“When you come to think of it,  almost all human behaviour and activity is not essentially any different from animal behaviour. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeros? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question and that’s this: which is the most universal human characteristic? Fear or laziness?”

This is a quotation from the film Waking Life, and to me, it really explores what it means to be human. All these aspects of human life that we do in our day to day lives, even in our most exceptional days, can often be found in the animal kingdom. The film goes further in its observations of the relationship between our daily existence and the so-called lesser evolved beings:

“Excuse me.

‘Cuse me.

Hey, could we do that again? I know we haven’t met, but I don’t want to be an ant. I mean, it’s like we go through life with our antenna’s bouncing off one another, continuously on ant autopilot with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner. “Here’s your change.” “Paper or plastic?” “Credit or debit?” “Want ketchup with that?” I don’t want a straw; I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be an ant, you know?”

What it means to be human: our creativity, our intellect, our imagination, these are what separate us. For the most part, we do live our lives as an ant, with the good days being the ones where we get move slightly up the evolutionary ladder to sun ourselves on a rock like a lizard. The first quotation is actually somewhat optimistic because it assumes that all of us possess the same capacity to achieve human-level greatness, with only mental barriers keeping us from pursuing them. A more pessimistic outlook would be to assume that human beings simply aren’t as developed as we believe ourselves to be, save for the few aberrations that launch new cultural, social, and scientific paradigms who drive us forward.

Which is it? Are we lazy and afraid? Do we all have the drive to think, to create, to explore, but we don’t because we worry others might think it’s stupid? Or that no one will care? Or that we just can’t be bothered? Or do we just simply not have the capacity, and so we live our lives as bestial creatures content with mediocrity because that’s all we’re capable of? I don’t have the answer because I haven’t quite resolved the conflict between my cynicism and idealism just yet.

I don’t mean to suggest that our animal nature is inherently abhorrent. Some of our finer instincts are our more primal ones. But I think we need to prove our superiority; we need to justify our dominance over the planet. What I’m hoping for is that people will genuinely make the effort to explore their distinctive humanity and express that humanity, because fear and laziness are not an excuse to avoid the duty of our species.