Today, I’m musing about the differences between animals and humans. As I was walking along side the onramp to highway 10 in Waupaca, looking for Erin’s—Nancy’s daughter’s—lost wallet, thoughts I rarely have came to me. I noticed I was thinking about how I am different from animals. Normally, I am thinking about the universality of life, about the oneness of it all, about how animals can assist me in understanding this mystery we call life.
In 1818, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explored how we are different than animals, “…we are astonished when the clever orangutan finds a fire to warm itself” he wrote. Today, we know that there is more than 95% to 98% similarity between related genes in humans and apes. Despite all we now know about the ways we are similar to apes, 193 years later orangutans still don’t take their cleverness to the next stage. They fail to maintain the fire. They don’t collect wood or put more wood on the fire.
Over a decade ago, I took a fall and suffered a spinal injury. I have areas of numbness in my left foot. Some days I am aware of the numbness. Some days I’m not. Looking through the stones, weeds, and debris for Erin’s wallet, I realized I was sliding down a familiar “Why-me?” self-pitying mental pathway. The big picture is that this injury has not gotten in the way of all the various physical and athletic activities that I enjoy doing. I have thought for years now about various new habits that I might develop to protect my spine. There is a lot of information suggesting I can prevent these areas of numbness from becoming something worse. For example, regular swimming would increase my overall muscular tone, thereby providing support for my bones, keeping my spinal cord and nerves safe. Core strengthening would do the same. Most recently, I borrowed a teeter inversion device from a friend. I am returning it to him today, because I have used it three times in the 157 days that it has been set up in our basement.
Is there is any animal that would be proactive in doing something to keep a mild, almost non-existent injury, from getting worse? Not one known to me. What a gift I, a human animal, have received to have the ability to know that there are specific steps I can take starting today to avoid a more debilitating injury in the years to come. While I’ve witnessed may animals (particularly cats) survive and heal after mind-boggling injury and damage, they can’t do what we humans can do.
Schopenhauer concluded that “maintaining a fire requires deliberation and cannot be achieved without abstract concepts.” Certain apes and monkeys have been trained and then witnessed to use tokens for trade. This ability to have one object represent something else of value indicates that some animals are capable of abstract thinking. However, think of all the words and numbers—abstractions—to which each of us is exposed to every day in the Age of Information! I have decided, not only to recommit to establishing a habit of preventative physical therapy for my spine, but I am going to try to henceforth muse while using fewer words.
Erin had, like we guessed, accidently left her wallet on top of her car. While the contents had spilled out here and there, nothing was missing or stolen. One of our fellow Wisconsinites found Erin’s wallet and mailed it back to her. May the kindness of a stranger and the wondrousness workings of animals remind us that life is possessed of what Schopenhauer called “the science of beauty everywhere.”
Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 9/1/11.
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