The Things We Imagine

Two chimpanzees mauled an American graduate student in South Africa last month.  He was leading a tour of a jungle refuge filled with our closest animal relatives.  Tragically, he stepped inside a restricted zone, violated chimpanzee territory, and they defended themselves.  The young man is missing fingers and toes, one testicle, hunks of arm flesh, and was found with skull and facial bones exposed.  Bonzo became the Alien.

There are no plans to put the two chimps down.  The victim trespassed into their space and this was their natural response.  They also bashed in the windshield of the man sent to get them under control.  In fact, they didn’t stop their assaults until one was finally shot.  Chimps are notoriously aggressive, and much stronger than humans.  They maraud in bands that can massacre an entire troupe.  The ethno-biologist, Melvin Konner, observed that if chimps had invented hand grenades they’d all be extinct.

Chimps and humans, of course, are a lot alike.  Our DNA is 95% identical.  It’s why we use them as test subjects.  The only reason humans dominate the planet, and not chimps, is because of that divergent 5%.  Primate and human brains have the same basic structures, in the same relative proportions, except for our cerebral cortex.  Our cortex is twice as large as expected.  If we want to know where the 5% invested itself, our forebrain is a good place to start.  It obviously wasn’t spent making us stronger; chimps can tear us apart.

Instead, thanks to our cortex, humans developed an ability to draw associations between things, to think abstractly, to use complicated symbol systems, and to communicate in a prodigious fashion.  Just the fact that I can create glyphs on a page, which your brain translates into a coherent thought, is a miracle of genetic engineering, and occurs entirely in our heads.  What separates us from The Planet of The Apes is a feat of imagination.

Humans are the animals who imagine things.  We construct all kinds of symbolic structures, from religions to nations to ball games to love affairs, based upon the meanings we apply to everything.  At one time, we believed the world was flat and square.  Now, we don’t.  The world is a malleable idea because it is part of our imagination.  The earth isn’t bothered, either way.

The most important of those imaginary structures is literally ourselves.  We are able to imagine a self, through the mirror of our interactions with others.  Human self-consciousness is a wondrous invention; there is no particular brain structure where it resides.  Consciousness is homeless, in a sense, the original virtual reality, called into existence by relating to another person.  As people respond to us, we imagine ourselves

That fact has made us very sociable creatures; we really do need each other.  The single characteristic that most sets humans apart, the apex of planetary development, only exists in a network of fellow organisms, coordinated by our symbol-creating cerebral cortex, thanks to our unique 5% of genius DNA.  Be glad to be you!  You won the evolutionary lottery.

One sign of that sociability is our compassion.  We find evidence of caring for the disabled and elderly, for the non-productive, as early as the Neanderthals.  We might have a limited circle of compassion, but one does exist for all but the most damaged among us.  Tony Soprano loved his children.  The Green River Strangler never murdered his wife and son.  Hitler was kind to his secretaries.

We also find it difficult to kill each other, even when attacked, and when we do, we’re bothered afterwards.  It’s why the military has basic training.  An army study done during World War II found that, on average, only 15% of trained combat riflemen actually fired their rifles in combat.  To quote Col. S. L. A. Marshall, the average individual “will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.”  We’re not chimpanzees.  If we were, we would not have survived our intelligence.

Our ability to invent increasingly brutal weapons may still do us in.  We are smart enough as a species to create methods for exterminating our species.  The dinosaurs can blame an asteroid; it wasn’t their fault.  If a maniac ignites a nuclear holocaust or an uncontrollable plague, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.  Our imaginations will have failed us.

Sociability and compassion are the triumph of imagination over the animal drive for survival.  They are the fruits of our human gifts.  They are the “better angels of our nature.”  Unlikely as it sounds, they are the underlying reason our species has endured, just as they are the key to our future.  Our ability to work together and help each other is our true strength, not money, guns, or intimidation.

But that realization requires enough imagination to see it.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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