Anthropologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists have spent years attempting to discover what differentiates our species from all other forms of life. Growing up I remember hearing we were the only animal that can blush, stemming, I assume, from a unique brand of self-consciousness. At times I have read about our supposed singular ability to laugh or understand complex languages. Other researchers say it is our ability to conceptualize abstract ideas that sets us apart.
As study in this area expands, bit by bit each of these characteristics is showing up in other creatures, although not to the degree found in humans. Gorillas and dogs have shown a capacity for extraordinary understanding of language while chimpanzees express jealousy, aggression and humility. Crows have demonstrated the ability to extrapolate solutions to complex problems through abstract thought and tool use and many mammals show a range of emotions from compassion to hatred to love. All of these are found in each of us as well since, of course, we are all animals.
I have always wondered why we need to see ourselves as unique within the animal kingdom, although this desire to be special seems universal in nature. A part of this surely has to do with our inherent narcissism, a subject incorporated into a vast amount of modern literature and art. Perhaps if we truly understood that Homo sapiens are just a small part of the greater biosphere and to some degree just a walk-on player that has an extremely brief but critical role in the comic tragedy of life’s time on earth, we wouldn’t be so intent on dominating our environment or being known as the “chosen” ones.
So with all of that said, in our attempt to discover our estrangement from our animal brethren, we may indeed be different. I would rather we were not, so I’m hoping some reader might shed light on how the following is not unique to our species, but I believe we are the only creature that simultaneously lives in the past, present*, and future.
[* I have starred the word “present” since technically we cannot live in the moment. Everything we do, feel, think and perceive is based on experience in both the near and far past, collated, filtered, and processed in our minds after the fact and translated into a sense of the immediate. It’s really a mind trick we play unconsciously to keep ourselves engaged and sane. The concept of the present will be a subject for another essay.]
Unlike our recent ancestors (500 years ago and more) the current iteration of humanity surrounds itself with the past; knickknacks, photographs, souvenirs, inherited items, mementos, cultural artifacts, important (at least to us) works of art and on and on. We listen to songs recorded fifty years ago, we watch old movies where all of the players are now deceased, we go to museums to see icons of historical significance, we base our laws on archaic mandates. In Susan Sontag’s wonderful critique titled On Photography, she muses about the unintended impact of capturing all of our memories, all of our relatives, our friends and ourselves on film then visiting them over and over, becoming obsessed with who we were and where we’ve been.
An interesting but convoluted 1991 film by Wim Wender titled, Until the End of the World, has a sequence where people find they can record their own dreams. The film’s premise (at one point) is that once the dreams are recorded, the dreamers become obsessed with watching them over and over until that’s all they do. This is not far from our fixation with our own past.
This extremely recent phenomenon is really only viable in more financially robust civilizations because we have the means and free time to indulge ourselves, so the majority of characteristics mentioned are not systemic, although with the wide dissemination of cell phone technology, the ability to captured an image at any time or in any place, is swiftly becoming global. At the same time, when not ruminating about the way things were, we are attempting to look into some vast crystal ball to predict everything. We don’t want surprises, or at least not nasty ones. We check the weather forecast, stock market predictions, the future availability of just about anything and then make the necessary adjustments based on some sort of prescient notion. We want to know what’s coming down the road, as long as it isn’t a sign of our own mortality. We search for cause and effect! If we do “this” it will result in “that”, leading to an incongruous and usually ineffective attempt to manipulate or foresee the future. We rely on computers, Magic Eight-Balls, psychics, TV prognosticators, and all sorts of other nonsensical paraphernalia to help us clear away any fog shrouding this future.
I don’t think our behavior of warping time is found in termites, sloths, platypus ducks, wolves, whales or any other life form. This basically dysfunctional style of living may be our only way of waving the flag of distinction. It is not a flag I would proudly display, but I can’t change my species, so I think I’m stuck with my nostalgia and my visions of the future. Viva la difference! (I guess).