Wednesday, September 15, 2010


So now there is yet another "what exactly it means to be human" book (Almost Chimpanzee) in which author Jon Cohen seeks understanding through focusing on how humans are different from other animals, specifically chimpanzees in this case.

Now you know, if you've read previous things I've written, that I am going to disagree with that approach. The key to understanding is not to focus on what makes us different. People already are utterly convinced that they are different, separate, and as a result somewhat lonely (yes, lonely--why else would they look for extraterrestrial humans?).

But it's when you can begin to see the similarities between all species of life that whole new vistas open up to you. I can tell you that the same spirit enlivens any species. When you understand that each animal has the same basic desires and needs, that all can experience love, then you can feel a kinship with any creature.

There is an interesting idea in the book, though: that "humanness" derives from the fact that human babies, unlike their ape counterparts, can lie flat on their backs, which allows them to gaze into their mothers' eyes.

I'm not sure I get the reasoning behind that statement. Surely ape babies have just as much opportunity to look into their mothers' eyes as human babies. But underlying the statement is the significance of eye contact. And this is indeed a very significant thing.

When Ace Bourke recently posted a picture of Christian, my immediate reaction was, look at his eyes! It's so easy to see the love in them.

Eye contact is essential in understanding any animal. That's why I made the collage at the top of this page--look at the intelligence in those eyes of a dog, cat, owl, and other animals. Use the search box at the right and see how often the subject of "eyes" comes up.

Dolphin advocate Ric O'Barry's life was changed when he looked into the eyes of the dolphin (Kathy) he had trained for the TV series "Flipper" and recognized what he now calls "captive dolphin depression syndrome". It was an epiphany that changed his life, as he realized just how similar dolphins' and humans' psyches are.

Izumi Ishii had a similar epiphany when he looked into a dolphin's eyes. The sudden realization changed his life, from dolphin hunter to dolphin protector.

The phenomenon of truly recognizing a fellow creature through eye contact is not unknown; it even made for a very effective scene in the fictional movie Fierce Creatures. But how often do people give themselves the chance to make contact? And how often are they held back by only seeing what they expect to see, and not seeing what is really there?

The eye of the tiger. Or the dolphin. Or the chimp. The window to the soul.

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