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CHAPTER III:  The Human Difference

Human beings are different from all other living creatures in the kind of active responses they make to the environment. What is this difference?

All living creatures with the exception of humans are able to respond actively to the environment only on the basis of pre-set patterns of response. These patterns are fixed in the heredity of the individual creature and are very similar to the patterns of other creatures of the same species or strain. The number of available patterns of response may be small for a simple creature and large for a complex creature, but the number of such patterns is finite and fixed in either case. These patterns can become disorganized and damaged during the lifetime of the individual creature, but they will not improve except through a process of maturation which is itself a pre-fixed response. A fine bird dog can have its delicate response patterns ruined by mistreatment, but the dog breeder will not expect better patterns of response than are called for by the particular dog’s heredity.

These response patterns are usually called instincts, and the word is a good one if not carelessly applied to humans. When new response patterns do occur in a given hereditary line, this will be regarded as an evolutionary leap, a mutation. It will represent the emergence of a new strain or species.

Since the available patterns of response are fixed and limited in number for any one living creature other than a human, each such creature must categorize, i.e., it must meet a very large number of different environmental situations by lumping together those which are similar and meeting them with the same response. This type of behavior seems to have satisfactory survival value only for the species, not for the individual (speaking statistically).

One can apparently equate pre-set pattern (instinctive) behavior and species survival. When a given species’ set of pre-set response patterns works well enough, that species survives. When it does not, that species dies out. Many species of living things have died out in past times and their one-time existence is known to us only by their fossil remains.

This kind of behavior does not carry a very high survival value for the individual. It permits the species to survive only in association with massive reproduction rates.

A pair of codfish are reported to set about 14 million baby codfish adrift on the ocean currents each spawning season. Each of these baby codfish is equipped with the typical codfish assortment of pre-set response patterns. Each is able to respond to the environment only in codfish ways, not in ivy vine ways or butterfly ways. 

These codfish response patterns certainly have worked well enough until now that there are still many codfish in the ocean. Yet the individual survival chances of one of these baby codfish would be far from what we would desire for ourselves, since, on the average, only two of these 14 million baby codfish survive to be parents of the next generation.

The overall behavior of all forms of life except human can be characterized as active response to the environment, a tendency to impress the surroundings with one’s activity, but only on the basis of rigid, pre-set, inherent response patterns which can only roughly approximate the kind of behavior needed for survival in a particular circumstance.

A human being is different. The central feature of our humanness is a qualitatively different way of responding actively to the environment. Whether this essential difference was acquired by evolution or by creation makes no difference in understanding and using it.

This “human” ability seems to consist precisely of an ability to create and use brand new, unique responses to each new, unique situation we meet. When we are functioning in our distinctive human way we do not have to, nor do we, use any pre-fixed, inherent or previously worked out responses, but always and continuously create and use new precise responses that exactly match and successfully handle the new situation which we confront.

Let us stress this definition. We are not saying that a human being is quantitatively more complex in his/her behavior than an angleworm or a dog, in that the human can choose among a larger number of pre-set response patterns than lower animals can. We are saying that human behavior is qualitatively different than the behavior of other forms of life in that the human being can and does continuously create new responses all through the lifetime of the individual.

This essential difference has not been clearly faced in past theories or models. The long, persistent attempts by experimenters to understand human intelligence on the basis of their experiments with laboratory animals, for example, have led to more than one “dead end” school of psychology which explain everything about human beings except our “humanness” and which have been intuitively rejected by thoughtful people because of this.

We usually call this special human ability of ours our intelligence. This word is suitable and will generally be understood if we first draw a sharp line, as we have done above, between this flexible, creative, human intelligence and the rigid, pre-set responses of plants and animals. Intelligence in our human sense creates an endless supply of new, tailored-to-fit responses to the endless series of new situations we meet.

The behavior called “intelligence” in animals is based on categorizing, classifying and lumping together of different situations which are somewhat similar and meeting them with one rigid, pre-set response.

A moment’s thought will make it clear that a human being never confronts an “old” situation. There are no identities in the physical universe, not even two electrons are identical. Certainly anything as complex as an environmental situation for a human will never be repeated exactly.

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00