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They used to say humans are the only animals who use tools. Then someone noticed monkeys using tools and even ravens using tools. I haven’t kept up with all the animals that have been discovered to use tools, but I often think about the underlying question of what basic attributes set us apart as human beings. Until recently, everything that occurred to me fell short. Other animals think and learn and remember, and they feel pain and pleasure and emotion, and so on.
Then I wondered if humans are the only creature that can be honorable or dishonorable. Many animals can be cunning, but it seems to me their cunning is in the service of their true nature. A wolf doesn’t wear sheep’s clothing, but it probably would if it ever became as clever as a human. You’d never need to ask an animal what its code of honor is. I’d like to ask our presidential candidates what their code of honor is. What are the top three to five ideals they have lived by? Do they have a history of working for public benefit or private gain? Can they make a joke at their own expense or do they make jokes about others? Do they take responsibility for their mistakes or do they make excuses and rationalizations?
At around 7:45 this morning I heard a sudden loud holler come from the woods across the way. I was on Bolinas Ridge at the Serpentine Power Point and looked north to see where the noise had come from. The shout was so loud that I thought there must be a rambunctious hiker on the Cataract Trail. But as the sound sank into my brain cogs for further processing I realized the sound had come from a coyote. A couple minutes later the coyote howled again—and yes, I mean howled! It was soon answered by other coyotes with howls, barks, yips and whatever other sounds coyotes make. Icing on the cake of a gorgeous morning.
I thought of another potentially distinct human trait. Humans feel shame. Many years ago, I took an emergency medical technician class where one of the EMT instructors told us that sometimes people who choke on their food, even in a crowded restaurant, are found to have wandered off and quietly choked to death. The EMT said some people feel ashamed to have food stuck in their craw, so they go off by themselves to try to cough up the offending chunk, only to asphyxiate and die alone in a stairwell or restroom stall.
I suspect there is no such thing as a wild coyote that feels shame. I’ve seen dogs that appeared to feel shame, but I figure it was humans who did that to the dog. So, perhaps humans aren’t the only animals that feel shame. But they might be the only animals that inflict it.
Being honorable and dishonorable, bestowing praise and inflicting shame—these are probably uniquely human traits. Part of our true nature. But maybe at an even more fundamental level, humans are the only animals that face such dichotomies in their lives, and are therefore the only animals with the power to choose to act one way or the other.
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