Meditations: What Separates Us from Chimps?

Published: Mon 15 Dec 2003 10:43 AM
Meditations (Philosophy) - From Martin LeFevre in California
What Separates Us from Chimps?
The amusing declarative headline in a prominent California paper read: ''What separates us from chimps.'' Indulging in a tautology, I am tempted to say that what separates us from chimps is separating ourselves from chimps, and everything else.
That is not only redundant however. It also begs the question: how did humans, who evolved as part of nature, become such a destructive factor to nature, and each other?
It seems scientists have pinpointed a few of the differences in the 1% of DNA we do not share with our closest primate cousins. There appear to be "accelerated evolutionary changes" in genes associated with speech, hearing, and brain development.
For example, there is evidence that hearing in humans was "specially tuned by natural selection to make possible the elaborate spoken language capability unique to humanity."
It is doubtful however, that teasing out tiny genetic differences will ever give us a better understanding of ourselves. Besides, even in terms of aggression and war, humans and some species of chimps (bonobos have pacific and loving natures) may not be different at all.
Primatologists have observed certain species of chimpanzees engaging in planned hunting of other primates--smaller and not as smart rhesus monkeys. Jane Goodall has observed, to her horror, the systematic extermination of one group of chimps by a rival group.
There is something inherently anthropocentric in seeking to find "the essence that makes us human." The phrase contains the idea embedded within it that the power humans wield over other animals somehow makes us special. Given what we're doing to the planet, it could mean just the opposite.
The cheesy series of "Planet of the Apes" movies did have one interesting idea. The basic premise of the series (I lost track after four) was that if other apes were as smart as us, they would be just as ruthless and speciesist as humans are. If Goodall's observations are any indication, then that idea has legs.
This raises another question: given the right conditions and enough time, does nature inexorably produce consciously thinking species that then inexorably foul and denude their planets?
As a person who has had what I'm loath to call "mystical experiences" since I was 17, I must introduce another dimension into this debate. When the brain is completely quiet in unforced, unwilled attention, there is awareness of what can only be called sacredness.
It isn't God-as-deity, but an unknowable essence that permeates the universe. Time and space, matter and energy are seen and felt as an undivided movement in wholeness, with compassion intrinsic to it.
I feel no need to convince anyone of the existence of sacredness, even if there was a way I could say anything more about it, which there isn't. But it is a great curiosity to me that the human brain, which is tearing everything apart, is also capable of being consciously aware of an essence beyond all knowledge and knowing.
Perhaps that defines the "riddle of man," which each of us must resolve in our own hearts. That is, a brain capable of conscious thought, whose basic principles are separation and manipulation, is a prerequisite for awakened consciousness. The very big bump in the road to awakening, however, is the tendency of creatures possessing the powerful gift of thought to fragment everything to hell.
There is another, more deeply implicit question that must be asked: is the pressure on every one of us for transmutation growing in direct proportion to the plundering of the planet? My feeling is that it is, and that "accelerated evolutionary changes" are going on as we speak. What an age is this!
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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