A few years ago when the son was in kindergarten, I attended a class room show-and-tell in which their works of art were displayed. Endearing pictures of zebras, horses and assorted flora and fauna painstakingly done, were being showed off brilliantly by the children. When I drew up close to the son’s painting, I paused. There in the corner of his painting were several people with rainbow colored faces. I loved the idea, and asked him why they had rainbow colored faces, to which he said, “Our teacher said to put colored people in our drawings.”
I turned to his teacher, and she nodded smiling, “Yes, I did for diversity, but I didn’t expect this!” My heart warmed at his interpretation.
I loved it! How beautiful and void of prejudice we are as children.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
I started reading Henry Thoreau’s book, Civil Disobedience, last week, and I must say the first chapter itself has me drawn in. “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
A few sentences later he says again, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing however ancient can be trusted without proof.”
Savoring the sentences and thinking of the rainbow colored faces in the son’s drawing made me think. What would it take for us to learn what it is to be human? It seems to me like to understand deeper, we need to rely on Science: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Any phenomenon not readily understood suffers from the same problems. Could there be a better way to gauge our human-ness?
Structurally, we are containers for cells, possess neurons for consciousness, and use language for communication between one another. But this puts us in no different a category than octopus, dogs, elephants, whales or dolphins. Most marvelous creatures on Earth have evolved from the same set of conditions the planet has been subjected to, and are hence remarkably similar in these aspects. In fact, we are limited in so many abilities than our far-more abled canine friends or bird friends when it comes to smell, colors and noise frequencies.
Here is a fun game to be played by all age groups:
The High Frequency Hearing Game
Quoted from The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery:
Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness asserts that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”, and that “nonhuman animals, including all birds and mammals and many other creatures, including octopuses also possess these neurological substrates.”
Chemically speaking, I suppose we can attribute Oxygen, Nitrogen, Carbon etc as major components of the human body. But this too, is not unique to us on Earth. Many lifeforms use the same structural elements for life.
Composition of the Human Body
Culturally, we have ideologies so different, yet so similar. Most religions have stories of a big flood (starting from the epic of Gilgamesh, to the Matsya avatar in Hinduism, to Noah’s Ark), our mythologies have similar creatures (how then could we have dragons in Chinese mythology and Norse mythology?) The fossils found in each region seem to have contributed to the myths (Sankhu / Chakra myths originate from nautilus fossils found in the Himalayas). Is myth-making then the only human identifying factor (I don’t think so, for whales songs have tonal informational bits having the same length of an Iliad or Odyssey – some whale songs have been known to be taught from generation to generation and last over an hour long).
The differences in skin colors too, are no more than an evolutionary necessity – the UV light in different areas of the earth, and ability of the skin to absorb Vitamin D in areas of high or low sunlight is primarily the factors that determine these.
The Biology of Skin Color (The link between human evolution over time; the ability to adapt to different levels of UV radiation in the tropics vs the poles; and its correlation with absorption of Vitamin D is explained in this video)
I come back to the question of what does it mean to be human? What is our unifying factor? On this globally unified Earth, can we all just find a way to get rainbow colored skin?
P.S: The son touchingly drew this drawing again when he saw me writing this post: