Defining What it Means to be Human
On August 20 and September 5, 1977, two spacecraft named Voyager were launched. Eventually leaving the solar system and heading into deep space, they represented a revolutionary and promising breakthrough in scientific discovery about our universe.
…Sagan was given the task of overseeing a committee that determined the content of this record. Can you imagine that responsibility? Their job was to comb through all recorded human history and identify what best defines our collective life. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live—not just surviving but also thriving? How would we communicate to the universe that this is what life on earth is all about?
Sagan and his team eventually settled on 115 photographs of our planet, including a woman in a supermarket; page 6 from Isaac Newton’s System of the World; a father and daughter; gymnast Cathy Rigby on a balance beam; and a series of photos of nature, geography, and science. The golden record also included almost ninety minutes of recordings of the world’s greatest music, including Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in C” from book 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Other sounds included an infant’s cries and its mother’s soothing words, nearly sixty human languages, whale song, and greetings from the secretary general of the United Nations and the president of the United States. If you were given the task, along with Sagan, to illustrate human civilization in a limited collection, the definitive account of what life is, what would you have included in the golden record? From your perspective, what is this thing called life, and what does it look like when it flourishes?
Nature vs. Nurture
For most of the late twentieth century, political scientists embraced blank-slate theories in which people soaked up the ideology of their parents or the TV programs they watched. Some political scientists even said that most people were so confused about political issues that they had no real ideology at all.11 But then came the studies of twins.
In the 1980s, when scientists began analyzing large databases that allowed them to compare identical twins (who share all of their genes, plus, usually, their prenatal and childhood environments) to same-sex fraternal twins (who share half of their genes, plus their prenatal and childhood environments), they found that the identical twins were more similar on just about everything.
And what’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.
We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your degree of religiosity, and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: genetics explains between a third and a half of the variability among people on their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.
The Nested Dolls
On a trip to Russia I bought one of those Matryoshka “nested dolls” that break apart at the waist to reveal smaller and smaller dolls inside…it occurred to me to me later that each of us, like the nested dolls, contains multiple selves, making us a mysterious combination of good and evil, wisdom and folly, reason and instinct.
The Scorpion and the Turtle
One lazy afternoon day a turtle was swimming happily along a lake. As the turtle was nearing land he heard a scorpion hail it from the muddy shore. A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked the turtle if he would carry him on his back across the lake. The turtle thought it was the craziest thing he ever heard, “Why would I carry you on my back?” he boomed, ‘You’ll sting me while I’m swimming and I’ll drown.”
“My dear turtle friend,” laughed the scorpion, “if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you and drown as well. Now where is the logic in that?”
The turtle pondered this for a moment, and eventually saw the logic in the scorpion’s statement. “You’re right!” said the turtle with a smile. “Hop on!” So the scorpion climbed aboard and the turtle paddled his big fins in the water. Halfway across the lake the scorpion gave the turtle a big sting, and he started to drown. As they both sank into the water the turtle turned to the scorpion with a tear in his eye. “My dear scorpion friend, why did you sting me? Now we are both going to drown…” the turtle was gasping for air. “Where is the… logic in that?”
“It has nothing to do with logic” the scorpion sadly replied, “it’s just my nature.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Betrayal. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!