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What Makes Us Human?


Out of billions of animals living on earth, seven billion are people. Now, we are most easily identified as people through our different anatomy. But what makes us human in terms of mind and behavior? How can we be sure that animals do not think, or do the same? We cannot. But we do not see animals being so curious, sentimental and capable that they are inventing, feeling, expressing, the way humans are. And so a line is drawn: our undying curiosity, conflicting emotion, and artistic expression, are features that identify us as human.

Unlike other species, our advanced perception grants us a vast consciousness that increases our curiosity, and allows us to develop. We are aware of more than what pertains to our existence. This causes us to question everything, and the answers we find help us evolve. We may not know if a turtle, hypothetically, sitting next to Isaac Newton under the apple tree wondered, just like he did, how an apple fell and hit his head. But we do know that it was not the turtle, but Newton who was able to establish three laws of gravity from simply an apple and the question: “Why?” Understanding gravity helped us create and learn new things: airplanes, seatbelt safety, etc. From new knowledge, we continually grow and develop. The way we perceive things is thus considered more advanced than animals, because in addition to acknowledgement, we always inquire “why”. We are aware of what we do not know, and that consciousness will keep us looking for answers that ultimately nourish our intellectual growth and evolution.

Not only are we curious, but also we are emotional. According to authors Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson of the book Animals in Translation, the difference between human and animal emotion is that animals are not ambivalent. It may be pointed out that animals do have emotions, but the extent of which humans feel complicated emotions is rather incomparable. For example in the autobiographical novel Night by Elie Wiesel, Elie thinks of his father: “But at the same moment this thought came into my mind: ‘Don’t let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself.’ Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.” Elie is thus faced with numerous emotions: Doubt – Is taking care of his father worth it? Fear – What if he is taken away? Shame – How could he have selfishly thought of abandoning his loving father? Anger – Where was God to protect them? Hopelessness – He was going to die. His father was going to die. And lastly, love – the propelling emotion that kept Elie at his father’s side. Elie’s conflicting emotions are an example of the ambivalence that divides human and animal emotion.

We have talked about perception. We just talked about emotion. Together the expression of emotion and perception in abstract and artistic forms also characterises us as humans. We can express feeling through language, art, religion, dancing, you name it. In the novel Animal Farm, George Orwell conveys his political opinions through the simplicity of a fairytale. This fairytale conveys an individual opinion or feeling in a unique way, for others to understand. In the world today we see it in graffiti street art, fashion statements on the runway, in cartoons, novels, songs, poems. There is, and should be, always a voice.

A Banksy piece shows two soldiers cautiously and discreetly spray painting a peace sign in red, showing their desire for peace and not war.

Really, it is important to understand who we are. Knowing what makes us human allows us to accept ourselves and embrace each other. So allow yourself to feel. Encourage yourself to explore. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back. Sing or dance or write your heart out, regardless of if you are gifted. At the end of the day, we are all the same curious, passionate people, constantly evolving. That is what makes us human.

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Sally Jin
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Sally Jin is a 17 year old pun/meme enthusiast and avid daydreamer based in Shanghai, China. She does rugby and basketball, and loves playing with her dogs, making and appreciating all forms of art, and exploring the city with friends during her free time.

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