Ever had the suspicion when you were growing up that you were somehow different? That you weren’t like all the other creatures on the tree of life? Well guess what…you kind of are. I think. Like author Michael S. Gazzaniga writes in his book, Human,“We are a big deal, and we are a little scared about it.”
This book poses two big questions: Are humans unique? And if so, how?
Good news! Gazzaniga has solved the mystery!
Just kidding. If anything, Human only serves to deepen the mystery, elucidating how tangled and complex that concept of humanity truly is.
What makes a human a human? Our achievements (hello wifi!)? Our language? Our tools? God? That intangible essence known as consciousness (or a soul)? Can we even distill humanity into a one, single perfect quality? Cruelty come to mind. My favorite go-to answer is existential despair. As Gazzaniga writes, “No other species aspires to be more than it is.”
Whatever it is that has us building skyscrapers and appreciating art, Gazzaniga seems sure that it’s buried somewhere in that big, expensive brain of ours. The very idea that every bodily function, every behavior, emotion, action, is regulated by an intricate bundle of neurons all wired up inside our skulls is mind-blowing (get it!?!).
There is a lot of brain science going on in this book: from the corpus callosum and the amygdala to that oversized neocortex of ours, the book is crammed with the most cutting edge (2006) studies and discoveries.
If there is anything humans seem to possess compared to other species, it’s a theory of mind (TOM), the ability to conceive of perspectives other than one’s own. Apparently, other people have their own thoughts, desires and motives. Crazy.
Gazzaniga takes us through the mysteries of consciousness, art, social altruism, and the left-brain interpreter (the module that synthesizes the barrage of incoming stimuli into a coherent narrative), and demystifies some of it. At times, it seems we are only unique by a matter of degree, not kind.
Sometimes this tour of humanity can seem a little frenetic; Gazzaniga leaves tantalizing threads hanging as he barrels on from one topic to the next. It’s an exhausting ride.
There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to the question of humanness. Gazzaniga leaves us hanging, but with a wider conception of the awesome beauty and intricacy of life in all its forms.