100, 1000 years ago couldn't possibly be capable of. And then you leave your cubicle with its tchotchkes and its photos of your wife/husband/dog and you go to the bathroom.
     The bathroom. A room dedicated to fulfilling your biological needs (without making too much of a mess). There's no higher purpose to a bathroom. Sure, some women might use it to touch up their makeup at a restaurant or club, and some men might like to use it as a respite from everyday life, bringing with them the sports page or crossword puzzle. But it's hard to argue that if humans didn't need to expel biological waste from their bodies every few hours, these rooms would exist at all.
     How much of our other rooms are dedicated to our subservience to our bodies and not to our minds? Certainly our kitchens and dining rooms. If we weren't required to eat, if we didn't get hungry, we wouldn't devote that much of our homes (much less our time) to eating. And of course our bedrooms. We spend more time there dead to the world than anywhere else in the house. So what would be left? Living rooms, family rooms, dens, playrooms... A very small portion of most of our homes.
     So how different are we really from our cave-dwelling ancestors? We have more comfortable caves, but to assume we're physically superior is probably delusional. If we still have to sleep and eat and defecate, if we still get sick and old, could our minds be that much improved? For that matter, how much are we different from other animals that sleep and eat and defecate, get sick and get old? Chimpanzees, dogs, elephants, water buffalo... It's a disturbing concept, at least to me. We're just a few creature comforts removed from cavemen. And it's not like most of us have any clue how to procure these things beyond running to Ikea in our Lexus SUV's. If the electricity we out tomorrow and stayed out for good, if gasoline and natural gas went away (which they would without electricity to produce and distribute), how long would it be before our civilization reverted 150 years or more? I say more, because with our current population of 6.5 billion people, a 4-fold increase over the population in 1900, we couldn't possibly feed everyone with 19th century technology.
     That's beyond the point, of course. Doomsday scenarios are fun to read about or watch, in a scary sort of way. There's a whole genre of apocalyptic fiction, from The Matrix to Planet of the Apes to Waterworld. But I prefer to focus on the future. If we want to believe we're better than humans past, what have we done to be better? To remove our need to use the bathroom, to sleep, to die? Some people argue that these are things that make us human. But the Truth is, these are things that make us animal. Humanity, as most of us understand it, is in our brains. Any cockroach can defecate. Only humans are smart enough to do it in the bathroom and flush afterwards.
     Although personally, I find it incredible that we still do so.

5 comments:

sideshow bob said...

I think of bodily functions as the great equalizer. Many people like to think that they are separate from or above nature, and they develop a skewed view of themselves.

For example, there is no debate about whether or not it is right to put any other animal that has a terminal disease and is obviously suffering out of its' misery. Or whether or not it's wise to use scientific technology to control the animal population (I'm refering to birth control here, not "fixing", although our President does make a good argument for the latter just about every time he speaks publicly).

The fact is, in the grand scheme of things, humans are no more significant an animal than any other, except in our estimation. But of course, in our world, ours is the only estimation that matters.

Phil said...

That was a really nice post, Scott.

An ancient Jewish tradition teaches that Pharaoh thought of himself as a god, and would sneak out in the early morning to the Nile to attend to his bodily needs. (Can't let anyone see a god take a leak, right?) Well, Moses would surprise him there to remind him that he was no god.

"when I'm feeling very comfortable with myself and my supposed role on the planet"

What is that role, and who chose it for you? (I took the word "supposed" in the sense of "non-subjective".)

"So what would be left? Living rooms..."

We could be bold and ditch the TV and stock our shelves with meaningful books. Even if we barely read them, just think of the message we'd be sending.

"For that matter, how much are we different from other animals that sleep and eat and defecate, get sick and get old? Chimpanzees, dogs, elephants, water buffalo... It's a disturbing concept, at least to me."

Can you be more specific in how it disturbs you? Also, would you say that part of you agrees that we are fundamentally the same as animals, and part of you thinks we're not?

If Sideshow Bob thinks that his life has the same significance as the common garden slug, that's his problem.

I'm looking forward to your insights.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading, Phil, and specially thanks for commenting.
To answer your questions, my supposed role on Earth is to have a career, raise a family, get rich, and retire young, hopefully to cruise around the caribbean in my twilight years. Who chose it? American society.
As far as what disturbs me, it's the idea that the comfort in which we live is artificial. It can be taken away in the blink of an eye. People don't behave as if the comforts of modern life are ephemeral, that act as if they are God-given rights that have always been and will always be there.
We are the same as animals, in many respects. But we have the ability to transcend that - to rise above our basic needs. Squirrels spend their days fulfilling their physical needs. Humans have the potential to spend less time focusing on those animal needs and more time focusing on what makes us so unique in this world.

Phil said...

"... my supposed role on Earth is to have a career, ... Who chose it? American society."

I'd love to hear what /you/ choose.


"People don't behave as if the comforts of modern life are ephemeral, that act as if they are God-given rights "

I know what you mean. It's interesting to meet people who see them as /blessings/ instead.

"We are the same as animals, in many respects. But we have the ability to transcend that - to rise above our basic needs... Humans have the potential to ... focus on what makes us so unique in this world."

It sounds like you kinda believe in the notion of a soul.

By the way, I posted at your is-it-hypocrisy-or-irony link.

ORF said...

Hey Scott, this is in response to your post about bathrooms and cavemen...

It's funny you wrote about this, because about the time you wrote it was about the time I was in India realizing that we don't really need a whole bunch of the things we all have in this country to really live. And bathrooms in India are an afterthought for sure because I saw COUNTLESS people pooping, peeing, blowing their noses, etc. on the sidewalk or by the train tracks. Granted, most of the people who do this are extremely poor, but in general, um "expressing" one's bodily functions is a totally un-private and unceremonial thing there and it just baffled me to no end. and also made me wonder what led us to fetishize it to the extent we do in the West. I can't really answer that, but it was something I thought about more than I'd care to admit. And let's not get started about the fact that they don't use toilet paper EVER, but rather their hands.......