(This is the first in a series of three posts.)
An old Egyptian proverb, an old Chinese proverb, inscribed on the cornerstones of temples in Greece and found throughout civilizations since the beginning of mankind, we find an ode to the most important defining characteristics of a human being:
And to take it a step further, Shakespeare’s Polonius, though it might have been thrown in as a cliché rambling of a father to his son, advised,
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
What did they mean? Why was it such a large idea that was respected and even held as sacred?
At the time, there was so much they didn’t know as to the science behind what they were teaching. Yet, surely the humans of old must have realized that the most vital and distinctive characteristic of their kind, though simple, held power that allowed them to become the greatest creatures in the Universe.
Here is the science we know now:
Elephants and whales are among some of the most advanced creatures when it comes to the brain. Their brains are larger than most other animals. But brain size doesn’t matter unless it is compared to the size of the body. Though a whale’s brain weighs around 18 lbs. and that of an elephant 11or 12 lbs., compared to the only 3 lbs. of a human brain, their body sizes are so big that the brain in comparison is actually much smaller than ours. The chimpanzee has one of the most advanced brains, yet where their body is close to the same weight as a human, their brain weighs in at less than a pound.
As far as percentage of the body, no animal comes close to rivaling the human. But what does it mean when an animal has a large brain?
Speaking from an evolutionary sense, the brain is built of layers, the inner-most being the earliest and the outer parts being the latest addition from evolution.
The inner parts of the brain take care of our motor skills, unconscious habits, pleasure, perseverance of life, and the primal, instinctual abilities of a human. The outer parts are where we start to see why humans are so different. The outer parts of the human brain allow for amazing communication skills and the ability to have an imagination like no other, allowing us to be master creators. This outer part also allows us to view ourselves outside of the world we are experiencing, making us the only creature that can have a sense of self and understand where we sit amongst our surroundings.
The people of old might not have understood the science fully, but they surely recognized the manifestation this difference in brain make-up made for the abilities of a human being.
Not too surprisingly, it was great philosophers who took this understanding and delved into the deepest implications of it. The capacity of the human brain, they realized, was not in understanding how to use tools, but in being able to observe their own selves, contemplate why and how they use those tools, conceive new and glorious tools that might be better, and do the same thing daily, always improving on a scale that allows one generation of our species to change their entire world in one lifetime.
It was the realization of this capacity that inspired Socrates to assert one of the most insightfully deliberate and supremely valuable statements that we could ever seek to understand:
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In more words, if a human being is not going to learn what sets them apart from every other creature; if they will not realize the most powerful ability they have that makes them the greatest creation in the universe, their lives, then, are equal to that of the species so much lower than them that are but servants to the innate dictating desires mother nature instilled upon all other creatures, giving to none else the ability to overcome them. A human who chooses this life, to voluntarily become a servant to the most primal parts of their brain, never learning to be what they truly are, does not deserve to call themselves a human being. Their life then, in the sense of human potential, is not worth living.
Deep examination of the self and the world around them is the most powerful ability of humans and it gives them the opportunity to benefit the universe in unlimited ways, as well as to destroy the entire thing.
Next posts that follow this series:
Our Ability to Communicate
The Potential of Creativity