Testing, testing. Are you a full human?
How a fictional test for human-ness can give meaning to our lives.
Hey everyone, wishing you a happy longest-day-of-the-year at the end of this week (at least to those of you in the northern hemisphere). Get out in the sun!
This week, we’re looking at the most important factor that sets humans apart from animals. Nope, not opposable thumbs. I’m not even talking about our self-awareness, but you’re getting closer. Let’s get into it!
FROM THE AGES
“Whenever you get an impression of some pleasure, as with any impression, guard yourself from being carried away by it, let it await your action, give yourself a pause.”
—Epictetus, Enchiridion, 34
The novel Dune opens with the young prince, Paul, being subjected to a test. He has to place his hand in a box that induces the worst pain imaginable, beginning as a prickling tingle that grows into such a burn that Paul is convinced his flesh is completely singed off and his bones are charred to dust. To pass the test, he must keep his hand in the box for the prescribed duration. Removing his hand early or even flinching will earn him a lethal injection from a poisoned needle held only a fraction of an inch from this neck. When he passes the test (and removes his undamaged hand), his mother and test proctor congratulate him on becoming fully human.
“‘Pain by nerve induction,’ she said... ‘A human can override any nerve in the body…Ever sift sand through a screen?’ she asked. He nodded. ‘We Bene Gesserit sift people to find the humans…I observed you in pain, lad. Pain’s merely the axis of the test.’”
“[His mother] stepped into the room, closed the door and stood with her back to it. My son lives, she thought. My son lives and is…human. I knew he was…but…he lives.”
To care for our physical health, it’s helpful to consider humans as animals. We are healthiest when we mimic our ancestral habitats to eat, sleep, and move as humans have for millennia. But beyond our undeniable animal needs, humans are clearly a unique species. We have cognitive and emotional abilities far beyond anything that we can detect in other animals. Just as we can construct optimal health practices by understanding the factors of our biological evolution, we also need to uphold the cognitive and emotional traits that brought about our cultural evolution.
This begs the obvious question, what sets humans apart? More specifically, what unique abilities do humans possess that allowed us to create the type of technology and global systems that define our modern world?
A common answer is that humans are social and able to cooperate with those with whom we have little to no relationship. By connecting over common interests we can coordinate our individual efforts. But many other species also cooperate well. Cooperation alone cannot explain the technology and interconnected global systems that we’ve created. We have another unique ability that, when coupled with our social nature, explains the human cultural revolution. We can think in abstraction.
Better than any other species, we recognize patterns in our past experiences and in the experiences of others. Understanding these patterns allows us to project our thinking into the unknown. We can invent, create, and imagine. We can also plan for the future and create abstract systems like money, stock markets, and computer code. The most important trait that comes from our abstract thinking is that we understand the power of an investment. We can see the numerous ways that our efforts today will reap even greater rewards in the future. This one application of our cognitive power is at the root of the two greatest leaps in human evolution, one biological and one cultural.
Over the course of only a few million years (a blink in evolutionary terms), the human brain doubled in size. But brains are very expensive in terms of calories. Organisms do not make such costly upgrades if the environment does not support them. Humans made this drastic evolution after they obtained a reliable protein source through “persistence hunting.” This is running down large game over many hours or days until they either keel over from exhaustion or become slow enough to hunt effectively. Naked skin and upright gait allow humans to dissipate heat better than any other species and thus we have the best physical endurance. Persistence hunting shifts the advantage in our favor over faster herd animals that have far inferior stamina. Despite this niche physical specialty, humans had to develop the cognitive capacity to understand the value of an investment and the emotional strength to enter into a grueling task with a long-term payoff. Willpower and principled sacrifice helped create the anatomically modern human.
Abstract thinking also brought the dawn of agriculture, a paradigm shift in human culture. We are the only species to understand the growth cycles of other organisms well enough to accomplish large-scale cultivation. Agriculture requires an even greater projection of future thinking than does persistence hunting. Early agriculturalists had to understand that their investments wouldn’t pay out for months or even years. Agriculture also brings surplus, something hunter-gatherers never had to manage. Surplus requires trade and eventually brings specialization, currency, and complex commercial systems. Our modern world is the natural evolution of these systems. Willpower, planning, and sacrifice helped create our modern culture.
We are directly descended from people who were able to delay gratification in service of a larger goal. We are also the beneficiaries of a culture built on these principles. Today we admire discipline in the stories of rags-to-riches billionaires and Olympic athletes, yet few people practice any form of principled sacrifice or discipline. We view willpower as almost a novelty—a path to six-pack abs and a large savings account or the stuff of our heroes—but not a defining characteristic of the human experience.
As anyone who lives a disciplined and intentional life will attest, willpower is much more than a means to an end. Willpower, applied in any area, feels good all on its own. I enjoy the occasional new skill or PR in the gym, but it’s the life-long practice of movement that feels good. I love to publish the words that I believe might have some benefit to other people, but it’s the consistent ritual of putting pen to paper that feels best.
Sun on your skin, sugary fruit, and sex are innately pleasurable because they reward you for doing something beneficial for your body or for your species. Principled sacrifice gives us a similar biological reward for a similar reason—it is a vital aspect of the human evolutionary success story. In the above excerpt from Dune, the young prince Paul demonstrates that he has developed into a full human when he can endure physical pain in service of a higher purpose. In this fictional universe, those who cannot pass this test or are yet untested are considered slaves to their basic urges, no better than animals. This test of “humanness” is extreme but, by this definition, there are few humans alive today.
In a sense, this is not any individual person’s fault (though we each have the responsibility and ability to change it). Our world abounds with modern conveniences and our culture normalizes and even celebrates indulgence. But we all share a desire to be something greater. Some deep part of our subconscious knows that a life of comfort and convenience is as abrasive to our psyche as processed foods are to our bodies. They are equally unnatural inputs to a being that yearns to grow. When we choose the challenging, painful, but meaningful option, we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. When we build a life on this principle we honor where we came from.
Thanks for being with me today. Have a very human week!
Life is too short to be normal,