May 7, 2004

Commentary by
Roger Martin

The wisdom of doubt

by Roger Martin

There's a question bobbing around in my head, one that's especially appropriate in this season of high school and university commencements.

How are humans different from other living things?

Long ago I heard it was the humble thumb -- or was it our tool-making ability and bigger brain? Maybe all of those. I don't quite remember.

What's certain is that humans don't ever stop looking for ways to distinguish themselves from other creatures.

One recent report, for example, said that the first functional genetic difference between people and apes may have been a gene mutation that reduced the size of the human jaw relative to the ape jaw.

That made room for a bigger brain.

Score one for humans.

Leonard "Kris" Krishtalka, a University of Kansas museum administrator trained as a paleontologist, recently said to a science-writing class I'm teaching that the human ability to manage and pass on information and a desire to predict the future distinguish us from other animals.

What makes us good at information management? We can generate, store and use symbols, said KU's Steve Warren, who was trained as a psychologist.

Each of us lives alone in a universe fabricated by his or her gray matter from the things that happen to us. Warren says it's symbols that allow us to share those universes. The symbols include words, computer code, music and art, for example.

According to KU sociologist Joey Sprague, our symbols are far more complex and abstract than the few words that chimps use or the codes that let bees communicate.

"Humans can talk about what we might have been or dream of what we still might be," Sprague says, "and say what could never work."

But symbols aren't the end of it. We fuse them with some interesting behavior.

Been to an art museum opening or NASCAR race lately?

"What distinguishes Homo sapiens for me," says KU historian Victor Bailey, "is that wherever two or more get together, they invariably create rituals, customs and conventions within which, or by which, their lives are shaped and influenced."

Of course not all the answers I got to the question of the difference between humans and other creatures were positive.

Anthropologist David Frayer said: "With all the wars, with the religious hatred, with the racism and intolerance, with the ecological destruction, the loss of habitat, the loss of primates like gorillas and chimpanzees because people eat them for food, I think of my species as marauders, destroyers and manipulators.

"While our population densities were low, we had little lasting effect. Now the stakes are higher."

Beyond a great range of distinctively human behaviors, there are, I believe, distinctively human moments.

One day, I had such a moment as I pulled up to a stop sign. I realized this was a unique moment in the history of the universe.

Pitifully insignificant but unique.

I thought, "No one will ever again be in this car at this corner at this moment in time having this awareness of this moment's singularity."

That wasn't all. I recognized that given the uniqueness of every life, the envy I sometimes experience is useless, a dark and wasted motion of the heart.

My brain had jumped out of a groove it ordinarily occupies. Is doubting one's usual perceptions for a moment uniquely human?

If so, the capacity for self-doubt is one we need to cultivate. On the small stage of our planet, humans have been so successful that we now make a huge difference in what lives and dies.

A little doubt about what we're doing couldn't hurt.


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