Malaysiakini Letter

We are better than animals. And yet…

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LETTER | Homo sapiens is part of the animal kingdom on Earth. We are not plants and not fungi. No, we are just of plain vanilla animal origin. The one thing that distinguishes is that overdeveloped cerebral cortex of the brain, under our foreheads, that allows us to think.

Animals can learn. Not that animals can’t think, to some extent. Chimps have learned a vocabulary of a few hundred words. Dolphins are being trained for limited forms of military reconnaissance underwater. Certain bird species have been observed to use rudimentary tools in a fairly complex manner.

Human physical attributes not as highly evolved as certain animals
Other than thinking, our physical attributes pale in comparison to many animal species.

For example, the dog’s sense of hearing and scent is hundreds or even thousands of times more sensitive than those of a human being. The eagle’s piercing vision, the tiger’s massive strength, the crocodile’s powerful jaws, all these and many other features, easily exceed human capacities.

What then makes humans special?

In a nutshell, our big brains, opposable thumbs, erect walking posture, long maturing period, the presence of caregivers post-reproductive years, use of fire and power of speech have all led, over hundreds of thousands of years, to our civilisations today.

We ought to be feeling pretty smug about ourselves then. Maybe we might even indulge in characterising unseemly human behaviour as behaving “like animals”? And yet….

Animals never burnt 300 million years of petrocarbon fossil fuels within 150 years, just to drive cars and produce electricity, murdered 25 million men, women and children, many of them non-combatants and concentration camp inmates in World War 2, used poison gas to kill children in Syria just last week, stockpiled 15,000 nuclear devices in several countries together with the means to deliver them within 15 – 30 minutes which would unleash a horrifying global disaster the likes of which we have never seen before. The planet will become a giant wasteland.

So, really, are we right somehow to classify ourselves as “better” than animals”? Or instead quite easily capable of being unimaginably worse?

Bottom line: intelligence is a gift from the gods. While there have been many marvellous examples of humans who have created things of beauty and pure genius or have taught us refined concepts about living together in peace, harmony and acceptance, we cannot pretend there is no dark side to our history.

We have terribly misused our gift. Above all, there are no quick solutions. There are no thousand-year-old prescriptions that will provide the “Answers to Everything”. Every moment, every challenge that life presents must be faced dispassionately, using our gift of rational thought to reach better solutions.

It starts with the young. Education is far too important to leave to highly-politicised ministers and their bureaucrats. The ministers will want thousands of little robots trooping out eventually thinking Groupthink, parroting formularised mantras and voting along party lines.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans,” said John Lennon.
Let’s instead teach the young to think for themselves, to question and debate issues critically, without heat.

Because we cannot know how or where we shall inevitably die one day. Life is uncertain. So why not prepare the young properly for uncertainty, by learning to peer in the dark, unafraid, armed with their rational minds alone, armed with the power of critical thinking?

I believe Finland embarked on a 30-year educational revamp and have reached the top of the Pisa rankings. When I read what is said today by people who should know better, I discern a lack of good thinking skills.

Years of humdrum swallowing of facts and then regurgitation at exams, don’t produce thinking skills and fine discrimination or the ability to assess, weigh and come to an independent, reasoned opinion.

We have become a nation of robots who have learned to swallow and regurgitate facts. The students who do it more efficiently, we give them A and A+ and we exalt those who can thus produce a whole string of A+, parrot-fashion.

Clear thinking is feared. When the emperor is naked, no one smiles or comments on his nudity. Because they have been well-trained – not to think. Or at least, not to say what they really think.

After many years, maybe the wheels become rusty and you stop thinking.
From last Saturday, when a caretaker government began, we are now free to think for ourselves. Please oil the rusty wheels and start thinking hard.
Your life may depend on it.


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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