The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Tipping our hats to our relatives

What amazes me about humanity is our ability to come together as a species to understand our species. We are our greatest mystery. We perceive our surroundings, we adapt to many climates, we are capable of perpetuating a record of our species from generation to generation. It’s never been clear that any other species does that as readily as we do (although I am certain my cats understand every single word I say, and fake ignorance in the hope of cheating their way to a free meal).

It warmed my heart, and tickled my scientific mind, to learn today of the “results, printed in Nature, of an international collaboration’s effort to sequence the chimpanzee genome”: We diverged from chimpanzees a long time ago, but we share a great many fundamental genetic characteristics in common. This scientific endeavour is the first to completely lay bare the genetic code of the chimpanzee; our own was only laid bare a half-decade ago. Like humans, chimpanzees have complex social structures and demonstrate a clear range of emotion very like our own expressions. Indeed, chimpanzees have been shown to pick up our language – the vector of communication is sign language – and carry on whole conversations with us. They have taught us a great many things about what they think about in the course of a day, how they feel about their surroundings and their families and friends. They are remarkable, like we are remarkable.

Yet we are clearly distinct from them in many ways. We spread much further than our chimpanzee cousins, we developed an advanced usage of tools and construction that is not rivaled by another large primate (termites are excellent contractors, however!). We keep a record, first oral and later written, of our own history. Whether this was the result of advantageous genetic differences, or other adaptations that resulted in our parting ways with chimpanzees, is not clear.

There are many who say that without religion, without a God to hold over our heads the constant threat of punishment, that human civilization would break down. Morality would become arbitrary and relative. I have felt for a long time, since first I learned of the closeness of our own species with many others on Earth, that it is this connection to the planet and the universe that gives us a separate morality. We are part of a great and complex machine, a chapter, perhaps, in a long tale whose end is far away. It is the love and respect that I feel from a long life spent with my fellow Man that gives me the guidance I need to run my life, and respect the lives of others. I have always felt that understanding this universe brings us closer to the act of its creation, whatever the cause, and that alone is enough for me to gain morality. What are the whims, desires, and needs of a single human being when so much time slipped by before we were awake, and so much time is yet to come? How can I place myself above other people, above other animals, when we share so much experience and raw material in common.

I believe that our closeness to other life, our connection to the firmament of the universe through our fundamental particles, is a guiding force enough to shape my choices. Call it God. Call it whatever you want. I know what it is.