What Separates Humans from Animals

Side note: the 2021 Dune movie was awesome

Time and again, I keep thinking back to that famous scene from the original Dune novel by Frank Herbert and the gom jabbar test.

“A duke’s son must know all about poisons,” she said, “…Here’s a new one for you: the gom jabbar. It kills only animals.”

Pride overcame Paul’s fear. “You dare suggest that a duke’s son is an animal?” he demanded.

“Let us say I suggest that you may be human,” she said.

Frank Herbert’s Dune

Frank Herbert envisioned a future of humanity based on extremely intelligent, evolved people (e.g. Mentats, the Bene Gesserit, etc) who still wrestled with primal instincts even 20,000 years in the future. Given the glacial pace of human evolution that’s not so surprising.

But even on a day to day level here in the 21st, this struggle continues between our instinct as Homo sapiens and our lives as “human beings”. In the 13th century Japanese text, the Essays in Idleness, Kenkō laments this point:

The testament to our birth in the human realm should be a strong urge to escape from this world. Surely there can be nothing to distinguish us from the beasts, if we simply devote ourselves to greed and never turn our hearts toward the Buddhist Truth.

Translation by Meredith McKinney

Indeed, many people are content to live by needs and primal instinct alone. They may as well be just another animal species living in the wild. The problem isn’t that we have such instincts, nor are they a source of shame, but what makes us human vs. just another animal is our ability to be aware of them, to keep them in check when appropriate and so on.

Demon: “So why do you consider my presence a pollution, a disease? Is it because there is that within you which is like unto myself? …If so, I mock you in your weakness, Binder.”

Sam: “It is because I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus.”

Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light

It’s important, I think, not to loathe that side of oneself, because it is natural, but it’s important to have the bigger picture, and be able to see when our instincts as human beings are self-destructive, or ultimately unable to provide any lasting contentment, and thus aspire for something higher. This is much easier said than done, but even the sincere aspiration is a step in the right direction.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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